This is Salaash, who picked up a baby during one of the meetings I had with a women's group.  I took a picture and told them that I would post to the internet that Salaash was watching the kids while we women had important discussions.  They thought this was an EXCELLENT IDEA.

This is Salaash, who picked up a baby during one of the meetings I had with a women's group.  I took a picture and told them that I would post to the internet that Salaash was watching the kids while we women had important discussions.  They thought this was an EXCELLENT IDEA.

My Muzugu eyes are improving.

Muzugu is the Swahili word for white person.  It is dead useful in Maasai Mara.  I use it every time I can’t see an animal that OBVIOUSLY RIGHT THERE according to my guides.  Or if I do something inexplicably dumb. Or when I am at a loss to explain what yoga is, and why I am doing it (they would have understood if I’d brought my YOGA MAT but SOME people said I didn’t want to be that white lady who travels around Africa with a yoga mat.  But, when I got there I realized that the yoga mat would not have actually made me look any more stupid so I may as well have brought it)…   

Every time I find myself acting like an idiot, I point to myself and say “Muzugu”.  And then everyone laughs and shrugs in a “what-did-we-expect” kind of way, like you do when toddler puts a mixing bowl on it’s head and starts spinning circles in the living room.

As a westerner in Maasai Mara, I am supervised constantly.  They never know when I will wander off, or put something in my mouth.  My friend Salaash (who I met in Canada, but who was raised here) has made a point of starting both of my trips here (one now, one four years ago) by driving me past the plaque made for that white guy who did not listen to the instructions of the Maasai and immediately died a gruesome death-by-elephant as a result.  

The subtext is clear.

If you would even call it "subtext".

Every evening after dinner, a Maasai warrior escorts me to my tent.  I am not allowed to walk even that far on my own at night.  As we walk, he attempts to converse with me in English.

Maasai warrior:  How was your safari?

Me:  We didn’t go on Safari.  We go each day to the Oltumo project.

MW:  You see Lions?  Giraffes?

Me:  No, we didn’t go on a Safari.  We went to this project, which started as a well for my friend Salaash’s village, but has grown to kind of a community development thing.

MW:  You go to Maasai village?  Buy pretty jewelry?

Me:  No, not the tourist village.  My friend’s village.

MW:  You see singing?  Dancing?

Me:  No, it wasn’t like that.  I did interviews all day.  And a little bit of weeding, when there was someone to supervise me.

It quickly becomes obvious to me that he has memorized a few sentences of English, and if I deviate from the script, he’s lost.  I try to switch to Maa, but I only know a few sentences, and when he deviates from my script, I’m lost.  So eventually I point to my chest and say “Muzugu”, and he grins.  Then we walk in silence, until the moment when he can gratefully deliver me safely to my tent, and go back to his guard post.

I am skeptical of the whole guard thing.  Here is my logic:  The Maasai warriors are paid a reasonable wage to stay awake and watch for wild animals, and to walk white people from their tent to the wifi room during the couple hours when there’s electricity.  If, however, a wild animal were actually to arrive, the wage they are being paid would, in my mind, no longer be sufficient.  If I were in that guy’s shoes, I’d take one look at the crouching-fang-ey-slobber-ey lion, and say “I have decided on a career change”.  I don’t know what they’re paying these guys, but I don’t think it’s high enough to cover dying.

I explain this to my friend Salaash, who looks at me in utter disbelief.

Salaash:  He is Maasai, and you are under his protection.

Me:  I know, but when a lion arrives, I don’t think the money would be enough to keep me under his protection.  I mean, I don’t think that guy even likes me.

Salaash:  A Maasai warrior will not let you be hurt if you are under his protection, because he is a Maasai warrior.

Me <slowly starting to understand>:  Oh….  It’s like I am one of the cows…

Salaash laughs at this, but I have a sneaking suspicion he is laughing to avoid having to answer the question because clearly it is exactly like I am one of the cows.

