“How is you?” was the question that awaited me every morning when I walked by the Maasai market at Shela. You can spot from a distance the tall skinny men, wrapped in red and blue with shiny black skin, bright white teeth and colorful beads covering their heads, arms, wrists and ankles. The first time I saw them I was stupefied by their body wraps, accessories, the giant machete hanging off their waists, the shoes made from car tires. I took extra long looking through the beads on the tables, trying to find the right opportunity to strike a conversation. Instead they did for me - “Why did you Americans vote for Trump?” I had finally succeeded to disconnect from the madness at home by not reading FB, news or instagram, but obviously even the Maasai who live in the bush in a third world country can’t believe who the leader of the developed world is.
The Maasai were from Amboseli National Park, a “2-day walking” trip from Lamu Island. Their village is on the border with Tanzania and you can see mount Kilimanjaro from there. They are herds men, they live from their cows, migrating with them in search of pastures and water. They eat milk, meat and drink blood. They make their houses from cow dung, which insulates againstthe cold during the winter and keeps the house cool during the summer. For most sicknesses, they use plants, tree berries and roots remedies. The hospital is only for very serious cases. They mix“he” and “she”, as there is no gender in their language. They wash themselves with homemade butter, but do not have any BO even after hours in the burning sun. When a woman in the village gives birth, all of the women gather around her to help her physically and morally. They might look like they are from another century, but they all have cell phones, Facebook, WhatsApp and some even buy solar panels to charge batteries at home. The women make beads, bracelets, head pieces, anklets, phone pockets etc. and the men go to tourist locations to sell them. And that is how our paths crossed on the island of Lamu.
Although at first sight, the men are skinny and some of them short, each one has to kill a lion in order to be accepted into “men hood”. They go in the bush in a group of 8 with their spears and machetes and stay there until the man who is being inaugurated finds and kills the lion. The strategy is to follow the lion long enough until he/she is tired, then attack it with the spears and once on the ground finish it off with the machete. The man who kills it gets to keep the skin and comes back to the village with it, only to be…. circumcised. Women getcircumcised as well, but only after they are married. It is believed that it will protect them from cheating their husbands who sometimes are away for months.
The Maasai are Christian and celebrate the same holidays as us, the difference being they kill a cow instead of roasting lamb or eating Panetone. They are proud of their age, but do not celebrate birthdays. Family is very important to them. Finding a wife and bringing children up is considered a privilege. One man can have several wives, depending on how many cows he has. The average “offering” for a wife is 10 cows. Usually it is the parents who find the wife for their son, however most of the single men I met at the market told me that they are not in a rush to get married and they would rather wait and find the right woman themselves.
Maasai are very open to sharing their culture, and unlike others on the islands, were happy to take as many photos as I wanted and furthermore, dressed me up in a Maasai woman dress and beads. Being curvy to their taste is considered a good thing, so I had to take it as a complement when I got told I had a “big butt”.
Being courted by a Maasai is a beautiful experience - almost one those of us who live in NYC have forgotten ever existed. There is no space for doubt if a Maasai man likes you, not only because he is upfront about it, and escorts you everywhere. Unlike Western men with commitment issues, you know very quickly exactly how many cows he can afford to offer for you and how many children he would like to have with you. His house, his money and time is yours, and he likes you just the way you are, no changes required. Time, space or distance is not a problem - he is willing to wait for you even if it means it might be a year before you see each other again. And at the end, when your boat leaves the island to take you back to “civilization”, he stands on the dock leaning onto his wood stick, his red cloth waiving in the wind, making it ever so difficult to leave this world where life is pure and love so simple.