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My Africa Diaries: Close Encounters of the Maasai Kind

The walk to the village
The walk to the village

On our first day on safari, we discovered that the Masai Mara reserve had changed their policy so that it was impossible to pay for a partial safari day – and charges per person per day are $80, so a visit of a few hours wouldn’t be cost efficient. Thus, instead of starting directly with a game drive, we moved our village visit to the first evening to get the most from our time and money.

My colleague greets some inquisitive local children
My colleague greets some inquisitive local children
Posing in front of the village with some of our Maasai warrior hosts
Posing with some of our Maasai warrior hosts

The village was a Maasai village about a mile’s walk from our camp. Our guide, a Maasai warrior, took us down the path. It wasn’t very long at all before we encountered our first cows, followed shortly by an inquisitive little boy wishing to see our cameras. A bit further down, a group of children at a small watering hole. Most were naked, but covered up giggling when they saw us coming. One little boy covered briefly, then thought better of it and threw his wrap to the ground, proudly displaying all that he had to our traveling party, giggling proudly as he did it.

For a small fee, we were welcomed into the village and given what can best be described as an informal show. The village men, in their colorful, jangling Maasai garb, performed a warrior’s dance, followed by a jumping contest. The village women came out and sang a song for us, but seemed rather less enthusiastic about things than their male counterparts – I think we were a bit of an interruption. It was hard to tell at times whether they were interrupting their normal day for our benefit, or whether this particular village was for show only. A few young boys came by to smile and to watch their elders dancing for us. (For video of the dances, check out my YouTube video diary.)

Women of the Maasai village
Women of the Maasai village
Boys of the Maasai village
Boys of the Maasai village

After the dances, we entered the village, whose boundaries were marked by a fence of spiky acacia limbs fashioned in a circle. The ground in the village was well trodden, with a few dogs and chickens wandering freely about. We ducked into one of the huts, which was interestingly kept locked from the outside with a padlock when not in use. Even out here in the wilderness, security is still an issue.

The huts (enkaj) are fashioned from mostly mud and cow dung (long since dried, of course) – and notably, the home construction is done by the women of the tribe, including the sourcing of the support wood from local forests. Enkaj take 6 months to build and last about 3 years. The dung apparently provides waterproofing benefits – the huts don’t quite smell, perhaps because the entire village has a bit of that smell since the cows sleep within the fence each evening.

In fact, though small the enkaj was surprisingly cool and comfortable inside. The dung walls were an effective temperature insulator and sound insulator too – a peaceful respite. There was almost no light at all with the door closed – a tiny 4 inch by 4 inch opening just above the “kitchen” fire to let out smoke. Two beds built into the walls – one for parents, one for kids, and a “sister’s bed” for visiting female family members off to the side.

Inside the Maasai village
Inside the Maasai village
A Maasai enkaj
A Maasai enkaj
Kitchen and bed inside a Maasai enkaj
Kitchen and adult sleeping area inside a Maasai enkaj

Apparently, once the children get to a certain age (about 8, perhaps?) they go to live in communal village huts for the village children. I’m not sure how that custom started, but it does make it more practical to keep smaller huts and still have a large family. As with many agricultural cultures, larger families mean more people to tend to the family herd, and more prosperity. We saw many young children unattended, seeing to part of their family’s herd of cows in pastures around the borders of the Mara.

We exited the hut and got a short demonstration of starting a fire with just a stick, a base piece of wood (and their sword figured in briefly as a supplemental tool.) Even for expert outdoorsmen, it did take about 5 minutes to get to the point where the spark could cause some small kindling to smoulder.

As the fire demonstration wrapped up, we saw the “market” set up for our benefit: a series of blankets spread out on the ground, nearly covered by various figurines, trinkets and jewelry. This part could be stressful if you’re not mentally prepared. One of the villagers walks along with you, holding the items you’ve identified you like. At the end, you negotiate a bulk price for the whole lot. There are clearly certain patterns in the items offered, and it’s hard to tell what may have been made by these particular villagers and what may have been brought in from elsewhere.

