Cultural Differences: A Westerner's Sojourn among the Maasai

By Dorsey, James Michael | The World and I, March 2009 | Go to article overview

Cultural Differences: A Westerner's Sojourn among the Maasai


Dorsey, James Michael, The World and I


James Michael Dorsey is an explorer, writer and photographer who has traveled extensively in thirty-five countries. He is the author of Tears, Fear & Adventure: 30 Years of Travel Off the Beaten Path. The following article is a continuation from the February 2009 issue of The World & I Online.

Part Two

The rest of the day was a crash course in medicinal plants, tracking animals, how to survive in the bush, and topped off with a strict warning never to wander off the path without one of the local men at our side. With that final warning, he pointed up at a tree branch no more than thirty feet away where a young leopard was sleeping. I never would have spotted it alone.

It seems that leopards are the true enemy of the Maasai. Unlike a lion that may take a goat for a meal, if a leopard enters the compound, it will kill everything it possibly can and not stop as long as something is still alive, before finally eating. That is why they keep their cattle inside guarded pens at night.

We also learned that Maasai boys begin herding cattle as early as four years of age, taking them out by day to forage and guarding them with only a spear. The boys wear bells to warn approaching animals of their presence, and a boy this young will not hesitate to take on a large cat if his cattle are threatened, and over generations, predators have come to know this about the Maasai and run when they hear the familiar bells.

Moses told us a story about two visiting Maasai whom he took to the local zoo in Los Angeles. He said when they approached the lion enclosure the big cats cowered from them in their den. Whether true or not, this is a great story and enhances the mystique of the Maasai.

We were free to wander and the village was open to us. I entered several of the huts to photograph daily life inside but had to cut this short as it is customary to offer any guest who enters your home, chai tea, and after the first five cups, I could hold no more.

Many people found me entertaining as I slipped and slid around on the cattle dung that covers the village grounds. When they motioned for me to remove my boots and walk barefoot, I found I had far greater traction but decided I might never get my feet totally clean again.

When I tried to help by milking a cow, the women found my frustrated efforts to be hilarious and motioned for me to resume taking photos, something I really was good at.

That evening a goat was chosen to be sacrificed to honor us as special guests, and although Irene and I would rather not have this happen, we had no intention of intruding on their customs.

Maasai rarely eat meat and their cattle are their means of livelihood, so to kill one for food is a rare honor. Their main diet consists of milk mixed with cattle blood that they take from the neck of a cow without killing it.

I followed two warriors into the bush with the young goat and watched as they smothered it, thinking this to be more humane than just slitting its throat. Once the animal was unconscious, its throat was cut and the young boys lined up to drink its blood directly from the neck. I was offered this honor and took a small sip of the hot salty liquid.

It was quartered, roasted over an open fire, and we ate communally with the entire village that night, pulling meat off the bone with our fingers.

That evening was spent around a fire while Moses told us tales of his childhood, growing up in the bush, with all the animals. He told us the long held tradition of a Maasai boy going on a lion hunt with only a spear before being counted a man. The Kenyan government had outlawed this type of hunt over three decades ago as the Maasai were killing so many lions, but the prohibition only drove it underground, and today it is still practiced, but on a much smaller scale.

We learned about the Lion Dance, held the night before a hunt in which young warriors leap high into the air while circling a fire, in order to work up their courage for the following days hunt. …

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