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Sunday, 28 September 2008

The People: Meeting the Maasai

Written by Jim Dorsey
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We step out of the car into the hot blowing dust of southern
Kenya, into a different world in a different time.

The People: Meeting the Maasai, Moses Pulei, Traditional Maasai, Maasai culture, Los Angeles Adventurer’s Club, Namanga, Kenya, East Africa, Jim DorseyA dozen stately Maasai in bright red and purple robes surround us.  Ebony colored hands reach out for ours in welcome, and two different ways of life come together.  Maasai means those who speak Maa, but they simply call themselves "the people".

This is not a “cultural” village where a safari company pays the people to dress up, sing and dance for tourists.  We have come as personal friends of an elder.  We have come to enter their life and learn their ways.

This is the family of my friend, Moses, and what a long strange trip it has been to get here.

I met Moses Pulei several years ago at the Los Angeles Adventurer’s Club.  He was well dressed, articulate, and I pegged him as a successful young professional.  Only later did a mutual friend tell me he is a Maasai warrior who lives part of the year in a dung hut in Kenya.

At the time, Moses was about to receive his Doctorate in Philosophy from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena where he lived most of the time with his wife Brittany, and daughter Charis.  He would become only the sixth known Maasai to receive a PHD.  He also speaks nine languages.

“You must visit my village sometime,” was the invitation he issued at our first meeting.  Intrigued by this man who moves so easily between two very different worlds, I set this as a goal.

Just over two years later, my wife, Irene, and I are standing under a blazing August Kenyan sun shaking hands with his uncles and aunts, nieces and nephews.  Moses smiles broadly as he introduces us to each person.  He is dressed in a bright red Shuka (Maasai cloak) with his walking stick that no Maasai man would be without.  On his feet are traditional rubber sandals made from a truck tire and he wears beaded earrings and necklace.

I am seeing my sophisticated friend from Los Angeles in his home element, and he is stately.

There are about a dozen people present and many more in the bush tending cattle.

The People: Meeting the Maasai, Moses Pulei, Traditional Maasai, Maasai culture, Los Angeles Adventurer’s Club, Namanga, Kenya, East Africa, Jim DorseyThe women are glorious with their long dangling earrings and layer upon layer of necklaces.  Maasai are world renowned for their beadwork and everyone has turned out in their very best to welcome us.  Only a couple speak English, learned at local primary schools, but language is no barrier.  We are accepted as friends straight away.

But we are not here as idle guests.  We will tend cattle, milk goats, draw water from the river, and live as our hosts do.

Moses tells me only one other white person has been to this village besides a couple missionaries, another friend from the Adventurer’s Club.  The boma (village) is called Maili-Tisa and it means “Nine Miles,” the distance south to the Tanzanian border.  It sits in Namanga, Kenya, East Africa.  It is hot, dry and desolate.

Moses points to the nearby hills with his walking stick and says there are many leopards there and quite a few Cape Buffalo.  This is his way of saying do not stray far from the village without an escort.  Then I notice all of the men carrying spears.

He bids us to follow him and we walk through the only opening of a circular wall of thorn bushes that forms a shoulder high barrier around the boma – these thorn walls are traditional to keep out predators.  A large thorn branch is dragged into the opening after the last person enters at night.

Inside the thorn fence, smoke from cooking fires pervades the air.  There are several small, round huts.  They are shoulder high, made from mud and dung smeared over a tree branch frame with thatched roofs.  We must duck to enter and make an immediate turn once inside.  I fill the opening and almost get stuck. This entrance helps to keep out the weather and confuses any predator that might breach the thorn wall.  Next, there is a tiny wooden pen where newborn goats are kept at night.  This keeps the newborns warm until they get older and they also act as a last line of defense, braying out if an animal should enter, waking all inside the hut.

