travelers-talesBy Donna Lawrence

A view of another woman’s life.

The road to the Maasai village is gouged with deep holes and littered with rocks. It is barely a road at all. Our Land Cruiser slows to a crawl to tip and sway through a gully. The Maasai don’t need to keep their road in good condition. They don’t need a road at all. They walk. Yesterday we saw a Maasai man at dusk, walking alone across the Amboseli grasslands, while just beyond him, five giraffes loped in unison, their long necks stretched forward at the same angle. Soon, as darkness enveloped the foreground, we could only make out the silhouettes of the giraffes against the fading sky. On these same Kenya plains, a short time before, we had seen elephants, zebras, wildebeest, and even lions, yet this man was out there walking alone, with his walking stick.

The road, if you can call it that, going to the Maasai village must have been built for their visitors. The Maasai have had to change many things about their way of life since Kenya became a country in 1963. Their vast territory was reduced and their lifestyle restricted. They can no longer kill lions, which was historically their rite of passage into manhood. But in exchange for not killing lions, they are paid money by the government. With that money, they can buy cattle, which is their wealth. And, I learned this morning, they allow foreigners to come to their village and see how they still live—for $20 U.S. dollars per person. Yes, these Maasai have adapted well to their changing country.

We bounce along, and I brace myself to keep from being jostled too much inside the vehicle. I can see for miles over the low, lion-colored grass to horizontal acacia trees in the distance, and beyond them, hidden today behind thick clouds, is Mount Kilimanjaro. As we approach the village, a boy, tending goats, watches our vehicle pass. Ahead a group of rounded huts form a circle. We lurch and bump, and come to a dusty stop.

I am in awe of this land. Every minute of the trip, I have been happy as a child seeing giraffes and elephants a few feet away from our vehicle, close enough to hear the crunch when an elephant tugs free a clump of grass. I want to know more about the people who live here. I know that they are catering to tourists, a small group at a time, but that doesn’t matter. I am not going to let that cynical thought cloud the day. This is where they live, every day, in this circle of huts.

Several Maasai men have come out to greet us, smiling broadly. They wear red draped cotton garments, shukas, thrown over their shoulders, and earrings hanging heavily from their ear lobes. Most of them carry long sticks, like the walking stick we saw yesterday. One Maasai, the money collector, pulls back his shuka and reveals a faded green canvas waistpack with the words Micato Safaris on it. He accepts our money and stows the shillings and dollars in the waistpack. Maasai have the reputation of being fierce warriors—morani. These tall, smiling men do not look like fierce warriors to me.

Daniel, the Chief, welcomes us in English and leads us into his village. The low mud huts, built close together, form a large circle that defines the village. Inside is a smaller circle outlined by dry thorny bushes. This inner enclosure is where they keep their cattle at night, safe from lions and leopards. During the day, openings are left so the villagers can walk through. The soft dirt inside, Daniel says, is a mixture of mud and cattle dung. As he continues to talk, I am distracted by three small boys playing by the entrance to one of the dried, cracking mud huts. One of the boys wiggles his little fingers in a wave. I wave back and smile. They break into giggles.

Daniel wants to show us inside one of the huts. They too are made of a mud and dung mixture, which can be reapplied to the wood frame when needed. The entrance is low, and we must bend to get into the house, he says. Several of us bend and follow him through the tunnel-like entryway, which switches back in a hairpin turn before we get into the living quarters. I am last in line. It takes a moment to adjust to the darkness; the only visible opening is a hole in the roof over the firepit in the center of the room, which radiates heat from glowing ashes. It is hot and close in here. When the details of the room become clear, I see a woman sitting on a bed, holding a baby. Her face is quiet sadness. We are in her home and she does not want us here. The six of us are intruders. I look away. Daniel explains to us that the children sleep on that bed, and this one is the Mama’s bed. How can he not notice the sadness of the Mama? I wonder if she is one of his wives. I guess it does not matter to the warrior that the Mama does not want strangers coming into her home, staring at her as if she were part of the mud house. I bend to go out.

Back out in the bright sunlight, I see a group of women lining up to sing and dance for us in the mud and dung circle. They are dressed in colorful, draping clothes, extending to their ankles or to the ground. The men are all in different shades of red, but the women wear red, blue, or yellow, and their heads are shaved. A couple of them laugh shyly as they are about to begin their performance. Then they begin singing and swaying together. Their voices create a rich, rhythmic music in the open air. One voice leads, singing a Swahili phrase, then the rest follow in a chorus of response. The lead voice sings another phrase, and the others answer her with song. They are shoulder to shoulder, moving together in a graceful line, singing joyful words I can’t understand, and my heart dances with them. For the moment, I have forgotten the sad woman in the hut.

