Travel blog

Understanding Africa: Masai

The Volcano

My heart is racing, my arse is sore and my eyes are burning. I am on the back of a 300cc off road bike behind a Masai tribesman, driving over lava tubes towards a volcano.

Some might think this an odd combination, but Daniel is a modern Masai who lives in the active but dormant crater of Mount Suswa, in the Great Rift Valley, Kenya. He has had his motorbike for about a year now and is a proficient driver. I get the feeling that he could navigate this vast expanse of mazy lava tubes with his eyes closed. Before the Challenger he had a bicycle, but I cannot imagine him making this journey in less than half a day that way.

challenger

All I can think about is how cool this guy is. I could talk about Daniel all day. He wears traditional Masai robes but has a smartphone, lives in a mud hut but has solar panels to charge said smartphone, he is a Christian pastor but still drinks cows blood (minus the platelets. Apparently they extract them using a stick that turns into a blood popsicle). He has one wife and five children, though his father had 6 wives and 30 children.

“My firstborn” Daniel tells me as he is naming his kids, “Oh wait, I can’t really call him this because he is not mine. I adopted him. Do you know how old he was when I adopted him? Six days. His mother died during childbirth. This happens a lot because Masai still practice circumcision and female genital mutilation, which causes bleeding during birth.”

We are sitting inside one of five mud huts that occupy this particular patch of endless plateau inside the outer crater: one is for his wife and children, one for his mother, one for his brother Reuben and his family, and one is for guests (don’t know what the other is for). It is dark and cool, but little spots of light poke through the ceiling and walls, which are lined with plastic and a net to keep some insects out (I say some, because infestation by flies is inevitable). I brush them away and Daniel laughs at me.

“You cannot handle the flies? Ah, we are pastorals.” His children have flies all over them but they don’t flinch, even when they are in their eyes.

daniels-house

This is the guest hut, but Daniel sleeps here at the moment because his wife Agnes has a new born and their other four children in his hut, which is also used for cooking. I can’t sit in that one because the smoke makes my eyes burn. I am feeling increasingly weak compared with these stalwart people.

“I bet you did not think you would be sleeping with me when you came here.” Daniel smiles.

He has perfectly white teeth, except the two front bottom teeth are missing. We had a discussion about this and apparently it is a Masai tradition to removed the bottom teeth so that if someone is stranded in the bush and cannot open their mouth, another Masai can feed them and give them water through the hole. Also it’s kind of a right of passage to pull them out, that and the circumcision. I hear that if you flinch during the ceremony you are disowned. Consequently a lot of Masai have burn marks on their legs where they practice suffering pain.

That first night Daniel and I talked for some time about the Masai and his plans for the community, but first: to the bat cave!

“Turn off your torch.” Daniel says once we are far enough inside. I switch off the torch on my phone and it is pitch black. “This is darker than night. They call this the great relaxation, because when you are in here there is no worrying about your car, or your job, or your belly, only this dark and quiet, and when people leave they feel clean.”

“Like a reset button.” I add.

There is a pile of bones in the corner. “Look, a picnick!” he exclaims. “When you see the bones you know that the Jaguar could be anywhere.” There is a shelf above the bones. “This is where he eats and drops the rubbish from his mouth.” I am now looking at every crevice for signs of movement.

The caves are remnants of lava flows that bored tunnels all through the ground. There is a huge system of caves that are all connected one way or another, some hot from still active steam vents and some cold from where the rainwater filters down through the crater.

Daniel gives me another scare story about the bats having Ebola and so we don’t venture any further. Instead we head to the Baboon Parliament. This large open chamber has brilliant acoustics and viewing platforms where the baboons gather at night. A large single vine hangs down from a prominent fig tree through the huge hole in the ceiling and the light falls on a smooth flat rock in the centre of the chamber.

daniel-in-the-cave

 

Daniel is a bit of a poser and I get some great shots with him in the caves. He told me he was once in a BBC documentary about the Great Rift Valley. I can just imagine his perfect teeth smiling for the camera.

