Animals of Maasai Mara
We spent our day driving through Maasai Mara animal spotting today. It was awesome fun, scouring the plains for signs of animal life (great and small) and capturing their best poses with our cameras. We were out and about for over 10 hours, from morning to early evening, and were fortunate enough to see a whole host of animals – from gazelles to buffalo; warthog to wildebeest; and elephants, zebra and lions. Above all else it was just great to spend the day out in the African bush, enjoying the fresh air and admiring the amazing landscape.
We were joined on our game drive by Leshan, a Maasai warrior from the nearby village who works as a part-time safari guide for the camp we’re staying in (as a fully fledged Maasai waarior he also also does his time on the plains protecting the village’s herd of cattle and goats from predators). Leshan was bored as the camp is quiet at the moment and asked if he could come with us for fun. It was great! He helped us spot wildlife and we got to ask him heaps of questions about Maasai life*.
*When we came to the Mara last time we went on a “cultural visit” to one of the many Maasi villages in this area – like many tourists. Unfortunately we did not enjoy it at all. The whole visit felt contrived and left us feeling like the Maasai were just “putting on a show for us”, rather then just allowing us to get an insight into their lives. Addiitonally we were harrassed incessantly to buy some of the handicrafts made in the village and/or to give donations to help fund the village’s current project. We have no problem supporting a worthy cause, but the high-pressure sales pitch never works with us and was just so off-putting. For these reasons we opted not to visit a Maasi village this time, but are still very interested in learning more about Maasai culture. So it was still great to have Leshan there to chat to – we got a great insight into Maasi culture in a very genuine, “no pressure” kind of way. We atually learnt more about Maasi culure in 2 hours with Leshan than we did during our Maasi “cultural visit”! He shared his insights about the traditional lifestyle his people live willingly and with such candour and generosity that at the end of the day we were happy to give him a generous donation to support his village’s current project. Same end result, very different experience!
From Leshan we learnt that the Maasai speak Maa, a language distinct from Swahili, and that they have stuck fiercely to their traditional, semi-nomadic lifestyles – despite the Kenyan government trying to get them to adopt a more “Westernised” lifestyle (as most of the rest of Kenya’s tribes have). They live in small family groups, alongside wild animals with an aversion to eating game and birds. The Maasai diet consists of raw meat, raw milk and raw blood from cattle (an unappealing dietary regime to our apletes but one that keeps them free of the chronic diseases that plague Western societies).
Maasai society is strongly patriarchal in nature, with a committee of elder men adjudicating on matters for the village (though decisions are always guided by the traditional body of oral law). They are monotheistic, worshipping a single deity called Engai. Engai has a dual nature: Engai Narok (translation = Black God) is benevolent, and Engai Nanyokie (translation = Red God) is vengeful. The central human figure in the Maasai religious system is the laibon whose roles include shamanistic healing, divination and prophecy, and ensuring success in war or adequate rainfall.
Traditional Maasai lifestyle centres around their cattle which constitute their primary source of food. The measure of a man’s wealth is in terms of cattle and children. Maasai religious belief states that Engai gave them all the cattle on Earth, leading to the belief that rustling cattle from other tribes is a matter of taking back what is rightfully theirs. This has led to some serious strife between the Maasai and other tribes in the past, though it is an uncommon practice today. Whilst the young boys look after calves and goats, and the men look after the cattle, women and girls are responsible for chores such as weaving, cooking and milking.
The men in a Maasai tribe are born and raised to be morans (translation = warriors) whose role it is to defend the cattle and village against predators. Warriors don‘t marry when they are young as they are required to spend vast amounts of time in the bush with ther cattle (this is the reason why there is a great age difference between Maasai husbands and their wives). Men are not allowed to marry until they are older (i.e. when they have become “elders“) while the women marry when they are young. Young men become morans after a circumcision ceremony, which is performed without anaesthetic. The boy must endure the operation in silence or risk dishonouring himself and his family. Young women also undergo “female circumcision” (i.e. female genital mutilation) as part of an elaborate rite of passage into adulthood.
The most common dress the Maasai wear is the shúkà – i.e. the red sheets traditionally worn wrapped around the body. The piercing and stretching of earlobes is common among the Maasai, as is the removal of canine teeth in early childhood. These practices are believed to have been started centuries ago to discourage slavers from taking Maasai men and women as slaves (a scarred, “damaged” or “deformed” person had far less chance of being taken). Due to these practices and their fierceness the Maasai people were not sold into slavery.
As a semi-nomadic people, traditional Maasai houses are very impermanent in nature. Their houses are made of timber poles fixed directly into the ground and interwoven with a lattice of smaller branches, plastered with a mix of mud, grass, cow dung, human urine and ash. The cow dung ensures that the roof is waterproof. The houses are built in a circle, surrounded by a protective, circular fence of thorned acacia. At night all th cows and goats are placed in the centre, safe from wild animals.
We learnt all of this (and more) from Leshan as we drove around Maasai Mara, spotting wildlife. The highlight of our game drive was when when we stumbled across a couple of young lions who were very much “in love” and trying desperatelyto make baby lions. Apparently during a mating bout (which lasts several days), the couple copulates up to 40 times a day, often forgoing eating. From the safety of our safari vehicle we sat and watched the lions for ages, marvelling at their size and muscular builds. They are just so fascinating, and more than a little terrifying!
As the sun began to set we headed back to our camp. Watching the colours change as the sun dipped below the horizon was amazing. A spectacular end to an epic day on safari. Can’t wait for tomorrow’s adventures….