IT’S A WINDY DAY on the savannah. Kolong has been located on this particular patch of the Maasai Mara for seven years, and ever since the village realised that staging authenticity for tourists was a reliable source of income our guide, John Ololubo Ketitai, has been showing people like me around his village. When I look to the left I see a bunch of zebras, and a giraffe hiding its head in a tree. When I look to the right John and his friends and family are looking back at me, bemused and possibly a little bored.
We receive visitors like you every day. We started welcoming people seventeen years ago, and I began working as a guide in 2004. The tourist guides get selected by the village elders – they make sure that the chosen ones can handle the work. A lot of men want to be tour guides. Oh wait, the warrior dance is about to start. Come with me, I’ll show you.
Alright, so that’s the end of the warrior dance. The first dance you saw is a celebration dance. We normally dance on special occasions. In the olden days they used to kill lambs but we don’t do that anymore. Now we compete with jumps; the higher you can jump, the more girlfriends you win! We also have a prayer dance when there’s no rain. And we dance to have more children, and there are other dances that are performed as a way of blessing you, maybe to have a good safari or to get home safely. We have dances for everything. We dance to flirt. Then the men form a line and dance in front of the women, who have also formed a line. The men chant Oooooh-yah. And the women respond: Oiiiiiiyo-yoh. But we dance just to show we’re happy too.
In my village we are seven families. As a Maasai you normally get married to more than one wife, and when you’ve got more wives, you’ve got more homes because every wife has her own home. The ladies build the houses. It takes about four months to build each and every home: two months to collect the wood, and two months to construct the house. We use olive tree mostly because it lasts longer and repels termites, but we also use dung and ash. Each house has to last ten years; the houses here were built seven years ago. Before we built the village, there was nothing here. Now there’s a school next to the village gates and the kids go there. Did you see the school when you came in? It was put here by people from different countries, mostly Sweden, Canada and France. Now there are six hundred pupils in that school, from six to fifteen years old. Only boys. Girls and women stay at home. They take care of children, collect wood and water, tend the farm and build the houses.
We take our cows out to graze at sundown. We used to travel together with our wives and children but because of the school we don’t anymore. Before we would take our cows out during the day, but the government told us to stop. It was because we have so many cows that they chased all the other animals into the bushes. So when tourists came on safari all they would see were cows.
There used to be a lot of fighting between Kenyan and Tanzanian tribes. I remember fifteen years ago, us children would be playing in the village and suddenly we would hear bullets – boom! – and all the cows would be gone. Stolen. You can see that some old men here have pierced ears and long earlobes: when a Maasai be killed, the ear was a way to prove that the dead man was from here.
In the olden days we wore animal skins which we dyed with vegetables and fruits, and our jewellery would be made from seeds, stones and bone. But when Kenya was colonised we started using blankets that we bought or traded for. The patterns came from the colonisers; checks from the Scottish and English people. Our jewellery changed then too. The colonisers brought glass beads in many different colours, and we started making our necklaces, bracelets and earrings from them. The different colours symbolise the things important to us: blue is the colour of the sky and of water. White is the colour of milk and of peace. Green is the colour of the land, and the grass that our cows eat. Yellow is the sun, orange is for generosity and black is the colour of our skin and it also symbolises the hardships of life. Red is the most popular colour in our culture. We used to paint our cows red because when the lions see red they are very much scared. Red also symbolises blood which is important to us. In the olden days we used to drink it raw from our cows. We would mix it with milk; it’s very good for you.
Today the cloth is made in factories in China but also here in Kenya, and the beads are from the Czech Republic. Out here on the Maasai Mara we buy them from people who go into town. We don’t have fashions; we dress the same. Well not exactly the same. The patterns and colours we wear depend on what we like, same as for you. We like bright colours and plaid patterns but we also wear flower patterns and stripes. It depends on each person and what’s available at the factory. Sometimes we can tell them, ‘Use this colour or pattern that I like.’ This pattern I’m wearing is almost twenty years now, and the factory is still making it because we still like it.
Each Maasai has about six outfits, and children start wearing adult clothes when they are about fifteen years old. Men wear robes – we call them shuka – in different colours and patterns. You can wear whichever colour combination you like, as long as there is red in it. Red is very important. I’m wearing two shuka tied together now. It has to be long, to cover the body but not so long that you can’t run in it. What kind of shoes do we wear? Well, we make our own. They used to be made from animal hides but today we make them from car tyres. Tyres from Land Rover are the best because they last the longest. Each pair of sandals last about four years.
The women make all our jewellery. We wear beads on our waists, wrists, neck, ears and ankles. Women can wear big beaded collars too, but when a woman gets married and has children she will start wearing a plain black or brown leather belt instead of the beaded one. Every village makes their own jewellery, women give them as gifts to men they like and we also sell them to tourists. Would you like to buy a necklace?
When we get married we wear red, the same clothes as we wear now but also a sheep or goat skin on our back. The girl gets her head shaved in the morning as a symbol of this new beginning, and she gets grass tied to her shoes as a blessing. She can wear a kanga which is a one piece cloth, like a cape, and also a wedding necklace made from beads. Some Maasai are Catholic now so if they get married in Church they wear Western clothes. Would I ever wear Western clothes? Well maybe if I went to Europe. When I go into town I wear traditional clothing, the same as what I’m wearing now. When we go to the city dressed like this, we are very well respected. Very very well respected. Even if we bring our knife along, it’s okay. It’s always been like that.
Anja Aronowsky Cronberg is Vestoj‘s editor-in-chief and publisher.