How did I end up living on top of a volcano somewhere in Kenya with a clan of Maasai Warriors for 1 week? Well a Canadian man by the name of Dan contacted me and told me he knew someone who knew someone who could help. Somehow he had a connection to a clan of Maasai warriors who lived in a crater at the top of the volcanic Mount Suswa in Kenya. This as I found out was not a lie, and before I knew it I was waiting at the base of this picturesque mountain, ready to be picked up by a Maasai tribesman who was to escort me to his village high up in the volcanic crater. This was just the beginning.
The Maasai Warriors are a tribe of people who although quite well known globally are a clan of whom little is really understood. Red capes (shukas), spears and springy legs are about the most commonly conjured images. This too was the extent of my perceived knowledge and so for me this journey was about learning more about their culture.
“Sebastian, how far can you walk in a day?”
Samson’s first question to me as he picked me up took me by surprise. In Australia the first question after meeting someone for the first time usually pertains to occupation. His question though, as I was to find out was extremely important. I was intrigued.
Twenty years ago a small group of missionaries made contact with what was then a very primitive tribe. Introducing Christianity and a set of life principles that the Maasai slowly took on board, a society of respect, openness and fairness began to develop.
Three hours into our car ride up towards the inner crater of Mount Suswa, I’d let slip all of the questions that my child-like curiosity was unable to contain. Had Samson ever fought a lion; had he ever drank cow’s blood and was it hot living on the rim of a volcano. His answers all correlated; yes, yes and yes. He laughed as he answered, telling me though that it was all in context. There was much I needed to learn.
After a pointing out a few of the local landmarks on the mountain, including the place of his father’s death many years ago, our car soon made a B-line for a cluster of three huts located in the middle of a huge earth-coloured plain. Occasional trees dotted the plain, as did a mixed herd of livestock who grazed in the nearby scrub as we approached. We were in the middle of nowhere.
We had arrived.
Samson was a specimen of a man; tall, dark and slender. His skin glistened under the sun as he stood proudly in front of his home. Wrapped in his red shuka, he leant to one side on his stick that his left hand extended into the ground. A big smile adorned his face. Probably because one item that I had chosen to bring along was my ukulele.
Living with a tribe meant exactly that; living with a tribe, and so after getting our belongings from the back of the four wheel drive, we waved goodbye to the driver and watched as he disappeared in the direction that we’d just come from. Turning around I focused on my living quarters for the first time; a hut made of manure, rock and sticks! This was awesome!
A Manyata is essentially a small cluster huts that form the living arrangement of a family and it’s animals. Typically circular in shape, siblings, parents and goats all live in harmony here. The livestock are the lifeblood for Maasai people and although myth may have it that cows are regularly slaughtered so that their blood, flesh and milk may be consumed, this is in fact a ritual far less practiced nowadays. Instead animal slaughtering in general only happens for special occasions such as the circumcision of a young boy or perhaps the birth of a new child in a village.
Similarly, thoughts of warriors roaming the plains and killing lions as a test of manhood are mostly reflections of the past. Although there are still the very rare Morans, the nomadic warriors of the Maasai who live off the land and fight lions as they roam, times have changed. The Maasai are a developing tribe embracing a sensible and more practical way of living.
“If you see a Moran here, you’d be very lucky. They are the warriors of the tribe and still very dangerous. They are highly respected.”
Once inside Samson’s hut, the reality that this man actually lived here took me a moment to digest. Two metres by three metres in dimension, inside lay a small bed constructed by sticks from nearby trees and a chair of similar ilk.
“You will have my house for your time here while I sleep at my Mother’s place.”
Wrongfully labeled as aggressive, the Maasai are in fact incredibly friendly and open. Their society is based on respect and honesty. It was these assets in fact that led to their healthy stance on agricultural harmony and land conservation policies. Taking note from a near-by tribe who harvested their land for crops and practiced trade within their own community, the Maasai now have adopted a similar outlook where by no longer are their nutritional needs entirely sourced from a cow! Maze, rice, vegetables and herbs are all utilized and complimented by meat produced through responsible and measured means.