The People: Meeting the Maasai, Moses Pulei, Traditional Maasai, Maasai culture, Los Angeles Adventurer’s Club, Namanga, Kenya, East Africa, Jim DorseyThere is a glowing fire in the center where chai tea is kept ready throughout the day.  The only ventilation is a tiny hole in the side of the wall and smoke is chokingly thick.  We squat on the dirt floor and are given sweet chai. The four of us fill the hut and my shoulders brush both walls as I wedge myself into a sleeping platform. Moses sits down to “Eat the News,” with his cousin.  This is a tradition where the returned traveler relates all that has happened since his departure.  The listener responds with a series of low sounds after each sentence to let the news talker know he is being listened to.  The result is a melodious interaction that takes on a cadence quite pleasing to the ear.  Moses’ cousin nurses her baby during this exchange, oblivious to all but the news.

In the center of the village there is a round corral made of tree branches where the goats are kept.  Cattle are in a separate corral and guarded all night by spear toting watchmen.  Animals are central to the Maasai way of life.

The People: Meeting the Maasai, Moses Pulei, Traditional Maasai, Maasai culture, Los Angeles Adventurer’s Club, Namanga, Kenya, East Africa, Jim DorseyThat evening Moses tells us it is a tradition to honor guests by sacrificing a goat.  One is selected and taken into the bush, where two warriors smother it to death.


They tell me they consider this more humane than cutting its throat.  I do not agree but am not here to judge.  We are being paid an honor and I respect their customs.  I help to hold the goat down, trying not to look it in the eye.  Once the goat is unconscious, its throat is slit and the younger boys jockey for a taste of its blood.  This blood, mixed with milk, is a staple of the Maasai diet.

The goat is slow roasted over an open fire and we enter a communal dining hut, sitting under a poster of Bob Marley, to eat with our fingers. The meat is delicious and a heaping tray is passed around several times. Our chairs are made from tree branches and covered with goat hide – I would like one for my TV room back home. Moses sits at the head of the table, telling story after story of life in the bush as a child.  How his grandfather taught him to track animals, and how Maasai boys used to have to hunt a lion with a spear to become a man. The government outlawed this practice in the early 1970’s, as too many lions were being killed, but some people still practice it covertly.  He shows us a scar on his leg that he received during a lion hunt.

As he talks, his relatives take turns walking past the hut, sticking their head through the opening and smiling before disappearing, not wishing to intrude, but as curious about us as we are about them.

We are fascinated by his tales of life among wild animals and could listen all night, but it has been a long day.  We are invited to stay in the huts but the sleeping area is too small for me to fit.  Moses has thought ahead and erected a tent outside the boma walls.  All the children gather because they have never seen a tent before.  They call it an “Instant Hut,” and are fascinated that the zipper makes the entrance disappear.

Maasai love to joke and tell us not to worry when the leopards come (not if, but when!),  because everyone has a spear (everyone but us).  When I ask about the safety of sleeping outside the thorn wall, I am told not to worry because leopards do not like white meat!

Inside the tent, we watch as tiny hands from outside poke and prod this strange mobile home.  More and more people arrive from other bomas who have heard of the exotic visitors living inside.  Throughout the night, people are running their hands over the nylon walls. We invite three small boys inside who sit with wide eyes and giggle at this alien creation.  One elderly grandfather bends to peer inside but we cannot entice him to enter.  He leaves, laughing and shaking his head.  Besides the constant flow of curious people, a goat goes into labor right outside and we realize there will be no sleeping this night.

They call us before dawn and I enter a dung filled corral to photograph the women milking goats and cattle.  It is like walking in mush.  They are much amused by me and smile for my camera as they work.  Irene is handed the baby goat, born minutes ago right outside our tent.  One life was given in our honor and another born to take its place, Maasai karma.

The grandfather who would not enter our tent asks Irene to step into the goat pen, saying they like her and she will keep them calm.  She wades into the dung carrying the newborn baby and is surrounded by bleating young charges.  She spends the day acting as alpha goat to the delight of all the women.

