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Walking with Markus of the Maasai

Article and photos by James Michael Dorsey

Egun dancing in Cove, Burkino Faso
Author at Markus' boma.

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 Crater.

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 of humanity.

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 Maasai boma
Camouflaged boma.

Maasai taking the cattle out to graze
Maasai taking the cattle out to graze.

Markus Appears

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 Africa.

“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 tribal clans.

Markus explaining medicines
Markus explaining medicines.

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
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 warrior.

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 face.

How Maasai hunt a lion
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
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 I do.

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 my expectations.

Maasai singing and dancing
Maasai singing and dancing.

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 on driving.

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.

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