“This goat will die today” stated Samson as he showed around his modest Manyata. The goat in question was a young one that was laying on the ground next to his Mother’s hut. Sprawled out in an awkward position, the goats fate was a foregone conclusion, Samson knew exactly what was wrong without having to bend down.
“He has a disease that affects the spinal column causing him to lose his balance and fall over. The disease is too far embedded now to cure.”
That evening goat meat was served with dinner. This is the way the Maasai live, practically.
“If we weren’t eating him tonight Sebastian, the hyena’s would be.”
My initial reaction of laughter was quickly halted as I realized that Samson was not joking.
“We have to get all the livestock in their pen by 7pm every night or else they will be hunted”
“By what?” I asked, almost scared to find out more.
“Hyena’s, cheetahs and sometimes crafty leopards”
With darkness now upon us as we ate quietly in his Mother’s hut, I looked around anxiously as if there was a chance that we were currently being circled by a group of dangerous carnivores. I had never until this point considered anything other than livestock would lurk in up in the mountains, but then again I’ve been known to overlook the obvious before! There was a lot I needed to learn about this place.
Crucial to this learning process was finding my way back to my hut after dinner, and although I’d rather not admit this, I’ll share with you that I have never run fifty metres so fast in my life. So would you if you heard the howling of hyenas from a stone-throw away (seriously)!
Mount Suswa is a place you’re likely to hear more about in time to come. With seventy-nine unexplored caves, hundreds if not thousands of volcanic jet steams and a dormant volcano which once scaled leaves you with a breath taking view of the ‘Virgin Island’, a piece of land within the crater never before touched by human kind, it’s no wonder that this place is touted to become Africa’s first heritage listed Geo Park.
Untouched by modern fittings of any sort, the potential of becoming heritage listed lends itself to a future Mount Suswa embracing tourism, luxury accommodation and tours. The Maasai realise that tourist dollars are crucial to development; the key of course though is balance. With tourist dollars meaning improved education and infrastructure in Mount Suswa, things are looking good for the future, but in honesty, I feel lucky to have caught it before the influence of Western society.
By chance, my arrival to Samson’s village coincided with the birth of the village pastor’s first child. As such, a large ceremony had been organized at the new parent’s manyata and before I knew it Samson had began walking in it’s direction. With fears of leopards still hungry from the previous night’s hunting, I quickly followed. According to Samson the ceremony was not far.
One hour later, after walking in a straight line through thick bushland and up steep inclines, we had reached our destination; just to the front of a small manyata located again in the middle of nowhere. Amongst the greens and browns of its surrounds, a huge gathering of Maasai dressed in colourful shukas, bright jewellery and intricate headwear encircled a proud couple holding a baby. Red’s, yellows, blues and purples exploded in celebration through song, dance and gifts. One colour though that was unaccounted for until I arrived of course was white and so the attention cast my way as I tried somewhat disastrously to blend into the circle was more than a little nerve racking.
“Most of these people have never seen a white person before” grinned Samson as my eyes darted around nervously. “You’re the first to live with us!”
Although incredible to learn, this I believed as small children present stared at me as if seeing a ghost for the first time. At one point a sudden pinch on my arm made me jump in shock and when I looked down I saw a young boy gripping onto a clump of blonde arm hair that he’d managed to rip from it’s owner’s forearm. A freak was in town.
Located miles from any form of development and further again from perceived safety, this scene had the potential to become quite worrying but in the same way that the group had come together to celebrate a special occasion, I too was greeted with smiles all round. Not only this but those whose English was good enough began to approach me and welcome me to their village. There was a real buzz that a white person had chosen to experience the culture. There were of course also a few people still scared to look at someone with blue eyes but I figured we’d be able to bridge that gap in the week to come.
After a few hours of speeches celebrating the village pastor’s first son in native Maasai tongue, it at some stage dawned on me that I was sat high up on the side of a volcano rejoicing the birth of a tribal boy- life was already becoming very interesting. So embraced was the white man that I was soon invited into the hut of the new parents to drink some tea and eat some food in honour of the child. This I obliged to quite happily.
