Magazine article Geographical

Once Were Warriors: Once Every Decade or So, the Siria Maasai Clan Meets to Perform the Eunoto Ceremony, Which Marks the End of Its Young Men's Time as Warriors and Sets Them on the Path to Becoming Clan Elders. Patrick Cunningham Witnesses the Elaborate Preparations

Magazine article Geographical

Once Were Warriors: Once Every Decade or So, the Siria Maasai Clan Meets to Perform the Eunoto Ceremony, Which Marks the End of Its Young Men's Time as Warriors and Sets Them on the Path to Becoming Clan Elders. Patrick Cunningham Witnesses the Elaborate Preparations

Article excerpt

Gazing out across the sparsely treed plain below them, the four young Maasai stand proudly upright. They talk, quietly but animatedly, about the ceremony that is about to unfold. Soon, they and their fellow moran--young warriors--will leave youth behind and make the transition to adulthood.

Below, the Siria Maasai clan is gathering for the eunoto, a centuries-old rite of passage that takes place only once every five to ten years. The families have come together from miles around, setting up a temporary village, the manyatta. Built in a 100-metre circle, the low houses will accommodate the families of the graduating moran for two weeks or more. Their cattle, the measure of wealth and status, form a crucial part of proceedings.

The four moran turn from the view and begin to walk back towards the village. On the way, they're distracted by a small herd of deer. Following them into the undergrowth, one moran suddenly makes a sucking noise through the characteristic gap in his bottom teeth. "Hey, look," he says. "See here, this is elephant spoor. It's fresh; elephants were here last night."

They walk on, talking and occasionally breaking out in gales of easy laughter. On arrival at the manyatta, they are greeted by a busy scene; people come and go, groups of men sit, deep in discussion, as women add the finishing touches to the mud-and-cattle-dung walls and roofs of the houses. The laibon (wise men) are finalising the manyatta's layout, making sure that each of the five family groups has built its houses within the allocated part of the circle.

The Magic House

Later, the women assemble in the centre of the manyatta to build the Magic House. They have been gathered by the laibon, who now harangue them, singling out several deemed unworthy to take part, mostly because they were believed to have indulged in sexual relations last night. Light-hearted banter ensues but, eventually, the women set to work. Each contributes a carefully selected and prepared stick from a special type of tree.

Working together, they deftly weave walls of bark strips around a central pole erected by the leaders of the moran. The tallest and most agile of the moran then add the roof structure, which is finished using a mixture of cattle dung and moss by several teenage girls.

When complete, the Magic House becomes the focus of the eunoto, where the laibon impart vital knowledge to the graduating moran. It will also be the central point for races and the location of the ensuing ceremonial activities.

A 'sacred fire' is set inside the house, to be tended continuously throughout the eunoto, and later, the women will prepare the sacrificial ground outside the house with mead, milk and sacred herbs.

Families have been arriving for several days. Small groups slip into the manyatta almost unnoticed, while larger groups of up to 100 burst onto the scene with a fanfare of dancing and chanting, precipitating a cacophony of cheerful greetings that reconfirm family bonds. Each new arrival brings gifts: cattle and food, mead and home-brewed maize beer. Some groups have travelled on foot for two or three days, but all arrive excited and brimming with energy, ready to pitch in with the preparations.

As the numbers at the manyatta grow, the competitive traits of the moran become apparent. Small groups suddenly begin the typical ipid jumping dance for which the Maasai are famous. Lithe young men jump vertically in the air, two at a time, their long, red ochre-caked hair flying. They achieve almost inconceivable heights, as though springing from a trampoline rather than the hard ground.

As the frenzy of jumping grows, more and more moran join the groups until, just as suddenly as it had started, the dance stops and the group melts away, peeling off to chat to the gloriously decorative groups of giggling girls that invariably collect to admire the dancing.

The moran are also frequently called upon to take part in a race. …

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