CHRISTMAS WITH THE MAASAI


2/23/2015

Christmas is a much anticipated holiday steeped with traditions; extended family, piles of presents, cheery music, special holiday sweets, and the frenzy-like state created from the reminders of the upcoming holiday everywhere you turn. All these combine to create what our kids know as “Christmas”. There are many ways to celebrate the holiday but I think there is one universal, no one wants to have a disappointed kid on Christmas. Yet I was nervous about that ever-present possibility, given that we wouldn’t have any of our normal “ingredients” this year. So I thought why even try to compete with such a longstanding tradition: why not just simply change the playing field entirely?

Choosing to do something completely foreign and totally unforgettable seemed to be a surefire recipe to allow even the most unique of Christmas experiences to be declared a success. Unfortunately Christmas time is pretty much “high season” everywhere causing prices to soar. Luckily our first pick, Maji Moto Maasai Cultural Camp in Kenya, maintains standard prices all year round. A week learning about the Maasai, a tribe of semi-nomadic people inhabiting Kenya and Tanzania, including a couple of days of game drives and some warrior training, seemed to fit our needs perfectly.

The two days of game drives in an pop-topped safari vehicle was a great start.


Chief Salaton in the foreground

We felt truly lucky to spot so many animals but seeing as we were accompanied by, Salaton, a Maasai Chief with a lifetime of experience living in the bush, perhaps it wasn’t a matter of luck at all.

We had seen many animals in Samburu with Elephant Watch the week prior and Maasai Mara worked out to be the perfect complimentary game drive as we saw an array of different animals and the scenery was taken right out of The Lion King.

The sheer number of wildebeests spread across the plains was breathtaking but we were told it was nothing compared to the numbers during the famous Great Migration which occurs here every September/October.

Hippos were a great surprise too. Oh the little baby….

High on our wish list were Big Cats and Maasai Mara Park delivered. It was truly like being in a National Geographic program. We saw lions and cheetahs doing their thing in wild Africa.

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There were way too many other sightings to list here (kids kept a good record as part of their world schooling) but a few of the highlights were oryx, hyena, warthogs, elephants, buffaloes, giraffes, zebras, serval cat…

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After two days of game drives we were looking forward to meeting the Maasai at Maji Moto, one of the few activities that I had researched pre-trip with the hopes of making it work for our time in Kenya. The kids had been excited watching the videos on the camp’s website 7 months ago so they were quite eager to finally visit.

The Maasai, with their distinct red shuka, draped over their bodies, a small red leather sheathed sword and perhaps a wooden throwing club, or rungu, hanging from the mens’ waists, and beautiful beaded jewelry wrapping the necks and arms of both the women and the men, make for quite a striking sight against the muted tones of the African backdrop. The warm welcome upon our arrival was like no other.

The powerful chanting, world famous high jumping, universal smiles, and complete foreignness of our surroundings created one of those I can’t believe we get to do this-chicken skin- overwhelming feelings.

Maji Moto, is a tribal community of about 3000 Maasai spread out over the rural rangelands, where each family lives in a maryatta, or compound consisting of a mud, dung, and stick house and a corral made of branches in which to keep their livestock. There is a small town center with a few tiny shops and the hot springs, or maji moto in Swahili, which gives the village it’s name. Salaton’s cultural camp in situated on the Savannah, a few minutes walk from the springs, at the foot of the Loito hills.

Our accommodations for the 6 nights was in a two bedroom mud home constructed in the local style. The beds were neat and simple with mosquito netting and a single battery powered light lit the room at night. Nearby were clean shared bathrooms with hot showers, which use water from the village hot springs. Every evening a few warriors would either be huddled by the nearby fire or on our front porch as guards, and would accompany us silently if we needed to use the bathroom in the night. Their natural stealth and their red shukas, invisible in the darkness of the night, made it seem like they appeared out of nowhere. It was comforting knowing a warrior or two was guarding us against any potential wild animals.

Our main Maasai “guides” for our stay, Meeri and Quella, were such friendly, genuine teachers that our time with them flowed very naturally. Each day we went on various adventures, learning about Maasai culture and environment as we explored.

Quella and Meeri

Our first outing was a little walking tour to show us the lay of the village. Immediately the “warrior training” began with spear throwing instruction along the way. Maasai are herdsmen, sheepherding goats, and cows. They carry spears as protection for themselves and their livestock against the wild animals with whom they share the environment.