With no windows and only one small door, I was beginning to learn that the huts in these parts were pitch-black 24-7. After sitting down therefore in a room that I thought was empty, I got the fright of my life when I was greeted in the darkness by some close relatives of the Pastor’s who immediately handed me a plate of food and a cup of tea.
“Tea is a tradition within Maasai culture and you must always have enough tea leaves, sugar and cow’s milk to be able to offer any passer by a refreshment”
It’s customs like this that I think should be embraced around the world. As it happened, the tea was delicious, as was the food and after chatting to a few people who I still couldn’t see for the darkness, I asked what type of meet we were enjoying.
“This is the sacrificial lamb” came a reply from someone in the room
“Yes, it was killed this morning!” a proud voice followed.
In light of this special occasion, a sacrifice was allowed. With my bowl licked clean, I decided not to think about this too much. Instead I smiled at the fact that I’d been accepted.
Without any other modes of transport, the Maasai are well renowned for walking great distances. Armed with a 50 cc scooter back in Australia, my walking is generally reserved for shorter distances and so for me I was learning not to be lazy.
So in tune with his land was Samson that no matter where he had to go, he knew exactly how to get there, even in the darkness of a moonless night. Quite logically as he explained to me, the quickest way to one point is in a straight line and so this is the way in which the Maasai walk; directly. Only deviating for natural obstructions such as mountains, ravines and cups of tea, it wasn’t uncommon to cross paths with other Maasai walking on a slightly different line to us. After a brief chat and an introduction, we’d soon bid farewell and continue our route as if nothing had happened. Looking back I found it strange to watch a local dressed in a bright red shuka wander off through a bush and onwards in a direction that seemed unplanned yet so specific. After a while this sight became quite common and soon I began to notice flashes of red off in the distance all around us.
It was like a series of invisible roads only seen by those people holding a stick and wearing shukas. I just followed.
On the Sunday we woke up early for church. After a short one hour walk further up into the mountain, we finally arrived at wide open plateau on which stood a tidily made building with a wooden cross constructed on the top. Local fundraising through livestock markets had paid for the church and with music booming from within it was lucky that it had a well constructed tin roof.
With mountain tops surrounding us on a clear and sunny day, I convinced myself that this was the church that God would chose to go to. Simply beautiful.
Respect is something that runs deep throughout the Maasai culture, both for oneself and for others, and once again as we stepped through the doorway at the back of the church we were met with a bouquet of colour as vivid and fresh as the baby ceremony. Ladies sat on one side along with dozens of children all of whom were dressed in traditional attire. Large looping ear lobes were adorned with locally made earrings while bracelets dangled off the wrists of everyone present. On the other side of the room sat the men who, also dressed immaculately, bobbed their heads up and down to the beat of the music that was being created from the female choir at the front of the room. The scene was amazing and I felt like a fly on the wall of a very special meeting. The only thing that even slightly dampened the mood was the input of the inept piano player who beat down ferociously on the brand new keyboard that sat just off to the right of the stage. I could only assume that the volume button was stuck on the highest level. However even this in some way added to the vibe.
Without any form of jewelry, I was yet again the odd one out but the thoughtful Samson quickly pulled me aside and handed me what appeared to be a beautifully made necklace comprised of brightly coloured beads, tiny mirrors and a string to tie it together at the rear. Fearing that it was indeed a necklace made solely for females, I admit that I was slightly hesitant as I put it on but in light of my current situation it didn’t matter in the slightest; I was embracing all that was being thrown at me.
Amongst the crowd were a few familiar faces from the baby ceremony a few days before hand and so as word silently spread about the room that the white person was again present, a few people stood up and came back to shake my hand before returning to their seats. Before long my arm hair was yet again the focus of a few sets of hands belonging to the youngsters surrounding me and as soon as the first singing intermission took place I was summonsed to the front stage to introduce myself. In the lead up to church Samson, my trusty translator, had suggested that I would most likely be asked to say a few words and so as a cheeky little surprise I’d packed my ukulele on the off chance that music was encouraged. I’m not particularly talented on the ukulele but it certainly puts smiles on people faces! After a few minutes of thanking the locals for making me feel so welcomed I asked if they’d mind a quick song and at their own peril they obliged.
