When I came home from Africa, I brought the Maasai with me.
I felt the energetic imprint of their essence on my soul.
Actually, the Maasai have resided in my heart since childhood when I first became conscious of their existence. I can’t remember the source of that initial awareness—possibly exposure to a copy of “Life,” a magazine that showed up in our mailbox monthly. Or a photographic feature in one of the issues of “National Geographic” from a stack that my teacher made available to our class during free time, the year I was ten. Whatever the source, something compelling about these human beings left an indelible mark on me. (1)
It never crossed my mind that I would ever travel to Kenya and Tanzania and come face to face with them! By the time that I had a reason to learn more about the Asmat in Indonesia, I was well aware of how indigenous people all over the planet were being absorbed into the modern world, their languages and traditions being lost. I recall buying a book in the 80s called “Vanishing Tribes”—heaving a sigh of relief once I realized that the Maasai were not among them.
Which is not to say that decades later, they aren’t facing challenges to the preservation of their culture and way of life. But a faithful remnant of the Maasai does remain apart, doing so with tenacity and pride. Many more of them have one foot firmly planted in their culture and community, and the other in the wider world. These Maasai are educated, bilingual, and open to altering certain age-old practices. For example, our guide Daniel’s father has multiple wives and many children, a traditional sign of prosperity. Daniel (2), however, revealed in a letter, pre-trip, that he has one wife and two children.
Solomon wears a patch on his arm that is a source of pride; it signifies that during a rite of passage at age fifteen, armed only with his spear, he faced off against a lion and survived. The lion did not. But over a decade ago, the Maasai abolished this practice and signifier of one’s coming of age, acutely aware of the need to preserve populations of wildlife, including lions, that are disappearing at a shocking rate. That said, little boys minding herds over miles of savanna must still learn how to use their spears when a lion attacks the livestock.
Instructed prior to the trip to pack safari clothing and gear that blended in with the surroundings, I teased Solomon about being a moving target, dressed as he was in the everyday traditional red shift and blanket (shuka), embellished with beadwork and bling. He was quick to reply that while we newcomers are vulnerable, lions and other wildlife “know” the Maasai. Just as the lion recognizes the skill and fearlessness of these two-leggeds, the Maasai know to think like the lion, in a sense, to “inhabit” it in order to accurately predict what it is thinking, what it means to do. The Maasai recognize an essential kinship with all that is. (3)
Before I departed for Africa, in a channeled session with the collective known as Spirit, the wise ones told me I’d be leaving behind more than the “essentials” I couldn’t fit into the single duffel allowed. As I immersed myself in a culture with approaches to life in great contrast to my own, I would also leave behind the “baggage” of my identity, shaped by where, how and with whom I’ve lived, what I know, what I’ve done in my life. Each interaction would be a “heart-to-heart.” An “I see you.” They said it would be a “homecoming.”
A homecoming? Were they referring to a reunion with a culture or people with whom I was connected in another lifetime? Could this be the reason that even as a child, I felt an affinity with the Maasai? I didn’t have a clue, but it made me more curious than ever about them.
Certainly, fearlessness is a deeply ingrained aspect of their character. Every child is raised to be courageous in the face of danger, to not flinch or step back from any challenge. For centuries, the slave traders knew to detour around Maasai lands—keenly aware of their deserved reputation as fearless warriors and their fierce determination to protect every member of their clan.
But their fearlessness does not come with the puffed-up pride or overbearing machismo that one might associate with such conditioning. They are not fearless in an unjustifiable or foolish way. Without exception, the Maasai I met, with their megawatt smiles, were kind, gentle, open-hearted and trusting. They possessed a sense of humor and obvious reverence for life. They emanated a joyful energy felt by those around them.
A few months ago, watching Oprah’s “Super Soul Sunday” conversation with Benedictine monk and gratitude guru Brother David Steindl-Rast, what struck me was how similar the Benedictines’ daily regimen is to the Maasai’s. Every day the monks consciously practice what the Maasai do naturally—and likely were doing 1500 years ago at the same time the Rule of St. Benedict first delineated the three essential elements for living a life of joy.
The first is time for reflection, meditation, and silence, carved out daily. The Benedictines meditate and they pray. The Maasai are themselves walking prayers—this solitary boy following a herd; that lone man— a mere dash of red on the horizon—walking across miles of savanna; the woman hiking a lengthy distance to fetch water—every one of them enveloped by the space and the silence that encourages reflection, even, perhaps, an altered meditative state.
The second essential is music, vocalized. The monks sing the Hours. The Masaii seem to use any excuse to sing and chant, men and women alike doing so with gusto. There are warrior songs, love songs, a milking song, even a rhino song. Babies fall asleep to lullabies. Ceremonies include a chorus of vocalists singing harmonies, while the song leader (olaranyani) sings the melody, a form of call and response. Good-natured jumping competitions invite choral accompaniment. (4) When I volunteered to briefly share the repetitive task of pounding grain with one of the Maasai women, little did I know that the rumble of voices suddenly chanting around us would establish our alternating steady beat, transforming a mundane task into a soul-stirring experience.
The third essential is daily connection to the earth—which is why the monks grow gardens, work with their hands. The huts in Tanzania made of mud and dung, where the Maasai sleep and eat, are made of earth. In both Kenya and Tanzania, the Maasai spend most of the daylight hours under the sky, their feet literally covered with dust of the earth. And wherever they turn, they witness the magnificence of Creation.
Fearlessness and joy. All of the ingrained reasons to fear not, all of these paths to bring joy into my life inspired me. But it took more time and another conversation with Spirit to fully grasp what I’d come home to in Africa and where that homecoming is meant to lead. (I’ll muse about the meaning in the next post.)
1)You can find more info on Maasai (MÁ-si) culture here: http://www.siyabona.com/maasai-tribe-east-africa.html
2) The guides used their “English” names with us, reserving use of their Maasai names for when they are with their people.
3) The Maasai do not hunt birds or wildlife; they depend on their herd’s meat, milk, and blood for daily sustenance.
4) The good-natured competitions to show one’s skill at high jumps in a prescribed form and requiring much practice reminded me of friendly hip hop breaking (break dance) battles. Contemporary hip hop musicians from northern Tanzania are now incorporating traditional Maasai rhythms, chants and beats into their music.