For as long as anyone can trace, Maasai have lived off of cows.  They were nomadic, and they went with their huge herds to wherever the water was.  They lived in quickly built huts made out of cow dung, ate milk and yogurt and gathered greens, and refused colonization with a determination and fire that is the envy of many tribes of Africa.  The combination of their bravery and their ability to pack everything up and disappear into the land have protected them and their culture for centuries.

When Maasai men come of age, there are many rituals involving burning and cutting and killing a lion to prove their bravery.  Inter-tribal conflicts are a part of this process, too—kind of structured raids to steal cows.  Salaash participated in all of this, and has firsthand knowledge.  When I question him about it, he sums it up by shaking his head and saying “We were such idiots.  I am so glad my mother never found out”.   With a kind of boys-will-be-boys attitude.

Me:  But it was like a sporting event kind of?  The raids?  The internet says that you had to give notice when you were coming?

Salaash:  Kind of.  There were lots of rules.

Me:  To keep people from dying?

Salaash:  No, people would die sometimes.

Me:  Even if they agreed to give up their cow?  If they said “go ahead you can just have the cow” then would they still have to fight?

Salaash <with horror>:  A Maasai can’t just give up their cow.

Me:  Why not?

Salaash:  Because they are Maasai.

He feels this should settle it, but I am still confused.

Salaash:  It is their cow.  And they are Maasai.

When I try to explain how this seems to me like a lot of needless death, he says people “didn’t die very often”.  I say that’s not as good as “people didn’t die at all”, and he reminds me of his arrival in Canada years ago, with his North American wife.  How he stepped out of the airport to see highways filled with expensive vehicles, travelling at breakneck speeds.  How he said “Don’t people die in those?”and Natasha said “Well, sometimes.  But usually not.  Anyway, get in”.

Point taken.

My final reassurance comes a couple of days later, when the entire camp is woken in the middle of the night by a commotion that Michelle later describes as a “roaring-moo-ing-human-ey-kind-of-noise”.  We, of course, all stay in our tents, which are made of SPECIAL LION PROOF CANVASS AND NOBODY WILL CONVINCE ME OTHERWISE.

We find out the next morning that a cow got away, and wandered into the jungle.  A party of Maasai set off to find it at the same time as a pride of lions decided to eat it, and there was ensuing scuffle.  All the Maasai survived, as did the cow.

Me:  Even in the middle of the night, with the pride of lions, don’t you think it would be okay to—


Except, some things cannot be fought with a spear.  


This visit, the cows are much thinner and weaker than they were when we came four years ago.  The land that the Maasai have lived on has been divided up, and deeded to the individual Maasai men, so the tribes can no longer live nomadically.  Climate change has been hard on this area, and without the ability to move, I am told that most families have lost half their herd.  The silent fingers of drought have invisibly taken the animals one by one—taking with them the milk to feed children and the calves to sell for school fees—and no amount of bravery has been able to change that.

Now, I see what the cows really are.  What they mean.  It is the cows that allowed the Maasai to keep control over their lives when other tribes had to give in to colonization.  The cows mean self reliance, dignity, and a future for their families.  They mean control over their own destinies.  They are to be protected at all costs.

And now, skeletal body by skeletal body, the cows are fading away.

But the Maasai are still fighting.

Though meeting after meeting, I start to understand the self-help groups and the business plans and the beading businesses in a whole new light.  The Maasai know the world is changing and are determined to change with it.  They are determined to be strong enough and creative enough and hard working enough to find a way to stay alive and keep building a future for themselves and their families.  The will not give up and move to cities.  This is their Mara, and they will fight for it, exhausting day by exhausting day.

They haul heavy bags and haggle in the sun at the market to earn tiny amounts that they hope will add up to education for their children. They save up for beads, and sell jewelry to tourists for tiny profit margins.  They form community gardens and share knowledge.  They create groups and form business plans and find someone to write those plans down in English so they can register with the government as a self help group.  They do not lose hope.  They are determined to retain their self sufficiency.  To fight back against climate change, and drought, and the encroaching western world.

A Maasai can’t just give up his cow.


My Muzugu eyes are improving.


Liked this post?  You might also like this one, in which Salaash attempts to teach me to be lion savvy, or this one, in which I discover my spirit animal while on Safari.