“Here they all gather to discuss how to avoid the Jaguar” Daniel tells me, “and to discipline their tribe. They are very clever you know. One baboon will come and sit here and “hoo hoo hoo!” and they all listen to it. This stone is especially smooth because the baboons polish it.”

I find this almost too hard to believe, but when we come back near sunset, the baboons gather and play and sit on the shelves. Unfortunately parliament is not in session today as they are distracted by our presence, so we ride off into the sunset on the Challenger.

Hard Times

After dinner Daniel and I sit down and have a chat. Because of all the orphaned children and his own troubled upbringing, he wants to open an orphanage and even has his own crowd-funding campaign on Kickstarter.

“I believe that if you help someone who is in need, they will grow up grateful and they are more likely to help someone else who is in need. That way you plant the seed and it grows in future generations.”

‘I could not have put it better myself’ I think, as I sit there captivated by his shadowy figure beneath the solar lamp, which is now the only light source in the hut.

He also tells me about the Kenyan governments plans to build a Thermo-power plant in the crater. Because of its still active nature, the steam – which the Masai use to condense into clean water via PVC pipes – could apparently provide several Megawatts of power for the grid. If the plans go through, the Kenyan government will buy all the land and displace the Masai from their homes. Roads will be built, land will be fenced off and huge amounts of industry will be poured into the mountain.

“How do you feel about it?” I ask. He looks at the ground in silence for a short while.

“I’m sorry” he says in a defeated tone “I can’t talk about it any more. It is too sad.”

After getting to know him a little better, he later told me: “Do you know what the worst thing is? They will be given a lot of money for their land. It will change them. Some will buy cars, some will drink and kill themselves, but all will die as Masai. It will never be the same. I don’t know what we’ll do.” My heart breaks listening to him.

Sadly this happens all too often. The damn in Jinja flooded huge amounts of land and changed the whole ecosystem, all for power to be sold to Kenya. Further up the Nile in Egypt, the Aswan damn flooded thousands of acres, forcing the Bedouin people off of their land and creating huge lakes. They even took apart Abul Simbel, a 5000 year old ancient Egyptian temple, piece by piece, and re-assembled it 5 miles uphill.

A testament to modern technology: they actually got it wrong, and the event which should happen on the solstice, where a beam of light shines down the centre of the temple, lighting the faces of the four gods, is now a day later, on the 22nd of December. The Pharaohs would roll over in their graves if they weren’t locked in a basement at the British museum.

I am standing outside staring up at the full beauty of the Milky Way, pondering the problems that these people I have come to love now face. A shooting star passes by and is gone. I make a wish for their future.

Family life

And winner of the “Lu with a View” award goes to Squat Box Suswa!

lu-with-a-view

I am sitting on a comfortable mahogany toilet box completely in the open, in the middle of the grassy plains of a volcano. The sun is shining, the wind blowing pleasantly and as I do my business, Gazelles prance in front of me beneath the Acacia trees. Paradise.

Daniel caught me escaping with the necklace of shame, a toilet roll on a rope you hang around your head so that everyone knows you about to do your business.

“Where are you going?” he asks.

“Urgh, the bathroom.” I reply timidly

“I am not finished building it yet.” he laughs, “Do you want to see?”

“Um, ok.” I reply tentatively. This diet of bread and butter sandwiches and Jappatis is really taking its toll. “Proper Masai food!” Daniel calls it.

We walk about 100ft from his house and there it is, pleasantly concealed behind a low bush. It is a toilet shaped wooden box with no bottom that covers a foot deep hole. There is even a shovel with a little pile of dirt to finish. Nice.

It was a hell of a hike around the inner crater today and this is the perfect release after having held it in for fear of squatting in a bush.

