Walking with Markus of the Maasai
Article and photos by James
|Author at Markus'
The view from my tent is a panorama
of the Great Rift Valley; the immense rock wall in the distance
rising slowly from the highlands of Manyara, and creeping
northward to terminate in the massive caldera of Ngorogoro
The weight of history on this land is
a physical presence. Evidence of earliest man keeps revealing
itself to archeologists, with each find pushing back the
count of years that my own ancestors have tread where I
now stand. I am less than 30 miles from the last nomadic
clans of the Hadzabe, East Africa’s Stone Age Bushmen, and
one of three distinct genetic groups from which all of humanity
is descended. The valley before me is literally the cradle
The bomas of 300,000 Maasai surround
me, filling the Manyara valley like so many brown mushrooms.
Early morning cooking fires layer the valley with a low
flat mist pushed down by the lingering cool night air.
| Camouflaged boma.
|Maasai taking the
cattle out to graze.
A figure walks slowly uphill through
the mist, robes billowing wraithlike in the morning chill.
It is a Maasai from one of the bomas I drove past late last
night; he is alone. Typically, at this time of the morning
the boys and young men escort the village cattle out to
graze, so his presence suggests that he is beyond such menial
labors. As he draws near, I see that his shuka is
a deep magenta and he carries an ebony walking stick that
identifies him as an elder, a title of respect rather than
age. He walks with the grace of one used to authority. His
pace is slow and steady, pole pole, as they say
here. He stops just downwind from my tent and with a broad
smile addresses me in Swahili, the lingua franca of east
“Jambo Papa,” he says, referring to
my white hair.
In Africa, I am almost always older
than the most ancient man in the village. In this land age
commands respect as it does nowhere else. Papa is a common
greeting here for an elder of any race.
“I come to welcome you,” he adds in
heavily accented English.
I share my morning coffee with him as
he squats in front of my tent, in a local traditional way
that knees no longer allow me to do. His name is Markus
and he emphasizes that it is spelled with a “K.” It is common
in Africa for tribal people to adopt a western name to eliminate
their own from being butchered by English speaking visitors.
Markus smiles broadly at me over our
coffee, showing off the gap where his front tooth has been
removed. As is often the case with first white contact,
early British and German colonists in East Africa in the
19th century brought their homegrown diseases with them,
unknowingly inflicting them on the local inhabitants who
had no immunity to such outside terrors. Among the most
rampant was lockjaw, a serious bacterial tetanus that can
freeze muscle control and eventually lead to death. The
Maasai were among a number of tribes appalled by the concept
of starving to death while being unable to open ones mouth
to eat. The result was the removal of one or two prominent
front teeth to facilitate being able to take in nourishment.
The practice continues to this day among the more remote
After our coffee, Markus stands and
begins to walk slowly up the hill behind my camp. The Maasai
rarely waste unnecessary words. A simple gesture is enough
to beckon, so I follow him silently. Above the morning clouds
we reach a flatland full of thorny acacia trees. I tag along
as Markus temporarily disappears into a thicket. The interior
is then revealed as an obvious campsite. We sit on a fallen
tree trunk to examine the bony remnants of previous hunts.
The trunk is notched to show the number of days the Moran,
the newly initiated warriors, have occupied their base camp.
It is where they come to eat meat privately, with no women
allowed, a testosterone fueled man-cave in the primeval
forest. It is a rare honor that Markus has revealed the
location to an outsider.
|Author and Markus
at warrior camp.
Markus starts in on a pantomime of a
hunt that soon has me laughing aloud. He lifts his shuka to
proudly reveal all the scars that come with being a Maasai
Before a Maasai boy is considered to
be a man he must hunt a lion with a spear and shield. He
does not have to actually kill the lion, but he must participate
in the hunt. The origins of the tradition are long forgotten.
Lion hunting has officially been banned in much of East
Africa because of terrible losses due to poachers, but it
still occurs in remote areas.
These days the Maasai typically hunt
a lion by surrounding it with warriors who slowly advance,
tightening the circle until it is so small the lion has
no choice but to attack in order to fight its way out. The
warrior the lion attacks will fall to the ground, cover
himself with his shield, and hope his brother warriors will
slay the great beast before it kills him. The bravest of
the hunters will attempt to grab the lion’s tail while this
is going on, and doing so conveys to the holder immense
|How Maasai hunt a lion.
