A weekend away with Kenya's Maasai tribe

EMILIA TERZON
Last updated 10:33 23/01/2014
Maasai Tribe
Reuters

LANDSCAPES OF KENYA: A Maasai man takes shelter from the sun as his cattle drink water from a waterhole near the Rift Valley town of Suswa, about 70 km west of the capital Nairobi.

Maasai Std
Reuters
VIBRANT TRADITIONS: A Maasai woman, with her face decorated with red ochre, smiles as she attends the preparation of "Entoto", a traditional coming-of-age ceremony

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We've just sat down at a dusty roadside diner for a typically Kenyan snack of fried food and sweet white tea.

Everybody in the cafe is secretly staring at the two pale-skinned tourists. We must look like we're lost.

"Is he definitely still meeting us?"

My partner shrugs in response to my question, and we continue to wait anxiously for the next 30 minutes.

The small town of Ngong feels a long way from the tourist comforts of Nairobi, although it's just a one-hour drive away.

Finally, we spot somebody that can only be our man: an ageing Caucasian with the swagger of an ex-US military leader.

Kevin Jackson's handshake is strong, and I feel instantly relaxed by his broad smile and calm local escort, Daniel.

Kevin, who first came here in 2010, runs a small Christian mission for one of Africa's most well known tribes: the Maasai.

Entering their home - the Great Rift Valley or 'Maasailand' - isn't easy, so we tackle the first leg on motorbike.

Over the whirr of engines, Kevin tells us about the Ngong Hill's maize farmers as children wave ecstatically from the roadside.

Suddenly, we hit a peak and the lush landscape dramatically changes.

I stare in awed silence at the horizon. It's like nothing I've ever seen before: flat, infinite, and straight from The Lion King.

We climb off our motorbikes and begin the steep, two-hour descent into the mouth of this potholed valley.

I can't imagine anybody surviving in this prickly environment, until Daniel starts telling us about growing up in Maasailand.

He says his community, Olasiti, was effectively cut off from the outside world, and only just received running water.

"Things were very bad for (a generation) and it was hard to get food, but now things are improving," he says.

Daniel answers our questions for the entire trek, but I'm still unsure of what to expect as we reach the valley.

Heavily documented in the last few decades, the Maasai has a formidable reputation that includes lion hunting, blood drinking, and female circumcision.

My first encounter is a little less dramatic. It's approaching dusk, and I can just make out the face of a gangly teenager and a herd of cattle.

The boy enthusiastically greets us, and offers to lead us to where we'll sleep that night: with a Maasai family.

Fifteen minutes later, a corrugated iron structure appears in the shrubbery. This is the three-roomed home of Francis, Rebecca, and their five children.

Their front yard features a pit toilet, roaming chickens, and a cow, and their floor is the powdery dirt of the savannah.

It's clear the Lasiti family doesn't have many material possessions to share, but they eagerly clear a space on their couch and usher us to sit down.

We spend the next hour learning about this family through broken English, and play clapping games with the youngest children.

There's no electricity in Olasiti, let alone computer games, radio, or television. Our only light is an alcohol-fuelled lamp and the startling full moon.

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As it gets really dark, two of the daughters disappear into a small detached building, which turns out to be the kitchen.

Maasailand remains patriarchal despite the influence of outside culture. Women prepare meals, while men look after cattle.

Our meal arrives 20 minutes later. The daughters serve us first, and pile huge spoonfuls of rice, potato and meat in our bowls.

The meal is nourishing, and I'm quickly content and drowsy. The youngest daughter falls asleep on my lap, and we soon head to bed.

I wake at dawn. Something is shuffling outside my bedroom and it takes a minute to remember where we are: the African wilderness.

A few hours later, we're trekking with the family across the savannah to join Olasiti's 300-strong community at the local church.

Their sunday service is exuberant, and I'm transfixed by the strange combination of Gospel singing and traditional African dance.

It's a long sermon, and most people grow hungry for the freshly killed goat that's being gutted by a group of elders outside. Olasiti residents do eat outside the famous Maasai diet of meat, blood, and milk, but the community is still largely carnivorous.

We eventually walk home via several households, the local school and orphanage, and an impromptu game of soccer.

The elder Lasiti daughters head for the smoky kitchen, and my partner and I decide to check out their cooking skills.

We spend the next hour drinking tea, laughing, telling them about home, and asking about the girls' post-school ambitions. They tell us they want to be doctors, and then grab my camera so they can take endless selfies.

I smile as I realise that teenage girls are the same all over the world.      

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: Ngong is a one-hour taxi drive (about $53) or two-hour bus ride (about $2) from Kenya's capital city, Nairobi.

STAYING THERE: Travellers can only stay in Olastiti as part of a volunteer program with Heart of Africa. Sankara is a good boutique hotel in Nairobi.

PLAYING THERE: Ngong is close to popular tourist attractions, Karen Blixen Museum and The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust elephant orphanage.    

The writer travelled at her own expense.

- AAP

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