Afternoon Tea With the Maasai

Posted on Monday, 1st August 2011 @ 12:53 AM by Text Size A | A | A

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As a journalist, I’ve reported from Mexico City’s seediest rock bars, a swingers’ club in San Francisco and a piercing party in Los Angeles where pain lovers found transcendental bliss by pushing needles through one another’s uglies. So, I wasn’t exactly a blushing violet when invited to a Maasai village in Kenya for an afternoon inside a hut made of cow dung and human urine plus a chat about genital mutilation and drinking cow blood directly from the jugular.

The Maasai are a semi-nomadic people, who migrate between Kenya and northern Tanzania. If you find yourself driving along one of the dusty red-clay roads I traveled through Kenyan wilderness, you’ll recognize Maasai by their cow-hide sandals, wooden o-rinka men’s staffs, and eye-catching shukas (a colorful cloth tied around the waist and over the shoulder).

Maasai villages are like small camps enclosed within a circular fence fashioned from thorned acacia and called an enkang. This keeps wild animals out. Entering one such village, I found a public space paved in cow dung, ostensibly one of the Maasai’s favorite building materials.

Their homes, otherwise known as inkajijik, are made of cow dung too. Talk about green technology. I have to hand it to the Maasai. No terrain need be deforested; no oil pumped for synthetic materials. Why not use grass recycled by a cow’s intestine? Once the stuff dries, it doesn’t smell that bad and is durable and water-proof as concrete.

The foundations of the inkajijik are typically constructed out of tree branches, then the Maasai smear on the dung. Other construction options include mud, grass and pee-pee. Maasai huts are small. I had to go on my knees to slip through the small rectangular door of Gabriel and Jacob’s inkajijik. Those weren’t my hosts’ real names but what they’d been christened at the missionary school they attended. Around camp and away from foreigners, they used Maasai names.

We began our chat about all things Maasai. I sat upon a dusty cow-hide rug, snuggled up against a baby goat. A woman cooked over fire, the smoke of which was released by a small chimney.

The Maasai don’t see themselves as part of Kenya or Tanzania. Rather, with the help of international treaties, they’re allowed to cross over boundaries. They don’t typically farm and once subsisted almost entirely on cattle products: meat, milk and blood.

The blood is obtained by nicking the animal’s jugular vein. In other words, the Maasai don’t kill the cow. They “tap” the animal, extracting a small amount of blood, then letting the cow heal and replenish its supply. Although the blood is often mixed for special celebrations, my hosts led me to believe they sometimes drink directly from the jugular.

While Gabriel and Jacob recounted this ritual, they searched my face for shock. As mentioned, I’ve experienced a lot in my lifetime. I chalked it up to a native practice that was hardly as weird as some of the “modern primitive” activities I’ve witnessed.

From there, our conversation moved to the practice of genital circumcision, which happens for all Maasai children around age twelve. Somewhat like a Bar Mitzvah. The Maasai get a genital skin trim. Of course, Judaism has its own circumcision ceremony for eight-day-old newborns, which the family and friends stand around watching while getting drunk on Mogen David. That’s not odd?

The Maasai circumcision is performed by an elder, who uses a sharpened knife and cattle-hide bandages for a procedure without anesthetic. Maasai boys must endure the operation in silence. Expressions of pain bring dishonor, not to mention that any protest can cause a mistake in the tedious process, which can result in life-long scarring, dysfunction, and pain. The circumcision needs three to four months of healing, during which urination is painful and sometimes impossible.

Young women undergo female circumcision, the most common form of which is a clitorectomy. The practice can result in thick scar tissue. The ritual has caused global outrage and is now illegal in both Kenya and Tanzania. However, the practice remains deeply ingrained and valued by the culture. Some consider it necessary, since Maasai men may reject a woman who hasn’t undergone circumcision as either unmarriable or worthy of a much-lower bride price.

I didn’t quite know how to react to female circumcision. It seems savage, but judging a ritual as a cultural outsider without knowing all the ideological context and social ramifications is difficult. When we finished our chat, we gathered outside the hut to watch a group of boys perform the traditional Maasai jumping dance or adumu. I was invited to perform my own dance with the women, a job I undertook with the help of my best white-woman’s overbite.

I then parted ways with the Maasai, who were sure to agree on how much they wouldn’t want my U.S. lifestyle with our lack of community. I was happy for them, as I was for myself, returning to my hotel of wood and plaster, forever to be alienated from my fellow man.

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