On many Maasai Mara safaris in Kenya, visiting a traditional Maasai village is a highlighted experience – in fact, I think they funnel all the tourists to the same village. Even so, there is nothing “touristy” about the experience. Going there was one of the most memory-searing travel experiences I’ve had on this planet, and despite the years that have passed, it refuses to fade, regardless of whether it was partially fabricated or real.
Stepping into the circular hut village is like stepping back in time, not just a few hundred years, but a few thousand. As cliché as that is to write, it’s the only way I can truly explain it. Sure you pay about $12 to get an official tour and shoot as many pictures and as much video as you’d like, but otherwise, there is nothing modern about this place.
Everything revolves around cattle. They are not only used as a bride’s dowry – one woman “costs” 28 cows, and a man can marry as many women as he’d like, so long as he has enough cows. Their dung is actually used to build the houses the villagers occupy. The women are in charge of building the homes, and in this polygamous society a man can demand a woman have sex with him simply by planting his spear outside the door.
“Even if it is not the husband?” I query of our tour guide, the son of the chief.
“Yes,” he replies. “If there is a spear outside the door the husband goes to a different door.”
I’m left rather speechless, wondering if he’s getting my goat. Or in this case cow.
Strangely, despite the dung, the houses don’t smell putrid, but the number of flies covering the people – and tourists – is unbelievable. I don’t see how they stand it, but many don’t even bother flicking.
Cows are also a food and beverage source, and when slaughtered everything is used. We learn beyond the meat and the hide, the villagers drink the cow’s blood mixed with milk. When I hear this from the chief’s son, who leads our tour, it takes everything I have not to throw up.
At night, cattle is herded into the center of the village at night to protect them from the wild animals – like lions – and villagers take the calves and baby goats directly into their homes.
We tour the insides of the homes, which have no mattresses or electricity and are dark as night and thick with cooking smoke. The only window is a hole is in the middle of the ceiling, which acts as ventilation. It is hard to imagine that people really live here in this day and age.
And maybe they don’t. Although they say they do, while driving in we passed a series of cinder block homes. I asked the driver who lived there and he responded, “other Maasai people.” So some live in houses made of poop and others in proper dwellings with electricity on the same street? Seems a little suspicious, but who knows. I’ve traveled in Africa enough to know that sometimes things unbelievable to Western eyes are perfectly normal here.
But whether or not they actually lived in the village isn’t really the point of this story. What happens next is.
I had been traveling around the world at the time I visited this village and I had a digital video camera with me. We’d just finished watching a series of dances that involved a lot of jumping and the wearing of a lion’s mane, which we were told was another Masai tradition: a young man proves his manhood by going out alone in the bush and not returning until he had killed a lion with a spear (women celebrated puberty by getting circumcised). And I had been shooting up close as the young man with the mane on his head had described the lion hunt. When he finished he asked me what else was on the tape.
So I pressed rewind and before I knew it men, women and children were crowded around me, watching my adventures in Asia and Europe come to life on a tiny screen; mesmerized by the footage of a world they’d never seen.
When we were leaving, one of the men who had participated in the lion dance came over to me and handed me a wrapped plastic bag. “It’s a gift,” he said. “Because we so enjoyed your visit.”
He told me not to open it until we’d driven off. Confused, I thanked him.
Our driver fired up the old minivan’s engine and we left the village in a burst of diesel fumes and dust, bumping down the pitted dirt road.
“What is it?” my safari mates asked, huddling towards me as the driver lurched around a massive pothole.
I ripped open the bag.
Inside was a beautiful beaded anklet like the men and women of the village were adorned with, and not of the cheap trinket style, created for the tourists, that they were selling at the end of our tour. This one looked older, and was intricate, with many rows of beads. The clasp was rudimentary (meant to be clamped on and not taken off) definitely not the kind of jewelry sold to tourists – they’d think it was broken.
“It is beautiful,” my friend said. “I wonder if he just gave it to you for the video or if he had a crush?”
“I doubt he had a crush,” I said, blushing. “But I guess we’ll never know. There doesn’t seem to be a note.”
But there was. The bumpy road and my enthusiastic bag opening had sent it scurrying un-noticed, under the seat in front of us. It wasn’t until I was searching for my sunglasses after we returned to the lodge that I found it.
It had the address of the village and these words: “Please return and stay with me.”
Nothing else. I never showed the note to my friends. It seemed too personal. But I also never returned to the village. I do still have the bracelet, propped up on my desk. Every so often I wear it out, and when people ask, I tell the story. It doesn’t feel so personal anymore, just a wonderful memory.