ARRIVE A VISITOR, LEAVE A FRIEND
The spirited dance routine of the men had began without giving me much time to set up my camera equipment; by the time they finished their performance, the women, in their bright red and yellow costumes, had already stepped up to sing.
That delayed dose of reality check was enough to remind me that I was witnessing the exuberant dance of the Maasai.
Many years have passed since I had first started to chalk out my dream trip to Kenya, and at that time, this was one of the activities I jotted down that would give me a truly authentic experience in the Maasai land. Now facing a world that had turned upside down, and having to confront a deadly pandemic and the bevy of exigent circumstances it had unleashed, my first visit to Kenya ended up being a rather short one. Yet, even though I was going to be missing out on some of the most coveted activities of my trip, one that I refused to compromise with was the chance to closely interact with people from the Maasai tribe. And in what was to be my first professional undertaking on assignment, that opportunity came about in the form of an invitation from the famed Oseki Maasai Mara Camp.
It's a land of folklore and myth, and you might visit the place only as an afterthought. You might squeeze in a quick tour here in between a busy day of safari activities there. But no matter how you end up as a visitor to the Maasai village, when you leave, you’ll do so as a trusted friend.
The Maasai men and women all appear bright and colorful in their traditional clothing, red, yellow, purple, and blue, that contrast the green and brown of the landscape surrounding them. The men carry long spears as they stand tall and proud. The women, with their beaded earrings and intricately designed scarves, attend to the needs of their children, who for their part, seem to perpetually dart around fueled by some seemingly endless supply of energy. These Maasai people, widely distributed within the countries of Kenya and Tanzania, are the oldest inhabitants of East Africa. And that explains how for the traditional Maasai population, every single one of their needs is met by their cattle possession. Not only do they drink the milk and eat the meat of these domesticated animals, they occasionally drink their blood as well.
LOST IN A VILLAGE THAT TIME FORGOT
Since the Maasai do not use electricity, or even candles, or have any windows inside their house, it was predictably pitch dark inside. A clearly out-of-place technology came to my rescue as I turned on the flashlight app on my cell phone, which gave just enough light to grope my way around the one-roomed house. I was told that it was the women’s responsibility to build the structures of these houses, otherwise called bomas, with a framework of timber poles that subsequently get locked in place by smaller branches. The entire structure is then covered with a potent mixture of grass, mud, cow dung, urine, and ash, a concoction that likely explained the relative warmth I was feeling while inside the dwelling. I estimated the interior to be no more than 200 square feet and standing no taller than about seven feet. This is how the Maasai tribe has lived for centuries, their carefree, semi-nomadic lifestyle spanning much of what now comprises the famous national parks of Kenya and Tanzania.
A high point of my visit was meeting Ole Lepore, the venerable village chief, a burnt sienna gentleman who, despite being at the ripe age of ninety-five, was standing tall and proud, and who, to my untrained eyes, could very easily have passed off some forty years younger. The old man – I was told – had four wives, and had fathered thirty-five children, with all of the male siblings still living in that same village (the women got married off to neighboring villages). He didn’t speak any other language besides traditional Maasai – not even Swahili like most in the tribe – and had never resorted to any medicines outside of the traditional ones found in the region. My mind immediately veered off, imagining the near-endless sociopolitical drama the old man must have been witness to during his protracted life. How deep the scars of colonization must be to him, how unbearable the pains of integration into a globalized society. The tinkling in his eye belied the heaviness of his chest, carved out from the birth of nations and the death of ideological customs, that must to this day inevitably hang on him.
Yet, I realized, in those weary and twisted veins of his flows the purest of Maasai blood.
About the Photographer
Dr. Sarker is a photographer and a master storyteller who travels on assignment to capture the portraits of the planet's vanishing tribes. In the near future, his plan includes capturing the life of the Inuit in the farthest reaches of a fast-changing Greenland.