Now I’m not giong to claim that my rendition of “Don’t worry, be happy” was the best version ever performed but considering the joy and celebration in the room, it was certainly appropriate. At some point even the pianist chimed in with some aggressively hit chords but thankfully the generator that was running all of the power to the church ran out of fuel hence cutting him off. A lack of a second tank of petrol also meant that Sunday church was officially over.
Samson was a man who loved to learn. He was smart. In an area where there is no running electricity though, he had somehow managed to acquire a transistor radio to fuel his quest for knowledge. This was his most valued item. BBC World News was his favourite channel. He knew a lot for someone who seemed quite young and one day I asked him his age;
“Samson, how old are you mate?”
“I am not sure.” he replied
Taken back from such an odd answer, I asked him to explain this to me.
“There is no way to tell the specific date here. All we know is seasons. Not everybody has a radio to tell them the date, you know.”
He made perfect sense. I felt stupid for asking.
“My Mother told me that I was born in a dry seaosn where many people were hungry. In this season everybody had to eat yellow corn. That is what she remembers and so I asked my brother if he could remember a dry season like this.”
Samsons brother went on to tell him that he remembered that in 1979 there were many people without food and so this is what he claims to be his year of birth.
“I guess you don’t have a specific date then, Samson?”
“Well maybe we can make today your birthday?”
And just like that Samson had a birth-date to call his own, October 30, 1979. We celebrated with a cup of tea.
Days after arriving in the village I’d still not showered out of want of living exactly like Samson but one morning I noticed him drying off after an early shower. By this stage we were getting to know each other quite well and so after yelling over to ask if he could tell me where he was hiding the shower, he pointed at a bucket of water sitting outside of the third hut that held a few baby goats.
“Go in there with the water and just wash yourself as you need”
The third of the huts was basically a storage hut made from sticks. With rogue chickens and various bits and pieces scattered within, it only stood at about 5 feet tall and so after entering and finding an area to place my bucket down, my crouched stance made this shower one of the more awkward I’d ever had. This was confirmed when half way through my wash my head an object hanging from the roof which upon looking up turned out to be a goats carcass being left to dry. Next to this hung its head. I think I left the hut dirtier than when I entered.
For all of the cleaning of that morning, Samson’s plan of walking me to the top of Mount Suswa seemed to work against keeping me refreshed and so soon after a cup of tea a casual bit of goat herding, we left on foot for the summit, some 2356 metres above ground level. Passing villages at the foot of the climb, our hydration was kept up thanks to some warm cups of cows milk offered by friendly locals. In the heat of a blistering sunny day, this did nothing for me other than create a fantastically painfully feeling in my guts. Regardless, we continued walking and as we did, I asked Samson a question that I ask most people I meet; what’s on your list?
Without a pause, Samson stopped me and made me look back down the mountain towards his village. Casting his arm across the horizon, he smiled as he answered;
“I would want to empower the Maasai people through education. I want to create schools for young and old.”
This was a great answer.
“I have already started a youth program that enables children to learn about our history and I want to us to acknowledge both our positive traditions as well as our disabling traditions.”
Samson was of course referring to the highly controversial practice of female circumcision within Maasai tribes.
“We respect our traditions very much but in the same way that we have learnt that we can source nutrition from other sources than just the cow, we must learn that female circumcision is not right.”
This point I couldn’t agree with more and only a few days before when in church, Samson lectured the crowd about this very topic.
“The hard thing is though that it is a slow practice. I am also planning to create a system that will attract NGO’s to help us develop here in Mount Suswa.”
Climbing higher up into the volcano, surrounding views of distant mountain ranges and tiny villages became more and more beautiful. There was something special about this place.