The young boys arrive to take the cattle out for the day’s grazing.   Maasai boys begin tending cattle at about age four and it is serious business.  Maasai measure their wealth by the number of livestock a village owns.  They never enter the bush without a spear and lions fear the sound of their cowbells because it is well known that they will take on a lion with a spear to protect their cattle.

The People: Meeting the Maasai, Moses Pulei, Traditional Maasai, Maasai culture, Los Angeles Adventurer’s Club, Namanga, Kenya, East Africa, Jim DorseyI ask to go with the boys but Moses says I will see more if I stay with him.

He is already on his cell phone, and men are lined up to talk with him, so he excuses himself to “take a meeting.” Standing under a tree, deep in conversation, I realize he is a very important man out here.  This is his office and he is working.  One man tells me, “Maasai can’t walk five feet without having a meeting.” I see this is true.

One village needs water and Moses promises to try to help dig a well while a mother needs some medicine for her children that he says he will bring on his next trip.

He is the neighborhood godfather, with everyone coming to him with their problems and needs and he treats everyone the same, with empathy and compassion.

I ask him if he has tried to explain his other life to his family, and he replies that he has, but most of it is beyond their comprehension.

His goal is to help them receive an education like his own.  He was sponsored by World Vision as a child, the NGO that helps those less privileged to go to school and progress through life.

The People: Meeting the Maasai, Moses Pulei, Traditional Maasai, Maasai culture, Los Angeles Adventurer’s Club, Namanga, Kenya, East Africa, Jim DorseyTraditional Maasai do not believe in education as we in the west do.  Why would you need schooling to tend cattle or be a warrior?  Moses’ father called it “White Man’s Magic,” and his resistance prevented Moses from starting school until he was almost nine.  In high school, he walked 28 miles each day, wearing his shuka to save his uniform.  He bathed in a cattle trough before entering the classroom.  Missionaries helped him secure scholarships and he ventured from Africa to Whitworth college in Washington state where he excelled and became student body president.

Today, he is associated with the Presbyterian church and is working hard to give back to society, busy with numerous Church sponsored projects such as bringing water to the area and creating shelters for battered women.  He has also created his own foundation called Staff of Hope to initiate such projects.  On top of this, he is in great demand as a guest speaker.  He is trying to preserve the old ways while slowly bringing his village into the modern world.  He must walk a fine line to do this.

The Maasai are traditional nomads who used to move their villages to follow game. He told me when he first went to school in America and came home; he was never sure exactly where his village would be.  Today, they have no intention of moving.  They now have piped in water, thanks to his efforts, and are transitioning to farmers, as part of the “New Africa.”   This is obvious from those among them dressed in t-shirts and jeans and who have heard of the internet but have no idea exactly what it is.

That afternoon, Moses must leave for a meeting with a government official and we agree to continue our talks later. Before he goes, Moses calls everyone together and presents me with a spear.  It was used long ago in a lion hunt and it is the highest honor he can pay me.

The People: Meeting the Maasai, Moses Pulei, Traditional Maasai, Maasai culture, Los Angeles Adventurer’s Club, Namanga, Kenya, East Africa, Jim DorseyThe Maasai are among the last tribes in Africa to cling to the old ways and many people ridicule them for this.  We have witnessed first hand an ancient way of life that will most probably vanish in the next few years, some of it from outside influences and some by choice.

Before I get into the car, I tell Moses, when I see him next time, back in Los Angeles, I don’t have any goats, but will sacrifice a hamburger in his honor.  This sends his head back in laughter and I see my old friend who moves so easily between two very different worlds.

At home, weeks later, I still have the smell of this village with me.  It is dung and dust, smoke and cattle.  It takes me back at will.


Since this story was written, Moses has received his PHD from Fuller and is now an associate professor of philosophy at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington.  He teaches there most of the year, but beginning in 2009 he will divide his time between Spokane and Kenya where the university is helping him to open a teaching annex.

©Jim Dorsey

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Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012