Too soon the women’s song is over and the men are going to show off their jumping skills. They leap straight up from a standing position, as if propelled by springs. They invite a couple of men from our group to join them in a jumping competition. The visitors try, and everyone smiles because the Maasai men are far superior at jumping. I see. This is a show, and we are part of it.

Most of the Maasai wear crude leather sandals, but some are barefoot. As we and our hosts walk across the soft dung and dirt circle, I am glad I wore boots. We are going to see their crafts, and we cross to what appears to be a small swap meet. Tables in a semi circle are loaded with beaded jewelry and small trinkets. I walk by the tables, smiling as the women behind the tables call to me and show me earrings, necklaces. The moment I pick up a necklace with a small, carved elephant, I am encircled by women reaching out with similar elephant necklaces, vying for my attention. I ask the price of the necklace in my hand. It is 1200 Kenya shillings, the vendor says, in fine English. That is just under $20 US. I know I am supposed to bargain, but I don’t want to tell her it is not worth that much. My husband, Bob, who has brought items to trade, joins in. I hear calls from all around me, “Misus, look at this beautiful necklace.” Bob starts to bargain. This woman with fine English is not interested in a Swiss Army knife or a flashlight. She wants shillings. Bob scoops up two more elephant necklaces to bargain for three. After negotiations, they have decided on a price for three: 600 shillings.

There are so many similar necklaces being thrust at me, I quickly put on my three elephant necklaces and fasten them, to show that they are mine. I cannot proceed along the tables alone. I am accompanied by women, and a few men, holding out their necklaces and earrings for me to buy, calling for my attention: Misus, look at this. Misus come this way. After a few minutes, Bob hands me another elephant necklace, which he just got in trade for four AA batteries. I fasten this one on as well. Now he is enthusiastically involved in trying to trade for a Maasai shield. My entourage of vendors follows close by me, still selling. I smile and tell them all thank you, but I do not need more necklaces. A young woman gently takes my wrist and I allow her to lead me to her table. She looks at me earnestly and tells me that her baby is four years old and I must buy something from her. I tell her that her things are lovely, but I do not need anything more. As I move on, a tall Maasai man takes hold of one of the elephant necklaces at my throat and says, “You must pay for this. My wife made this and you must pay for it.” I tell him that these have all been paid for. He towers over me and pokes me hard in the chest just below the necklace and repeats that I must pay for it. I tell him again that these were all paid for. I don’t know what else to say. I look around for help and Kennedy comes to my rescue. He extricates me from my accuser and tells me that he will take care of it. I should join the others who are going to see the Maasai school. Bob is finished with his trade and we walk on to the school buildings, outside the village, away from the warrior who says I didn’t pay. It is then that I realize that the necklace in dispute would have been the one that Bob got in trade for four AA batteries. This man doesn’t want batteries; he wants shillings. I feel foolish. I look back and see that Kennedy is following us. He has taken care of it.

In the small, wooden school building with a corrugated metal roof, a group of shaved-headed children prepare to sing for us. Most of the boys are wearing oversized T-shirts and shorts. The girls wear ill-fitted dresses that might be hand-me-downs from some faraway child, cast-off Sunday school dresses from American or European families. Although Kenya law requires that all children go to school, the boys far outnumber the girls. They sing to us in Swahili, then, a small, boy,  no more than five or six years old, steps forward to lead as they recite, one-two, buckle my shoe, three-four, shut the door. He smiles, he gestures, his eyes open wide as he performs each line of the poem, this entrancing three-foot tall showman. When he finishes, he takes quick, deep bows, his legs disappearing under his large, adult-size T-shirt.

It is time to leave. Getting back into the Land Cruiser, I remember the woman in the hut, whose intelligence hides behind sad eyes, whose future holds little hope of change. I wish for all of these women some choices in their lives, some respect, some comfort. But then catch myself, hearing these words in my head reflecting my own expectations. I saw laughing, singing, smiling women too. These Maasai women carry water, collect firewood, and watch their children play under the vast Kenya sky. Who is to say my world is better?

Donna Lawrence won the Silver award for Travel Memoir in the Travelers’ Tales Solas Awards for 2015. She has written for National Geographic Traveler, the New York Times, the San Diego Daily Transcript, Ohio Magazine, Miami Magazine, and many other magazines and newspapers. She is the author of Leave Only Paw Prints, Dog Hikes in San Diego County, published by Sunbelt Publications. She lives in Los Angeles.