'Great Migrations' Day Seven: 'I have a stick and a sword. Nothing else.'
Day Seven: Thursday, Sept. 16
We head north across the savannah from the Maasai Mara into Maasai Land. Sheep and goats graze. Two men, who speak English, greet us. They are lean, willowy and bedecked.
Were a man to wear what amounts to a dress, bracelets, beaded belts and a shawl in the United States, he needs to be prepared to fight. These men are; they're warriors and one would have to be a fool to cross them.
The door to the village is a bundle of thorny branches; it keeps the cows in at night. The huts, which the women make from cow dung patted over sticks, are arranged in a circle. They have plenty of raw material to harvest.
The women line up, many with babies slung into cloth carriers on the backs. Their hair is shorn so short, it appears shaved, and they too wear bright colors, intricate beaded earrings and many are missing a tooth -- on purpose.
Lockjaw had come to a tribe of Maasai in the 1920s, and tribesmen's tongues were going back in their heads, choking them, says Dereck Joubert, the Botswana conservationist who is a resident explorer at National Geographic. (You learn a lot when you're waiting for wildebeest to cross a river and this was a tidbit from the day before.)
So a stick was inserted to hold down the tongue. Since, a tooth has been knocked out to ensure easy access for a stick, should mouths need to be pried open and tongues held down.
Women line up facing the band of journalists and sing a welcome song. Then the men do a competition of dancing with the male journalists. They jump straight up and high. Incidentally, it's not just a movie title -- white men can't jump.
The Maasai are lean because they eat only food from the cow. This is not like Morgan Spurlock's experiment; nothing is fried. They eat only milk, blood and occasionally meat. They do not farm. Their outfits vary and one wears a hat made form a lion mane, though they no longer hunt lions.
I've given up treading carefully as cow manure is everywhere and my only goal is to not fall. A woman and I smile and say "Jambo!" Her name is Lalutesha and we are probably as culturally opposite as any two people sharing a planet. But we both think that her son is beautiful, and peek-a-boo makes babies coo in any culture.
The men have multiple wives, and marry when they are older. Many of the women are pregnant, with another baby on their backs. Roosters, cats and dogs amble about, seeking shade. The day that had started cool is now hot.
Inside their homes, it is very dark, and extremely small. The ceiling is maybe 5-feet high and the hut is divided into three areas: a room for the cows to rest at night and the main area, which is then subdivided. This makes a Japanese hotel room or a Greenwich Village studio look like a palace.
The room has two small beds, made from cow hide. One is for the father, one for the mother. Children sleep with the parents. A fire burns in the middle.
I ask if they have stuff -- instruments, utensils? I don't expect an X-box and hot curlers, or other possessions from the west.
"I have a stick and a sword," Benjamin says. "Nothing else."
Outside of the hut, Lalutesha stops me, she removes her intricate earrings and places them in my ears. I don't want to insult her so I remove my small silver hoops and give them to her. I thought it was a trade. I was very grateful that I wasn't wearing my diamond studs.
No, she wants me to buy her jewelry. I didn't want those but said I would buy something else. They had set up tables with their wares, and were quoting completely irrational prices. (50,000 Kenyan Shillings; 78 Kenyan shillings equal a U.S. dollar.) Beaded necklaces, very much like the ones I see on the streets of New York for a fraction of what they are asking.
But I am not on the streets of New York. I am on a dusty strip of land, off of savannah, and this is the woman's livelihood. They expect people to bargain, and I have to come clean and admit that I bargain everywhere. The day before this journey started, I bargained (and did quite well) for a suitcase at Macy's. So if I am willing to negotiate a price in the world's largest store, one would think I could get a few beads for a better deal.
I didn't want to feel like Peter Stuyvesant. I just asked her to sweeten the deal a little, and bought a Maasai cloth and some bracelets. I could not bargain, not here, not now.
Several other Maasai women stop me. I go through this once more; buying a bracelet for my son that I like and a small beaded bowl for the house. It's way more than I think it should be, more than she knows it should be. But there's a big difference between getting a car dealer to take off the glaze on the chassis and bickering with a woman in a remote third world village over the price of her beads. I pay what she asks.
When I'm leaving Lalutesha finds me, we hold hands. Even after seeing some of her life, I could not imagine living as she does, no sooner than she could probably imagine life in a purple house in Essex County, New Jersey, meeting deadlines, driving around kids. We just stand there, the sun beating down on us, and look at each other then laugh. It was one of the best moments I have ever had the honor to share.
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