I gravitated towards a few beaded bracelets and necklaces, one or two carvings, and a woven blanket. Sheets are a key part of Maasai clothing – they are called shúkà, and a Maasai outfit might consist of one sheet wrapped over each shoulder and one on top. But many of the shúkà are imported, brought in from outside the village. I decided I didn’t want anything wrapped in plastic since it probably meant I could get it somewhere else. But amongst the baubles I found a deep purple thickly woven blanket I really liked that seemed different from everything else. I wrapped up and negotiated my price – haggling is expected and giving up too soon can be seen as an insult (pro tip: ONLY bring what you’re willing to spend, and it makes negotiations much more straightforward.)

One of the warriors tied my new blanket as a shúkà around my shoulders, and I wore it that way for the rest of the evening. I was glad of it, as things cool off quickly out there. As the sun faded low in the sky, we walked back to camp, where our first buffet dinner was almost ready. We drank Tusker beers and sat around the campfire, discussing the culture with our enthusiastic warrior friend (who would have been our guide if not for a French exam he was taking in an effort to study tourism) and our driver.

At one point, the subject of names came up. Each Maasai has an English name and a Maasai name. My English name, as I’ve discovered in other cultures, doesn’t translate to most other alphabets. (In Greece, the “Sh” sound in Cheryl was absolutely mystifying – the closest anyone got was Tserol until my partner’s aunt exclaimed on the last day, “Sherlock! Your name sounds like that. From now on I will call you Sherlock.” True story.) So I was unsurprised to learn that “Cheryl” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue in African tribal tongues, either.

Our driver turned to me and asked, “You look like a Maasai woman with your blanket. May I give you a Maasai name?” I replied, “Of course,” very curious what it would turn out to be. They had briefly mentioned that many Maasai names reference the nature of one’s birth, like being born on a rainy afternoon. But after a moment, he decided: “I think you should be called Nashipai. In English it means roughly, ‘always happiness.’”

“Thank you. I’m honored by that and I love the name.” Whether it’s a frequently given name or not, I was happy to find that even so very far out of my comfort zone, on my first night ever camping after a 5 hour drive on mostly unpaved roads, I could still be seen as a happy person. We were apparently serious about the new name, too – for the rest of the trip our Maasai guides referred to me exclusively as Nashipai.

And Nashipai would have a few more adventures before leaving the African wilderness. My first was that very night, when my colleague and I retired to our tent. The tent was a large, military grade structure that could fit two twin beds on raised posts. Each had a mosquito net draped above it. As I got close to sleeping time, I went to pull my net off the floor to position it over my bed – and saw a SPIDER THE SIZE OF MY FIST underneath it. I have small fists, but still. This was no spindly Daddy Longlegs. This was a substantial hairy creature – not quite a tarantula, but rather butch for a spider.

The Cheetah tent, our "home" for three days
The Cheetah tent, our “home” for three days

In that moment, I could have lost my wits. I’m not a spider fan. This was entirely too large, and entirely too hairy, and entirely too much now under my bed, where it skittered (or more accurately, loped) after I exposed it. I could have chased it, but who knows if it was fast or jumping or poisonous, and most spiders don’t tend to attack when provoked. And what would I do if I caught it? Crush it? Unlikely at that size. So I decided to yes and this ridiculous wilderness moment, and I let sleeping spiders lie. I did spend the next 15 minutes tucking my mosquito net obsessively tightly around the bed, making sure nothing would get in or out.

Besides, it fit with the theme of the day – everything was positively otherworldly. Watching these villagers share their way of life with us, very much an element of the present but undeniably a window into the past as well. I truly felt halfway across the world. Of course there would be giant spiders.

Shortly thereafter, we turned out the light (yes, it was a bit ‘glamping’ with a working bathroom and solar powered lights) and reveled in the moonlit darkness now that the camp generator was out.

Thus, with the knowledge that there was a monster underneath my bed, Nashipai fell asleep that night in the deep dark serenaded by a completely foreign soundscape of wilderness creatures – chuffing leopards, baboons, a distant elephant.

The camp we stayed with was Oldarpoi Mara Camp. The money raised from this community camp goes to fund local village schools and to fund outreach trying to end female genital mutilation. You can find them online here, and you can read another traveler’s experience at the New York Times.

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