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The kids did amazing with the spears, true naturals and they were thrilled. That first day they must have thrown the spears hundreds of times. By the next morning their arms were sore and my parental judgment clearer as I had had time to think of all the possible accidents that could occur with the very sharp weapon (one side of which is referred to as the “killing side”). Luckily Quella, thinking along the same lines, carved some sticks from a specific wood into two spears like that which the local children use to practice.

And they continued with their training, with their stick spears at their sides all week.

One day we hiked up the hill behind our camp. Along the way we saw boys, probably the same age as Yoda and Zuki, taking care of large herds of goats using an intricate system of whistles and various noises to keep the goats together and going in the right direction. These kids had a big responsibility as livestock is the entire wealth of a family. Maasai lifestyle is very communal and children are truly seen as belonging to everyone. Meeri’s child is being raised by a group of widows, allowing Meeri the opportunity to finish high school and work at the camp.

An adult can ask any child of the community to care for another smaller child, walk their livestock, etc. I explained to Meeri that Zuki could babysit when she got older but she would get paid. Both the fact that Zuki, at 10 wasn’t old enough to already care for a baby all day and that she would actually receive money for babysitting were both totally foreign concepts. It was interesting for Zuki and Yoda to see what is expected of children of their age in the Maasai culture. These exchanges are an important aspect of why we travel as a family. Bit by bit our minds are open to the endless possible ways of life.

As we hiked we learned some of the plants the boy shepherds might eat along the way. Maasai diet is quite unusual, mostly consisting of fresh blood and milk and a few wild plant; no fish, no pork, no chicken, and no wild animals. They eat goat, sheep, and cow on special occasion. We are pretty adventurous eaters when traveling but none of us were tempted to try the blood fresh from the goat’s throat for breakfast. I felt a little better about our squeamishness when we saw the reaction of the Maasai to the fish that our game driver, who was not Maasai, caught and cooked up for lunch.

Meeri and Rose, another wonderfully Maasai woman, stood, unable to hide their discomfort, as they looked in amazement at the fish hanging in the tree waiting to be cooked. Zuki snuck up behind them and kinda spooked them; they jumped so high. Oh, the laughs. They were quite scared and amazed by the fact that anyone would eat fish, or “snake” as they kept referring to it as. It was interesting to see that they feel towards eating fish the same we feel towards drinking raw blood.

Once we reached the top of the hill we could see the entire village and out to the Maasai Mara Reserve. The experience to be out there with people so in tune with their environment, just sharing our time, was amazing. And again the Maasai chants, which are very rhythmic and repetitive enough that an outsider can easily join, brought that moment to another level.

While we were up on the rocks on the top of the hill Quella showed Yoda how he can “slingshot” a small rock with his finger. I know it doesn’t sound like a big deal but it was amazing and still puzzles me today. When he would release his finger and let the small pebble fly, the noise was like what you would expect from a cartoon. It literally “whizzed”. How could it go so fast to make that noise? Not even a pebble projected from a proper slingshot makes that noise. None of us could come close to the speed. I easily imagined Quella as a boy spending hours with his friends while out sheepherding perfecting his talent.

Salaton is a very progressive Chief and is working to preserve the Maasai culture and improve the way of life for his people. We were able to see first-hand some of his innovative projects funded by a significant portion of the money generated from the cultural camp One of the most powerful and far-reaching is his boarding school for young girls, often as young as 10, who are escaping arranged marriages, a Maasai cultural tradition he is working to change. To this end he visits with the families in the local communities to talk about the benefits of allowing girls an education after which they are equipped to decide for themselves if they would like to marry.

Also, with the encouragement of his mother, who was a widow herself, he has set up a widow’s camp to protect and empower the women who have outlived their husbands and are not permitted in the Maasai culture to remarry.

We heard first hand from Meeri of how at the age of 10, when her 80-year-old husband died, she spent 3 days and nights walking through the bush to Salaton’s camp, which she had been told by one of her teachers was a camp that helped girls like her. She had to keep herself hidden, off the main roads, so that her dad wouldn’t find her. At night she slept in trees to keep safe from the wild animals. Our own Zuki is 10. It was shocking for us all to hear Meeri’s childhood story. Thank goodness for people like Salaton. At one point there were 56 girls sleeping in a little room at the widow camp until he was able to build the current boarding school.

We were invited to visit the widow’s camp located next to the cultural camp and received another wonderful welcome.