It was just as I had imagined, the crater that is. It is difficult to see until you are right at the rim, but then a sharp drop takes your eyes down to an undulating bowl of verdant green that sweeps round a full six hours hike, about 800 meters from trench to peak. In the centre is the hidden island, surrounded by little pillars of steam and looking back westward you can see the half crescent of the outer crater towering above, giving the full effect of the power of this explosion.

daniel-rests

Apparently Mount Suswa erupted twice, creating the two craters, the inner plateau, the mote, and the hidden island. The tribe elders sometimes go to the hidden island in the centre of the volcano to pray and perform rituals. This is only very rare nowadays however, as Christianity is fast taking over the Masai here. Around 1982 Missionaries reached this valley and swept down, imposing Christianity on all they could find, condemning the heathen ways of the locals. Within a single family, the elders will follow the old ways while the middle aged impose their newly found religion on their children.

On the way down Daniel complains that his leg is hurting.

“You’re getting old.” I joke, knowing full well he is a great deal fitter than me.

“How old do you think I am?” he asks.

I have no idea. He could be fifty for all I know. Guess low. “45?” I ask.

He laughs. “I am not so old. My father is 93.”

“Wow.”

“We have a woman, she is…130.”

“Now that’s old.” I say, trying to remember what the world’s oldest person is in the Guinness book of records. I thought it was 126.

“She cannot see now for maybe ten years.” He says dismissively. “And she has no teeth.” It suddenly gets hot as we walk past a steam vent.

“Time for a footbath!” Daniel says.

suswa-plains

We are almost home, it is about 3pm and the plateau is an oven. We head over to one of the steam vents and Daniel pulls over half an oil barrel. He fetches a cup of hot water from the steam condensation tank and pours it over my head. The water quickly evaporates leaving me feeling refreshed. He helps me wash my feet and I think about the religious significance. He is a pastor after all.

That night Rueben, Daniels brother, invites us in for tea. I met Rueben earlier when he asked me if I was stealing his son. I was walking back from watching the sunset out by the crater and a small kid came up and held my hand as I was walking by. Embarrassingly enough I didn’t realise it was Daniel’s son and asked Reuben if the boy was his. Reuben’s English is very good and he looks nothing like Daniel.

“So you are brothers from another mother?” Hanga, Reuben’s Romanian guest asks.

“Exactly.” Reuben laughs.

I didn’t get much chance to talk to him that night, but the next day we were all hiking around the crater and I sparked off a conversation.

“So your father was a guide?” I ask.

“My father was a warrior.” he replies casually. “He fought in the wars against the other tribe. He once killed a jaguar with his bare hands. He cannot move these two fingers because it bit him.” What a guy.

“Are you afraid of anything?” asks Hanga.

Reuben laughs. “I do not like frogs. When they are in the grass and they are all wet.” He screws up his face.

“Ok, so if I see any frogs I will kill them and if there is a lion, you can kill it for me.”

“You know” says Reuben “In the past you were not allowed to marry if you had not killed a lion.”

“What if you couldn’t kill one, like there wasn’t one? Could you still marry?”

“Well, yes, but you would not be recognised as a man.”

“Did your father ever kill a lion?”

“He had six wives.” He laughs. “Lions used to be everywhere.” He down-plays the fact that his father was basically Russell Crow.

Daniel has a very different view of his father. He abandoned his mother when Daniel was just a boy and so he was driven into education, which funnily enough was only for outcasts back then. He is actually only 34, so that shows how recently views have changed. I can see that life here is hard for Masai and it’s only going to get harder as modern society continues to encroach on their traditional way of living.

Where to find them

daniel-close-up

The hospitality I received in Daniel’s home was not that of royalty, but rather of equality. He made me feel like family and that’s the greatest gift I could have hoped for. So where did I find Daniel you ask? My friend Mike gave me his number. If you want to meet him and the rest of his family, check out Reuben’s Facebook page at https://goo.gl/Ja7CSx and help support their traditional way of life.

If you find enjoyed hearing about my experience with the Masai why not share and follow the blog below, or on our Facebook or Twitter page. As always check out the relevant galleries linked to the blog and watch my short film Africa Finale, including some good face time for our Daniel.

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