Mount Suswa, the believed home of the once worshiped Supreme God of the Maasai, was not only physically challenging but also mentally stimulating. Listening to Samson continue to talk about his dreams of making a positive change made each step easier. Yet again I was finding out that I wasn’t the only one with a list of goals; this time I’d found out that even those living in small huts made of manure half way up a volcano had the ability to dream. Even more special than this though was the fact that Samons’ list exemplified what I’ve always thought to be even more special; his list directly influenced others in a positive way. In this sense Samson purpose was one of making the world a better place.
Three hours after beginning our journey, we finally reached the peak. Samson was not exaggerating; it was truly was stunning. On one side of us huge flat plains stretched long across the Maasai Mara National Park and on into numerous mountain ranges that together shaped the horizon, while on the other loomed the inner crater of the dormant volcano and the ‘Virgin Island’. Millions of years ago boiling hot magma churned in the crater but presently it is filled with dense green vegetation and of course a small island never set foot on by human; a true wonder of nature.
Even in a minor state of exhaustion I was able to smile along with Samson who no longer was just a Maasai guide; instead he was a friend. A journey is always sweeter when you leave having made a friend.
Over my week in Samsons Maasai manyata I had begun to understand a whole new world and culture that previously I had no idea about. Although still knowing only a very limited amount about the Maasai, the respect, openness and industriousness of this culture are only but a few things that left me with a feeling of thankfulness for being able to experience what I did in my week on Mount Suswa. Our walk back down towards Samsons manyata left me feeling happy but also sad. The notion of being picked up by a 4 wheel drive from the hut the next morning seemed to go against everything that I’d be shown by Samson. Driving all the way back to the bottom was cheating. There was only one solution;
“Samson, I was just wondering whether instead of being picked up tomorrow, you and I could just walk down to the bottom of the mountain?”
His smile beamed as he nodded his head. The three hour drive up to his village that only a week ago seemed so long and treacherous was now something that seemed so important to walk.
“If you are ready for a two hour walk, it would be my pleasure.”
And this is just what we did the next morning. Typically, it took four and a half hours. Using a direct Maasai track and a donkey to carry our gear, it was my favourite walk of the whole week.
With the looming shadow of Mount Suswa behind us as we crossed the final mountainous plain, my time with the Maasai could not have finished any more appropriately- that was until I noticed two figures slightly further down the mountain jumping up and down on the spot. In one of their hands was a long object that glistened in the suns reflection. I couldn’t quite make out what it was though. As I pointed towards the figures in curiosity, Samson stopped and smiled.
“Sebastian, this is your lucky day. These are the warriors of the Maasai.”
The glistening object that I couldn’t quite make out was a spear. We had stumbled upon the rarest of all Maasais; the Morans.
In a move that at the time I felt I had no control of, but now look back on whilst scratching my head, I immediately began to run towards the two lonely Morans, desperate to see them face-to-face. With one kilometre separating us, I whistled loudly so that they could hear me approach and sure enough they stopped in curiosity of a white man running towards them. By the time I got within twenty metres I noticed that I was by myself, Samson was still a long was behind me. Second guessing my choice to boldly approach the two Morans who stood waiting with spears in front of me, a nervous smile was all I could offer as I made contact with them. These guys were serious.
With a reddish tinge to their perfectly sculpted bodies, a loin cloth was the only piece of clothing covering them. Their hair, unlike everyone else who I’d met that week, was long and decorative. Jewelery adorned their neck, arms and ankles whilst knives and wooden sticks hung off their hips. A steely glare in their eye, so direct that I felt as though I was about to be taken to, left me in awe. All I could do was stare. They were magnificent.
After a silent stand-off, a smile from one of the two Mornas comforted me. Until that moment I still wasn’t sure that they weren’t about to attack me. I think he saw my ukulele in my backpack. A moment later, after realising that I could not keep my eyes off his spear, he then handed me his spear. I was safe.
In the middle of absolutely nowhere, I had made contact with the Maasai. I will never forget this week for as long as I live.
The Maasai culture still exists. It is wonderful.
Number 79- Live with a Tribe- TICK!