The women make beautiful beaded jewelry which they sell to the tourists at very reasonable prices, providing them with some income. We were invited to see inside their simple huts, where there are two beds, constructed of sticks with cow hides as mattresses, which accommodate 2 adults and multiple kids. A small fire has the duel purpose of stove and heater. The youngest goats are brought into a tiny enclosed area in the house during the night to ensure that there will be milk for human consumption in the morning.

Meeri lives in the widow’s camp and makes jewelry in her spare time. It was amazing to see how much effort goes into the intricate bead work. Zuki and I each made a simple bracelet with Merri’s instruction.

One afternoon the common sight of women and girls transporting water in large jugs slung over their head peaked Zuki’s curiosity. How hard was it to carry? The cloth slung over the head looked pretty comfortable. With a few word to Meeri, Zuki and I were off to the spring with some empty jugs. The village hot spring is amazingly hot. We couldn’t even keep our feet in it at the source. It is here where villagers collect water to bring back to their homes. There are also designated areas for showering and washing laundry. At the farthest stretches the animals drink. Nearby another one of Salaton’s innovative ideas grows as he has planted a large garden with many plants and herbs that the villagers use for medicine since some were becoming increasingly harder to find.

Meeri’s daughter and few other girls were also fetching water and it was a very social affair. We were met with looks of curiosity and amusement as we needed assistance with every step, filling the jug, adjusting the harness, and positioning it on our backs and heads. Zuki did quite well with the 10yr old size jug (10 liters). She was full of smiles and while it not exactly comfortable, she could do it. But when Meeri released the 20 liter jug’s full weight on to my back I thought my neck might actually snap. I wouldn’t allow myself to release my grip on the head strap as was using my hands help cary some of the weight. I was shocked how uncomfortable it was.

I made it only a maybe 1/4 of the way to camp at which point I took up Meeri’s offer of assistance. I had watched woman laden with these jugs standing leisurely talking as if not noticing the wight pulling on their heads. The village girls start at a very young age which must strength the muscles needed. A three year old starts with 3L, age seven moves up to 7L, age ten carries the 10L and finally will graduate to carrying the 20L. Amazingly it is not uncommon for women to walk 3-5 km or even more carrying these!

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Once back in camp Kiko gave it a try, bringing laughter from the Maasai men. I quickly discovered none of them had ever even tried it. Fetching water was exclusively a woman’s job along with building the family house, which take about 6 months!

It was surprisingly chilly in the evening so the hot water showers and the nightly fire were luxurious. The fire was a wonderful place to gather, share stories, and chant together. What unforgettable moments we had under the stars, with only the light of the fire, all of us chanting in a strange language together.

Yoda learning how to make a fire from rubbing sticks together.

Those same chants would spontaneously breakout while on our long walks together with Marri and Quella. We walked miles through the open plains learning the edible plants, seeing the far-flung homes, and coming across herdsmen and animals. Still now, 2 months later, just the four of us will find ourselves singing the songs we learned at Maji Moto. You can’t help but feel lighter, happier, with the rhythm and the memories of such an unparalleled time on our trip.

The kids particularly enjoyed the “oropiji”, a white carrot which grows wild and are staple food for the boys out all day with their herds. With the spotting of each small purple flower, which indicate the juicy root below, we would all break into the “oropiji” song, meant to ensure that the carrot would come up in its entirety as it was dug up with the tip of the spear.

It was Zuki who came up with the idea to use the obsidian, strewn all over the landscape and traditionally used as spear tips in the past, as a makeshift knife to peel the skin. Oh how great wild food gathered by your own hands taste.

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On December 23, without a thought of Christmas, we headed out on another hike across the plains, this time only about 1.5 hours, with the intent of sleeping in the bush for the night. The afternoon rains and thunder and lightening rolled through soon after our onset.

Although the rain seemed to Kiko and I to be more of a storm than the usual afternoon passing showers we had witnessed, we trusted our native guides and continued on our way. Just when it seemed like we really shouldn’t be out in these conditions we would see someone else happily going along their way, like this woman pictured below who still had 4 more hours of walking to reach her home.

At one point the rain was so heavy that Quella made the decision to seek shelter at a nearby house. We were welcomed inside dripping wet. Just as we came in so did their herd of goats. It was a chaotic scene of many legs, wetness, and the funny “baahs” and “bleats” of the livestock. The little damper created by the weather was completed lifted by the quick change of environment and we were all smiles as we tried to assist the family to get the goats back outside.

