While we were on safari in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Park, we had the opportunity to visit a Maasai village. A village built on, and of, shit. Seriously. I know that dung from the somewhat inefficient digestive system of cattle is primarily the grasses they were eating, but still. It doesn’t bring to mind summer memories of freshly mowed lawns, if you know what I mean.
The houses are built in a circle with intervening brush piled to keep out the longer-toothed residents of the Mara who might snatch a chicken or child in the night. This particular village had a population of 120. Ten families, and practicing polygamy. I am not terribly enthused about the visit but you don’t come all the way here and not have at least some interest in the often red-clad people who walk with handcrafted club and stick fearlessly in the bush. It is said the lions fear the color red for the reputation of these people and their ability and courage to face a lion without an SUV and high-powered, semi-automatic rifle with scope.
Peter, the son of the chief, collects 1000 shillings from each of us, about $12, and we can go anywhere we like, shoot all the photos we want. Dung is everywhere, and with that come the flies.
The village kids who look poor – but maybe healthy enough, with food to eat it seemed anyway – are so fly- and snot-covered that it is hard to look at them straight. Peung goes into an OCD shiver, almost rocking like Rain Man, as she just wants to go after them all with her travel pack of wet wipes. I have to hold her back. Honey, I think that might appear insulting. But when you see a little toddler with about 20 flies licking calmly at the corners of her eyes, nose, and mouth, it’s a strong urge. How does one stand it? Even a cow would ceaselessly wiggle ears and wave tail to gain a fly-free fraction of a second’s peace. We smile with them and take photos before Peter calls us to the center of the village.
It depends on my mood and the ambiance of a place, but generally I am bored senseless by cultural dance shows. Hula? The Maya ball game re-enacted by best guess? The slow step, bent-impossibly-backward-fingers Thai dancing? God, make it stop. Especially if it’s in a hotel lobby. (However, I was recently entertained aboard an Orient Express river cruise in Myanmar by a Burmese dance/story that involved a moustachioed Chaplin-esque character being kicked in the arse at one point by the lively and pretty Burmese girl. It was a bit like Thai dancing with some sassy energy. And anyways a smug man getting an arse-kicking from not-gonna-stand-for-it woman is always good comedy.)
So when the Maasai told us they would show us a few dances, I cringed. But this dungscape was anything but a hotel lobby. And so four women were called forth from their hovels. They stood in a row and sang a la Ladysmith Black Mombazo. The harmonies were impressive and I am sure these were just your typical villagers, not trained performers by any means. Then they shuffled in a circle once or twice and it was done. The marriage song. Off to the dung house.
Then it was the men’s turn. Some more impressive vocal performances, and… see who can jump highest. You’ve probably seen it on Discovery Channel; it generally makes the highlight clips. They stand in a row, or take a step forward, and see who can leap highest straight into the air, hands at their sides.
Two of our party were invited to join thus reviving the eternal White Men Can’t Jump debate and not giving any points to the white team. And then it was done. It all seemed rather ho-hum for them, and who could blame them? Imagine someone coming to your house every day and asking you to do that special wedding dance thing with enthusiasm for them. How many times could you do the Chicken Dance before it just wasn’t so exciting anymore?
They showed us their weapons. A club, a little sword. Olga, a Russian traveler with us, smiled at the swords and said, “So these aren’t really weapons, right? You keep these just to look… er… dangerous?” Peter more or less ignores the challenge and mumbles they are real. But for the first time in my life, after a few years of the whole Cub Scout thing back in the day, I actually see someone light a fire without flint or matches, the old rubbing sticks together method. Now that’s the real deal. Nice.
Peter produces his prized possession: a hat made of a lion’s mane. It is tradition for young men to head out into the bush after their public circumcision in the center of dung town in front of god and everybody at the not easily embarrassed age of 15. Let’s say that again: public circumcision. Ahem. The stay in the bush lasts 5 years with a group of about 15-20. It’s like five seasons of Survivor. Though I imagine a Survivor season would last one episode if there was a circumcision challenge. “All the men have voted themselves off the island.” The goal out in the bush is to 1) survive it, 2) kill a lion as a group. The first to strike is honored and given this lion’s mane hat. And visitors to the village are given the chance to wear it. An honor indeed, like donning the crown at Buckingham Palace. For $12.
“Want to see the inside of our home?” Sure. We duck into a small door perhaps better sized for a smaller built African people. (Answer: “pygmy.” Stay with me here, folks.) And inside is near complete darkness despite broad daylight outside. I can only assume the dung blackout curtains were drawn. It is cloudy with the choking smoke of a small cooking fire and Peter’s voice comes out of the darkness like Brando’s Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. But no talk of visions of a snail on a straight razor, he wants to show us some handicrafts. A necklace, a copper bracelet. A beam of light penetrates the room – a hole for the smoke which clearly had little effect on clearing the air – and Peter keeps his head at the end of the bright shaft, thus deepening the darkness around him but leaving a bright purple image of his shining head burned into our retinas. Now it’s our turn to perform, and we do the usual awkward Western cultural dance for traveling couples. The one where you look down at the ground, shuffle your weight from side to side, glance at each other for help that won’t come, fumble to remove an article of jewelry handmade by machine in China, and stammer your way out of buying trinkets while swearing how lovely they are. This dance is more common in streets, however, not hotel lobbies.
The silence falls when our dance is over. The audience is not impressed. Off we go to the grand finale of the tour: a display of tables outside the circle of dung houses, and various spreads of wooden African figures (animals, masks) and a variety of copper and bead things. None of which, I strongly suspect, is produced in the village. In fact, I’d be surprised if it was produced in Kenya. Mothers and their fly-covered children make feeble attempts to call us to buy. None of us is interested, but every one of us feels guilty. For me, I just have some bizarre flood of shame that triggers my flight instinct. “Run away! Run away! Keep running!”
I feel bad for the kids. But as we are told, we must respect other cultures and preserve them. 50 meters away, other Maasai live in simple but solid and brightly painted cinder-block houses. They own shops. They still wear red. They carry cell phones. Some may have killed a lion with their buddies years ago, but I rather doubt it. I also feel a creep of cynicism: perhaps after the show tonight, the lion hat comes off and they all head back into town.
Up Next: Authenticity? Do you buy “local” crafts when you travel?