Letter from Maasailand: Seeds of Change


To ride on a motorcycle through the African bush is to sense the joy of birds, with hills flying past in a measure of vastness you don’t fully deserve. Acacia trees along the trail seemed to have grown their crowns in hopes of being seen. Great herds of wildebeest had migrated near.

We hit a rut. I banged down against the metal rack behind the motorcycle’s seat, the busted shocks rattling my hipbones.

“Are you okay?” said Miton, the blue-jeaned Maasai in front of me whose grandmother we were traveling to visit. Sitting in front of Miton and steering was Joseph, a Maasai in an auburn shuka, the traditional tribal cloak. Joseph shifted gears and accelerated as we slalomed through grass the rains had painted green.

Girls in the distance hauled firewood with tumplines. A boy herded sheep up from Olosokon Creek, sheep that seemed to belch as they bleated like senile men. Another boy, in tattered shorts, shepherded calves from old bloodlines. The children pass their days on the savanna, sharing food and water and beds, moving freely among huts because the parent of a friend is a parent to all kids the same age; the Maasai journey through childhood under protection of a culture that instructs them in what to be.

But like a permanent guest, change has arrived. Villages in Maasailand are becoming towns, towns becoming cities noisy with the chaos of nascent capitalism. Stacked along newly paved roads are sacks of charcoal for sale, which migrants from other tribes are making of the trees. Green John Deere harvesters herald a boom in wheat that is luring land-starved Kenyans to the undeveloped plains in a rush for cheap acreage, pinning the Maasai and their herds into a shrinking homeland.

Beyond the Talek River, Miton and Joseph scanned the brush for elephants, because sheep had been trampled there two days before; the motorcycle’s speed offered us protection but not assurance. To our left was the grassland of the Maasai Mara that spilled out of Kenya into the Serengeti with a grandeur once more ordinary in nature. Miton’s invitation to accompany him had been implied in his declaration that he was making the trip, the line between self and other for Maasai not so sharply drawn. There’s no bed to which another person cannot be added, no pot in which another hand cannot share, no journey through the bush that a friend is not welcome to join. To stay with Maasai is to feel the communal identity and the comfort of purpose missing from much of the world.

Once the lords of East Africa, the Maasai have been close to peerless in the modern age for maintaining the continuity of their traditions—traditions now imperiled by the tentacles of the market and by technology, as cell phones and cheap Chinese motorcycles, like the one we rode, upend the very possibility of isolation. Compulsory and nearly free education, instituted by former Kenyan president Mwai Kibaki, means most Maasai children are today in school. Those of the prior generation who were educated only in the ways of the tribe—who speak no Swahili or English but just Maa—are around 30 years of age. Many wile away the hours in clapboard bars, unable to resist the alcohol now available in quantities unheard of in the past, when beer was brewed in the home from honey and was not for sale.

The dirt track led us past a boma, a Maasai village encircled by a thornbush corral. Lying in the grass among plastic bags was the skeleton of a cow or wildebeest; a dog was gnawing on its ribs. Three years back, before motorcycles arrived to Olochurra, Miton walked the 12 miles round trip to see his grandma, carrying a spear over his shoulder while stopping at bomas where he was invited in for meals. With all the time in the world, it was impossible to be late. And with traditional divisions of land among Maasai prescribed mainly to ensure ample grazing, everywhere was home.

We veered across a pasture near the hut of Miton’s grandmother and found her tending a flock of 55 sheep. Joseph’s motorcycle had reduced half a day’s walk to a flash. Age showed in the woman’s posture, her back curving with the softness of old bones. Wrinkles crossed her cheeks like good trails. She wore beaded jewelry on her hanging earlobes, the cutting of ears a Maasai tradition that has died; Miton’s ears were unaltered. The woman had wrapped her body in shukas, red plaid and turquoise; Miton wore a shuka only when tourists visited for a dancing display. Two great-grandchildren, one with circles of gray fungus on his scalp, clung to the old woman’s dresses. In his impatience, Miton stood before his seated grandmother, a gesture of disrespect; he spoke in Maa. His break from school near Narok was ending, and he hadn’t seen her in three months. She asked about his mother and said she missed him and was happy he’d come. Miton had never told her that the dream of his life was to move away from Kenya and the Maasai.

Quiet emanated from the hills like a wish. Within it was the low percussion of the sheep, synchronized, shearing grass. A male headed off for a patch of green, and the others followed, bells tinkling, the flock’s shape shifting. The motorcycle, I imagined, made little impression on Miton’s grandma, who was passing the day as she’d passed thousands before. Answers about contentment are contained within a culture, and to find too little purpose in herding would be to question what it was to be Maasai. But the effect of the motorcycle on her great-grandchildren, had they been older, would have been more profound—the power in inventions and symbols to cast doubt on the completeness of choice. Miton, who carried this doubt, went quiet and looked over his shoulder. I considered sitting in the grass beside the old woman, to rob Miton of the impetus to leave. He pocketed his hands, looked at the sheep, looked at the ground, and nodded that he was ready to move. The ubiquitous gesture of warmth in a Maasai welcoming is to serve tea, but he did not give his grandmother the chance to lead us back to her hut. Perhaps the old woman had lost too much of her fire to protest that in the days when the boy walked across the savanna to see her, he had slept the night in her house. Miton climbed onto the motorcycle. Our visit was a 12-minute hello.

