Kenya: At home with the Masai

By Daniel Howden

Daniel Howden joins Masai warriors in a hunt on Kenya's Laikipia Plateau.

The Masai seem like elegant figures painted with two strokes of a brush - one red, one black - on to the Kenyan landscape. Photo / Creative Commons image by Dmitri1999 at en.wikipedia
The Masai seem like elegant figures painted with two strokes of a brush - one red, one black - on to the Kenyan landscape. Photo / Creative Commons image by Dmitri1999 at en.wikipedia

The string is burning my fingers as I struggle to bend the longbow. The index finger on my right hand is cut and bleeding as it holds the grooved arrow in place. Some 30 feet away from me across the red earth of the Laikipia Plateau an unblemished target offers mocking evidence of my mounting failure.

Closing one eye, I focus on the distant square and stretch the bow back the full length of the arrow, watching its sharp metal head draw worryingly close to my left fist. I want more time to aim but the effort is already making my arms tremble, which will ruin the arrow's flight. Trying to remember the exhortation to lean forward and breathe out, I fire my last shot. This time the arrow doesn't fishtail, it doesn't fly high or wide. It speeds straight and true and its arrival, on target, is announced by a satisfying thwack. I am elated.

Gathered around me in their flame-red robes are two morans and two junior elders. They are young men from Africa's renowned herding tribe, the Masai, where warriors are still ranked by strict age classes. In their late teens they must submit, without audible complaint, to the painful circumcision rite to become a moran.

They serve a role that calls for them to defend the community's most precious resource, its cattle, with their life if necessary. My tutors in the martial arts flash me a priceless smile. Although I don't realise it immediately, this is to be the high point of my life as a Masai warrior.

The Masai seem like elegant figures painted with two strokes of a brush - one red, one black - on to the Kenyan landscape. I, on the other hand, cut an unlikely figure in my two-piece shuka worn with all the conviction of a holidaymaker trying to remove his trunks under a beach towel. Still, I've long since shed any awkwardness over my red robes as the desire to impress my ever-smiling hosts takes over.

After collecting the stray arrows spread like kindling across the bush around our target, I manage two more hits. Triumphant, I decide to try my luck: "If I can hit the wooden post holding the target do I get to be a Masai without being circumcised?" Amid much laughter from men who privately believe that remaining uncut marks you as an immature boy, the bet is accepted.

I miss, of course. Unseen in the flat foliage of an acacia tree, a "go-away bird" gives its verdict with a namesake call.

The closest I'm going to get to being a moran is my new nickname of "albino Masai". Still, opportunities to trek dry river beds, where a herd of 80 elephants passed the day before, carrying a spear with your own band of trained fighters are not commonplace. And you should never refuse a name given to you by a muscular man carrying a throwing club - or rungu, as the Masai call it.

Rungus come in different forms, from small branches whittled to be heavier at one end than the other, to polished roots of African olive-wood shaped like a tibia. The most lethal is the oltinka, whose point is reinforced with a modern-day tractor bolt. My guide, Silas Koiyaren Kitonga, cheerfully tells me this can fracture a skull with one blow. "All morans know how to fight with a rungu or a spear, or a bow."

This point was underlined later when my official quartet of trainers was joined by a passing moran. Seeing my laughable attempts to hit a large tree from a modest distance, Keshini decided to join in. From a good 10 feet further away, with his first effort he dislodged the elephant tusk-shaped branch we were aiming for. This was the cue for a competition with the other Masai, none of whom could match the unerring accuracy of Keshini, which I've decided must be Masai for "winner".

The sweeping plateau stretches out from the foothills of Mount Kenya and is home to Laikipia Masai, a smaller group directly related to the denizens of the more heavily touristed Mara. My base for these adventures is the Bush Adventures Camp. It is locally owned and operated, and has not been cut off from the people who live and herd their animals across the plateau.

The camp itself, set high on the bank of a curving river, is designed to tread as lightly as possible on a fragile environment. It caters only to small groups, with stays from a few days up to two weeks. The accommodation takes the shape of handsome tents, with proper metal-framed beds and your own Masai blankets, which are less spartan and more about comfort than the originals. Hot showers and reading lights are provided by small solar-power units, enabling the camp to avoid the noise and waste of generators.

The cuisine owes more to the Mediterranean than the Masai: the camp's kitchen is run by an Italian partner who quit her career in conservation to join up. But no fence separates you from the day-to-day life beyond.

When the action moves to the soft sand of river bed for a mock battle, curious local Masai stop sifting digging for water to enjoy the show. Armed with animal hide shields, two young warriors, Torongas and Saita, perform one-on-one combat. Starting 500 feet apart, they fly at each other issuing high-pitched yells. As they come within range, throwing clubs are hurled with frightening speed and accuracy thudding off the expertly wielded shields. Finally meeting at pace, the shields are discarded and a wrestling match ensues, ending with the smaller Torongas pinned on the floor. Despite the fierce display, both men are laughing.

The rungus this time were a kind of pointed, palm frond, known locally as elephant's toothpicks. Taking a hit from one of them would mean a purple welt rather than a broken rib. And the battle cries turn out to be more funny than fierce.

"Ah, they're insulting each other," Silas explained.

"Saita is boasting that his girlfriend is great and Torongas is telling him he has no cows."

In a bovine-centred culture that's about as stinging a rebuke as you can get.

Ketei, the youngest trainer, causes hysterics when he remembers an Italian visitor who took part in the stand-off but broke off when the insults started.

"I shouted that she had no cows," he remembered.

"And she just stopped and said, 'It's true, I have no cows', and she looked very sad."

As much fun as the tracking, hurling and archery were, it dawned on me that I was enjoying just listening to the interplay of my warrior mentors: full of quick jokes and sharper insights.

Over lunch, the talk turns to balancing the needs of the people with those of the wildlife. The herding warrior trainers tell tales of villagers trampled by bull elephants and livestock lost to Africa's big predators.

"Have any of you ever killed a lion?" I ask nosily. A strange silence follows, while fearsome warriors look at their plates and all-but whistle their innocence. Enough said.

Walking out beyond the boundary of the camp as dusk approaches and the fierce sun softens, some lessons have been learned. The ground had told me nothing in the morning. But after a fascinating session on animal tracking, I could see it was now full of stories.

A dotted line of prints like three fat fingers marked the passing of an aardvark who had stopped to dig for ants. A shallow-earth well with smooth stones was evidence that some Masai children had been playing a game instead of tending their herd. And somewhere in the trees above me a honey guide bird was calling. It was telling me to follow it to a bees' nest, so we could both have a sweet end to the day.

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