Visiting a Masai Village

One of the many, many highlights of our trip to the Masai Mara (part 1, part 2, and the feast) was the time we spent with the Masai people.

Disclaimer: I want to say right off the bat that  I have read other people's accounts of their Masai Village visit, and have been shocked at some of the negative things people have said. Yes, you have to pay to visit the village, but it is so clear that these people have nothing. They stop their work and their daily routine to welcome you with open arms, sharing their lives, homes, and family with complete strangers. Our guide assured us that our entrance fee would go on to cover the children's school fees. But even if it didn't, it was clear that the money was most likely better off in their hands than in ours. Yes, they have a gift shop. But we were told by our safari driver and our Masai tour guide that we absolutely did not have to buy anything. We did, however, choose to buy a few items, and the Masai were generous enough to throw in a few extra souvenirs (that we had considered purchasing but had decided not to) completely free of charge. Our experience was nothing but heartwarming and eye opening, and I will always be grateful for it. 

Kenya has 44 tribal groups. Learning about them - their interactions, languages, traditions- has been one of the most amazing things about living here. You can't have a conversation about the state of the country without it tying directly into the history of the various tribes and the different paths they have taken through post-colonialism and into the modern world. 

The Masai are some of the most traditional people. While many other tribes have been working toward modern life for several decades, it has only been in the last little while that the Masai have embraced the need for education and, therefore, the outside world. 

As we approached the Masai Village, all we could see was a large circle of thorn bushes enveloping a group of mud huts. Simon, our Masai guide, explained that the villagers live in the huts, and inside the circle is where they keep their cows and goats. The thorn bushes are their protection from the other animals, most commonly lions and leopards. Simon only spoke English because he went to a high school 70 km away from his village. Simon is one of the few privileged enough to study at a university. He comes back to the village, like many young Masai men do, to help support it. Without an English-speaking guide, tourists like us would not be able to learn about the Masai way of life , and wouldn't pay to visit the village or buy souvenirs from their gift shop. 

As we entered the ring of homes, my senses were completely overloaded. The hot sun beat down on us , shining its blinding midday light on a scene so completely unfamiliar to me that I didn't know what to absorb first. Luckily, I had Layne with me, who ran immediately over to the kids and said, "Meg! These kids are so cute! Come play with them! Let's take them all home with us!" Layne is AMAZING with kids, and always loves them. He thought these little Masai children were beyond adorable, and he wasn't lying. I don't think Simon expected this type of reaction, but he offered to take pictures as we laughed, waved at the camera, and high fived the kids. 

Layne and this little boy had a very cute connection. The boy was determined to show Layne how tough he was, despite being so small and somewhat sickly. 

Layne and this little boy had a very cute connection. The boy was determined to show Layne how tough he was, despite being so small and somewhat sickly. 

When we finally broke away, Simon began his more prepared speech to teach us about the Masai people. They have a fascinating culture, with all its many differences from my own. Most Masai still practice polygamy and polyandry. Simon informed us that his father had 3 wives. I have met another Masai who said his father had 8 wives! When a Masai man wants to be with another woman outside of his marriage, he just leaves his spear outside her hut. This signals to the rest of the village that this hut/woman is occupied for the night. Simon accepts polygamy, but he says that since he has begun dating he has decided that one wife will be enough for him. He said this while bringing his hand to his temple and shaking his head as if to say, "women - what a headache!" 

The Masai are rewarded with wives in their traditional jumping competition. They chant and dance, and then one by one they thrust themselves into the air. The highest jumper is rewarded. I have never seen anyone jump like this. They propel their whole body upwards from a complete standstill, launching several feet in the air. They asked Layne to jump with them and even though he did horribly, they sweetly said he won and led him back to me as his reward. 

They spend a lot of their time walking their cows and goats around to graze. Even in Nairobi, you can see them in their traditional garb, walking their herds through the city as cars and buses whiz by. Their diet consists mainly of milk, raw meat, and blood, and they eat just twice a day. They cook the milk and blood together, and they believe it is what makes them strong.  The idea was radical to me, but Simon says the older people in the village like it so much that even when they have other options - vegetables or fruits brought back by young men like Simon - they prefer their milk and blood.

The Masai are also recognized for their bravery. They are probably the most well-known lion hunters of Africa. They wear red on their hunts, and killing a lion is a rite of passage into manhood. They agitate the lion until it tries to pounce on them, and then they duck behind a shield and raise their spear so the lion impales itself. The Masai keep the tail, claws, and manes of a lion but do not eat the meat. I had an Uber driver that was Masai; he was a Moran (a warrior) and had eight burns on his left forearm. He said each scar represented a lion he had killed. The Masai do not officially kill lions anymore; in 2008, they gave up the tradition to support conservation. They will still kill lions in retaliation if the lion has killed some of their cattle, avenging the threat to their livelihood. Lions still know the color red and see the Masai as worthy opponents. 

As I mentioned before, the Masai are not afraid of any of the Big 5 except for the buffalo. While on safari I took a walk around our campgrounds with a hotel employee, John, and he told me a little about his life growing up in a traditional Masai village. He said they would try to climb the legs of the giraffe, which would gently kick them off as they reached the knee. He also showed me the scars on his bicep where a leopard had leapt down on him from a tree when he had been out letting his goats graze. He said the Masai are warned to always go out in pairs. Even though this leopard only wanted to scare him away to try to get one of his goats, his friend clubbed the leopard and broke its back, killing it. 

As we walked around the small enclosed Masai village, everything about it startled my senses. Animal droppings almost completely covered the floor. There were small groupings of villagers all around, but none of them seemed to be doing much. The men gathered on one side while the women stuck to the other, and the children played in the middle of the village. A dog trotted by with the full head of a dead calf in its mouth. The rhythmic chanting of the dancers echoed across the space.

After spending time with the Masai, my heart was filled with their welcoming spirit, generous nature, and the simple kindness and happiness they exude. Despite the fact that they are so far from anything I have ever known, standing among them thousands of miles from home in the middle of the Masai Mara, I felt the kind of warmth that reminds you of home. For that little while, I was a part of their community, and though they knew nothing about me, I was welcome and even celebrated. May we all learn a lesson about possessing so little but having so much to give. 

Dancing and clapping with the Masai women. 

Dancing and clapping with the Masai women.