Finally the rain ceased and we continued walking. We arrived at our bush camp to see that the other Maasai had already made fresh beds out of the sage leaves and our dinner was tied to a tree.

Immediately the preparations of the fire and the goat began.

Zuki, a true animal lover, asked me to take a little walk with her, while the goat was being killed. Tears were shed. She had a hard time coming to grips with the fact that that cute little goat she played with was going to be our dinner. The boys choose to watch the slaughter and Kiko, who has been around animals being killed before was impressed with the Maasai’s quick, silent, and humane technique. When we returned Zuki’s curiosity was too strong to stay away. We were all impressed with the butchering, which was precise and clean, ensuring every part of the goat could be enjoyed. The testicles were the first part to be roasted, meant for the young warriors, but as Yoda was way too squeamish Kiko took the honor. Piece by piece we watched the animal become recognizable food, a wonderful lesson in both biology and where our food comes from.

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The night was amazing. The sky clear and the feast like no other. The Maasai were all in great festive moods and the singing and joking under the stars made for a night not to be forgotten. It was wonderful to see such respect for an animal, not a part went to waste. As the night progressed into the wee hours, the intestines and blood were combined in a pot to create one of the Maasai’s favorite dishes. At one point a special drink was made with the bark of a tree, which somehow allows one to eat more than normal. This is useful I was told when a group of young Maasai Warriors are out in the bush and need to consume an entire cow!

Unfortunately, I can’t say the whole night was perfect. Actually, in its entirety, it turned out to be a mixed bag of the absolute best and absolute worst, all in one. When we did eventually go off to sleep, my stomach did a lurch, which I knew immediately was not good. My stomach had been a bit off the entire day but I hadn’t thought much of it. Seeing as we were in the African wilderness and there were a handful of Maasai Warriors guarding our camp all night against potential dangerous animals I felt I had to wake Kiko to accompany me into the wide open bush to use the “toilet”. I’ll spare you the details but I, well my guard Kiko and I, spent the entire night out in the bush.

At one unforgettable moment while I was throwing up, I could hear hyena calls coming from multiple directions, I remember pausing just enough to ask Kiko how close he thought they were. Hour after hour, Kiko began to get pretty comfortable in his new role as “African Bush Guard”, so much so that while I was trying to find a spot where I could squat without something treacherous biting my bum, Kiko was pointing out eyes glowing in the trees and telling me it was “one of those animals you have been wanting to see.” I practically yelled, “Could you be more specific? A dangerous one or not?” Turned out it was a bush baby…

A massive headache lingered all the next day in camp, but I slowly recovered just in time for Christmas. The kids made a wonderful “tree”, which we topped with a handmade angel I had had the foresight to purchase in Nairobi the week before.

Christmas morning festivities were a simple affair amongst the 4 of us as the Maasai do not celebrate Christmas and have never heard of Santa or the Tooth Fairy for that matter. We each were allotted $15 to spend on surprise gifts for the other three. We haven’t been purchasing many souvenirs along our trip so far which made shopping in Kenya even more fun. Beaded jewelry, small stuffed animals made of African cloth, and even a Maasai wooden throwing club were opened and appreciated and then we were off exploring again.

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We had noticed that a group of young kids were often taking care of baby goats nearby so we wandered over. When given the leisure of time, connections seem to be able to form through cultural and language barriers. The girls were drawn to Zuki’s collection of bracelets from around the world, and from there the ice was broken.

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Before long we were exchanging song and dances. Gosh did we feel untalented when it was our turn to sing and dance. These kids rocked and looked a bit shocked that we weren’t able to perform a choreographed performance in return.

Beautiful song and dance

On the morning of our departure the new warriors was put to the test. We were given shields and “swords” (2′ long sticks used as training for the wooden throwing club, or rungu) and teams were formed. And then all of a sudden these sticks went whizzing by. It had just enough thrill and danger to make it super exciting. The grown men were actually being hit quite hard. Everyone was laughing and having a good time.

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Yoda was practically in tears when it ended; he would have loved to play that all day. Spontaneously a chanting line formed and we all joined in jumping and bobbing our heads as we had witnessed throughout the week.

I can say with confidence that our time with the Maasai will never be forgotten; A Christmas not about the gifts but about the experiences. The experience, the memories, the lessons were the big Christmas gift this year. We made some wonderful bonds and learned so much about a culture so different than our own. In the years to come that yellow Kenya angel will be prominent on our family Christmas tree, as a physical reminder of our very different Christmas with the Maasai at Maji Moto.

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