We headed on to the town of Talek. It was market day, and Miton wanted to see his girlfriend. The desire for freedom of movement is a human universal. The motorcycle in the African bush means people are added to one’s world as strangers and not family, on the hard calculation that there is not enough time to talk. The motorcycle means beer can be brought to remote villages and charcoal brought out, all before lunch. Motorized travel disallows communion, not just with people, but with landscape, shifting the focus to destinations and away from journeys, creating points on a mental map across gaps of ignorance. Long ago the radio brought news of life from the outside, but today the motorcycle takes people there. Requiring no infrastructure and costing just two or three cows, a motorcycle, unlike a car, can cross streams without bridges and can turn any footpath into a thoroughfare.

Land along the trail bore little resemblance to the traditional Maasai landscape of clustered bomas within long stretches of savanna. Mud houses sat beside cinderblock houses sat beside chimneyed dwellings of great expense, some with their grass fenced off. The modern neighborhood is the result of a Kenyan government program to parcel out communal land with “title deeds.” The possession of title, lauded as progress for indigenous people, has not been progress for the Maasai as a tribe.

Talek was as dusty as ground eaten bare by goats and had the feel of a settlement that had only just become a town. Shops, constructed of stone blocks and sheet metal and owned mostly by migrants, bore façades as brightly colored as American fireworks stands. Half a dozen trucks were backed up to the outdoor market. Piled beneath their open rear doors were mountains of secondhand clothes, called cha-ina, which more and more Maasai like Miton are starting to wear.

Among Kikuyu and Luhya vendors sat Maasai women selling tomatoes, collard greens, and kerosene in old Metropolitan gin bottles. Other Maasai women, bedecked in shukas and jewelry, were as regal as playing-card queens. Hanging from their necks in a jumble of jewelry were keys to huts and pouches for cell phones—seeds of change borne seamlessly into dress. Market day was an opportunity to flirt and gossip and to learn news of loved ones. But cell phones, charged by generators at makeshift kiosks in the bush, have reduced the social importance of markets. Cell phones are tools, but also distractions, and the absence of that distraction—lit screens in mud huts—once introduced, produces boredom. The fire, forever the center of social life and the point at which everyone stared, morphed into the television, and has morphed again into the cell phone, which means people staring not at a collective point, but at an individual one. Maasai women, whose marriages are arranged, can now call boyfriends when their husbands step away. And I heard a more promising story of women in Olochurra seeing video porn on a phone that caused them to question for the first time whether they might actually be able to enjoy intercourse more had they not been circumcised. “Those white women,” they said, “were really screaming!”

As Miton spent the afternoon with his girlfriend, I sat in the market, which, though full of energy, left no doubt about where it would lead: to the unwinding of the freedom to pass days without worrying what they cost.

I stopped as Miton led us back toward the motorcycle for our journey home. To my left were five men whose heads were coated in red, their hair long and heavy with ochre, as it is for Maasai who have been warriors for years. They were as out of place in Talek as their great-grandfathers would have been. Knives hung from their waists with their ochre tins, and they gripped spears with double-edged, lion-killing blades that looked heavy enough to fly straight through a man’s chest.

“These are the real Maasai,” Miton said to me. “The moran.”

“Let’s go talk to them,” I said.

Miton, carrying Joseph’s cell phone, shook his head. “They’re dangerous.”

“What do you mean, ‘dangerous’?”

“They can take people into the bush and make them moran.”

He meant people like himself.

Moranhood, too, was vanishing; the enemies of their culture no longer bore arms.

The orange shuka of the nearest warrior barely covered his buttocks, and his long, thin legs refuted the myth that stature comes in the weight room and not from traveling on foot without so much as the food and water needed for today. He wore a cloak he would use for a blanket when he slept that night on the ground.

Sopa,” I said to the warriors in Maa and then switched to Swahili. All five moran turned and stood shoulder to shoulder but gazed elsewhere, ambivalent to the point of protest that I’d asked them to acknowledge me. Bracelets and jewelry adorned their arms and chests.

The moran could not, or would not, respond to my Swahili. Never before had I looked at men who seemed incapable of being known, who wore the African bush in their eyes, who carried all that they were and still had one hand empty.

I turned to Miton. “Ask them where they’re from.”

He hesitated but spoke, and as he did he held Joseph’s cell phone in front of his face.

One warrior turned away.

“Ask them where they’re from, Miton!”

He spoke in Maa.

A moran said a few words but not to us. Miton spoke again when I begged him, and he held the phone between his eyes and the eyes of the moran like a talisman to protect him from the choices he’d made: to dream not of a life within his culture but of one beyond it.

The warriors, without a gesture, walked away.

“What did they say, Miton? Where are they going?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know.”

There could be no interaction, even between Maasai.

“They smell,” Miton said. “Do you smell them?”

The warriors strutted across the dusty flats of Talek, indifferent to the market and ardent with disdain, I imagined, for the world I inhabited. With them that day were the principles of lost nations. With them was the fierceness of a tribe that once reigned over Kenya and a warning against the naïveté that armies were not needed when the heart was left to take what it could, was left to pave roads into their territory so that the cultivation of the savanna, plot by plot, would leave them nowhere to live. The five moran marched with their spears, individuals against our homogeneity, men still carrying that rarest of strengths, of standing alone and together.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

David McDannald is a coauthor of  The Last Great Ape. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in TriQuarterly, Subtropics, and Sierra.


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