We continue our walk up the hill, Markus
padding silently in his rubber sandals made from old truck
tires, the Maasai equivalent of Crocs, until we stand on
a steep slope. Our necks crane backwards to take in the
towering immensity of the largest Baobab tree I have ever
seen, with its spreading boughs most likely home to hundreds
of varied creatures. Numerous small branches have been hammered
into the side of the baobob in an alternating pattern. Markus
uses the branches to begin climbing. 20 feet above me he
points out a large bee hive that I would never have noticed.
Sitting on a massive branch he tells me how the Maasai trail
a small black and white bird called a honeyguide that brings
them to such trees. He explains how they make a torch to
smoke the bees out in order to steal the honey, a rare delicacy
in these parts.
|The honey tree.
As we retreat back down the hill, Markus
points out a dozen different plants and bushes that provide
the Maasai with medicine, meticulously explaining how each
is harvested and utilized. There is a grace to his movements,
a flow that expresses harmony with his surroundings. The
Maasai believe that ancestors watch over them as part of
the land, and Markus appears as an organic part of the whole.
Suddenly, Markus stops to dig up a tiny
green plant, knocking the dirt from its roots. He holds
it to my stomach and moves it around in a circle. “What
does this do?” I ask. Markus replies with a laugh, “Makes
you not so fat!” referring to my western girth. He then
giggles as he makes a sign with his hands of his tiny waist
compared to my rather large Caucasian midsection. The wise
man is also filled with humor.
We have walked for over three hours,
and when we are almost back at my tent he stops and just
stands silent, taking in the panoramic view. He is smiling,
but then he has been smiling all day. I stand next to him
and whisper, “Enkai,” referring to the Maasai equivalent
of a deity that is beyond the comprehension of most western
city dwellers. Enkai encompasses all of nature,
if I have heard and understood correctly. A more detailed
explanation of the meaning is beyond my abilities, and probably
beyond understanding by anyone not born a Maasai. “Yes,
Enkai,” he quietly says with great satisfaction.
Arriving at my tent I invite him to
sit with me for coffee once more, but he politely refuses.
I extend my hand for a farewell shake and he reaches inside
his robe to produce a small gourd, meticulously decorated
with beadwork, a hallmark of Maasai culture. The gourd is
half the size of a tennis ball and has a cork stopper in
the top hole. It is a snuff carrier, one of the only true
vices of Maasai men, who seem addicted to it. The gourd
is the sort of gift only given to a friend. He places it
in my palm and closes my fingers around it. With that he
turns to walk back down the hill, disappearing into the
mist as mysteriously as he first appeared.
I never asked him why he came to see
me or why he spent the better part of the day sharing esoteric
knowledge with me. Perhaps he was simply curious about this
lone traveler in his land, when my kind generally arrive
in large groups of safari vehicles with cameras clicking.
Perhaps he sensed that I was different and would understand
in a way that most visitors never can. I like to think that
If I have learned one important lesson
from my travels across Africa it is that tribal people occupy
a separate reality than I do. For them there is no distinction
between the material and spiritual worlds, and they move
between them with alacrity. Markus had just offered me a
taste of both of his worlds, and that was a gift beyond
|Maasai singing and
Whatever his reasons for seeking me
out I would rather not know, preferring
to just accepting his hospitality at face value, appreciative
of the most rare of days that occasionally come only to
those who wander far off the beaten path.
I return to that day in my thoughts
quite often. Most recently while driving through the immense
city in which I live. I was pulling over into a drive-in
hamburger stand when I remembered Markus rubbing that plant
against my stomach and laughing while he told me it was
to “Make you not so fat.”
I pulled back into traffic without a
hamburger, but I did have a smile on my face and I kept
James Michael Dorsey is
an explorer, award winning author, photographer, and
lecturer. He has traveled extensively in 45 countries,
mostly far off the beaten path. His main pursuit
is visiting remote tribal cultures in Asia
and Africa. See his bio for
more about James and his articles for Transitions Abroad.
Visit James Dorsey's website at www.jamesdorsey.com.