Romantic Africa

By Derek Cheng

Will Derek Cheng give up his modern luxuries for a more simple life with a Masai maiden? Sadly, love is not in the air this time.

The Masai, traditional tribesmen in Kenya and Tanzania, jump to show off their strength and status. Photo / Derek Cheng
The Masai, traditional tribesmen in Kenya and Tanzania, jump to show off their strength and status. Photo / Derek Cheng

I braced myself for love at first sight.

The warriors and maidens of the Masai tribes of Kenya and northern Tanzania are known for their good looks and legendary physique. Slim but muscular, with smooth, hairless bodies and full African features: perfect teeth, engaging eyes and full lips. And then there are the voices, full of harmony and more than enough of a force to diffuse the heavy air under an intense African sun.

In 1986, 26-year-old Swiss woman, Corrine Hoffman, made eye contact with a Masai warrior and was instantly transfixed, beginning a tale of romance that saw her give up her Swiss luxuries for a pastoral life in arid Africa on a diet of meat, milk and the blood of sacred cows. Would cupid's arrow strike again in the tiny Masai village I was visiting on the edge of the Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania?

The Masai are semi-nomadic and still live as they have for centuries since their migration from the fertile banks of the Nile, to the Great Rift Valley. They are fearsome warriors, though they don't do a lot of warring these days.

This small village, at the edge of a vast plain, was a giant circle fenced by branches of the thorny acacia tree. Inside the perimeter were dozens of small huts made of mud, clay and cow dung hugging a wooden endoskeleton.

We were greeted at the gate by a troupe in bright togas - usually red - called shukas, which make the Masai one of the most recognisable tribes in East Africa. They quickly formed two lines for a welcome song, and then splintered off in to men's and women's semi-circles where they took turns showing off their vertical leaps - a high jump is a show of great strength and status.

These are the kinds of customs and conditions that Hoffman threw herself into. With a mere glance across a crowded ferry at what must have been a stunning specimen of a man, she was obsessed. She had to have him. It didn't matter that she was on holiday with her Swiss boyfriend, or that she couldn't speak the language.

Hoffman's story, as told in her book The White Masai, is the kind of romantic yarn fit for a Hollywood movie, which it later became. After her holiday ended, she ditched her boyfriend and her life in the land of Swiss cheese to return to the remotest parts of Kenya, armed with only the Masai's name, Lketinga, and a photograph.

It took her three months to find him, and she moved in with him in his one-size-fits-all mud hut. They got married and had a daughter, and she started up a store selling goods. And they lived happily ever after ... for four years until she could no longer endure his jealousy, which raged every time she interacted with another guy, and took herself and her daughter back to Switzerland.

Hoffman has been both praised for her tenacity and courage, and derided for thinking some of her Western values - like the concept of a woman being more than just an object - might rub off on the Masai. She has also been called an obsessive stalker who imposed herself onto this unsuspecting man.

The hardships were many. She had to accept his other wives. Sex was a brief and joyless affair, seen by him as nothing more than a means to make babies, rather than the mutually pleasurable affair that she had daydreamed about from the comforts of her home thousands of miles away (in the movie, she predictably teaches him the joys of sex).

But she certainly gets brownie points for putting up with rudimentary living conditions. The hut we visited, belonging to Sadera Sekuang, was barely tall enough to accommodate a hunched-over child.

Inside, the only natural light came from a small window the size of a pack of cards. Three rocks in the middle of the room still held the embers of last night's fire. Empty plastic bottles - for drinking water - lay near the entrance. There were three beds - piles of sticks with a cow's hide on top - and a smaller pen by the entrance where the family calf enjoys better shelter than the rest of the herd.

Sadera was eager to point out that his village is in the mould of a traditional Masai society, patriarchal and polygamous, that has existed largely unchanged for centuries. The village has 124 people and 175 cows, and some goats and sheep. They don't eat game, only cow and goat meat.

The boys, when they are 15, go through their rites of passage, which can take up to five years and involves, among other things, circumcision and lion-hunting. When they return officially as men, they sit atop the labour pool.

While the children look after animals and women build the huts and gather firewood, the men, having matured into strong leaders with fine-tuned hunting skills, proceed to do no hunting of any kind. Their sole job seems to be to protect the village, but in the absence of any threat, they are glorified security guards with a licence to philander.

The women, too, have to be circumcised at 15, though there is a lot of pressure to break this tradition. A life of pleasureless sex is meant to make them less likely to cheat on their husbands.

But despite Sadera's conservative beliefs his village is already becoming more modern. Water is brought in in large tankers (the village is nowhere near an obvious water supply). The village is sending more children to school. And behind the village is a kindergarten, where children are learning the English alphabet.

Sadera, at 26, is young to be one of three chiefs. Usually the males have to graduate from boy to man to elder to chief, but with jeep-loads of tourists coming through, English has become the most important currency, and Sadera was lucky enough to be sent to school.

The centre of the village also points to the new lifeline of the village: the perimeter of the cow-pen is laced with trinkets for tourists to buy. A colourful talking stick goes for a cool US$35 ($45), five times what you'd pay in town.

Masai villages closer to civilisation are in even greater danger of losing their culture. They grow maize, beans, potatoes. They sell trinkets in the markets, and cows for cash. Some of the men have cellphones and frequent the pub, perhaps an inevitable result of an undemanding work day and the influx of tourism money.

As we left Sadera's hut, a group of villagers lead us straight to the trinkets, the only time the women showed any interest in us. They looked exotic, with earrings hanging from stretched earlobes and circular beaded decorations orbiting slender necks. But their interest only lasted so long as I browsed the goods for sale. When I didn't buy anything, my chances of an African romance were done, though I was having second thoughts anyway.

Sure, the village life had its advantages. A simple, agrarian existence. As a male, I could look forward to a labour-light life with multiple wives. And as an English speaker, I was guaranteed authority and tour guide status.

But giving up everything to live in a mud hut just didn't seem worth it for someone who only ever raised her eyebrows when my wallet made an appearance. There were some gorgeous Masai here, but one-sided lust just didn't make for a very compelling case.

If only that had been so obvious to Hoffman.

CHECKLIST

Further information: Kumuka Worldwide's Africa Lodge Safaris depart every month and run year round. Peak season is during Christmas and New Year. Serengeti & Crater tours depart every month and run year round.

Kumuka Worldwide offers a wide range of tours from four to 16 days with prices ranging from $1200 to$10,000. Phone 0800 440 499.

Derek Cheng visited the Masai as guest of Kumuka Worldwide.

- NZ Herald

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