by Ken Lovering
In unfamiliar cultures, honesty has its risks.
It would be easy to blame my sweat on the mid-afternoon Tanzanian sun.
But there’s more to why my glands are working overtime: I am sitting in a tiny Maasai enkaji, a circular hut constructed of a mud-manure mix that these five beaded women, my hosts, likely slapped together with their bare hands. The only light by which we inspect each other dissipates from the low doorway. Humid stuffy air, tinged with earth and a clamminess that is not completely my own, is as sure a presence as we are.
There’s one more reason I sweat, why my stomach sits in my throat and my heart pounds. I am fixing to come out to my hosts merely by exchanging cultural pleasantries.
This is risky business in Africa. Homosexual acts are illegal in 38 of its 51 nations, punishable by life imprisonment (as in Tanzania) or even execution (as in Mauritania, Sudan, and parts of Nigeria). So I do not share my sexual orientation frivolously or with the reckless passion of an adamant activist. And though the Maasai in many ways stand apart from the mores of Tanzania, I do not expect a warm reception from these women. After all, they have no word in their language for “homosexual.” In their language, I may as well not exist.
Hence my soaking shirt.
My guide Peter, a native Tanzanian fluent in Maa, has been facilitating an engrossing discussion between the women and a dozen travel professionals from around the world—Italy, China, Costa Rica, Spain, South Africa, and the U.S. We men have just been asked why our wives—valuable commodities in Maasai culture—are not with us.
And I, alas, have never been a good liar.
We were there to learn what typical tourists would experience on safari. Well, that’s not completely true: we were there to push the limits of what a safari could be, leaving typical tourists in the dust, so to speak. Call it a guerilla safari, if you will. In one
caffeine-driven week, we were cramming in what any sane traveler would spread out over two.
I imagined that the typical tourist might ask Peter about his family (he had a wife), or whether he had ever killed an animal in the bush (yes he had—all guides are required to kill one large animal during their training). But we were not going to let him off so easily.
We asked him about female genital mutilation.
Maasai girls, Peter said, are circumcised at a very young age, before their first menstruation. It is a rite of passage still valued by many Maasai tribes despite pressures from the Western world to stop. Only after the ceremony is the girl worthy of marriage.
My eyes wandered to the tribesman at Peter’s left, fully regaled in a red-and-blue checkered shuka , simple wooden bracelets, white-bead necklace and anklets, cow-hide sandals, a spear that was as tall as he, and—suspiciously—a Rolex. By Western standards, he looked near 70 years old, but who knows how the African sun and the ways of the Maasai had aged him.
What of this brutal ceremony had been imprinted on this old warrior’s heart: greeting the knife-wielding butcher who has, by tradition, traveled from another village … fetching the girl from the enkaji . Is she meek, defiant, resistant? Her mother holds her firm, dutifully wipes away a tear or two—or many—from her baby as her legs are spread and the hands and crude blade reach inside.
Peter’s mention of male circumcision pulled me from my gruesome imaginings toward a more familiar ritual. I welcomed it as the lesser of two barbarisms—after all, infant boys are circumcised everyday in my culture.
But the Maasai boy is not an infant at the time of his circumcision either. He could be as old as 17, graduating from boyhood to junior warrior. This ritual tests his bravery. Like for the girl, there is no anesthetic. Unlike for the girl, tears will bring dishonor to him and his family. He must not whimper. He must not wince.
“And if he cries,” Peter told us, “they kill him.”
We all gasped. They kill him?
For us Westerners, of course it was impossible to begin to understand the sanctioned murder of a child—a murder required by tribal custom. But the savagery fits the Maasai’s historic ways. They arrived in Kenya and Tanzania from the lower Nile valley 300 years ago with the ferocity of an unrelenting storm. Their mythology has it that their god Enkai put cattle on the earth for them. So as they migrated and settled, they forcibly took entire herds from indigenous tribes in their path —the Chagga, the Meru.
They attacked with spears and shields. And their most effective weapon was the orinka, a club they could throw with astonishing accuracy from as far as 300 feet. They were the worst kind of intruder, a brutal and passionate enemy, because they believed they were taking back what was rightfully and divinely theirs.
But to the Maasai, cattle is more than god’s gift. It is their currency. So 300 years ago, as the tribe amassed its wealth, a warrior’s strength and fearlessness were the most crucial factors for the group’s survival. Men must be strong , the boys learned at a very young age. You must endure pain like a brave warrior. Or we have no use for you . And in the 21st century, Peter tells us, in the most remote tribes untouched by civilization, crying can still be punishable by death.
Fearlessness aside, I knew that the boys’ murders also underlined the weight … the tonnage … which the Maasai give to the demands and expectations of gender.
And so I sit in a stifling enkaji , making small talk.
I counted two dozen or so cows and bulls, all of them much thinner than the fully fed Holsteins grazing New England farmlands back home. But the rich stench of manure is universal, so we all watched where we stepped.
Livestock is traded on market day, bartered between villages, and paid as dowry to a bride’s family when a man marries a woman and brings her into his tribe. When combined with goats, the bride’s family might profit quite well. Stepping into this pen, then, seemed akin to being invited into a bank vault. This was no small honor. And, judging from the thick fence of barbed branches they had erected, they certainly didn’t want their cash wandering off. “Keeps the cattle in?” I asked, pointing to the fence. Peter translated and offered the reply: “And keeps the lions out.”
Once inside, the men wrangled a white cow and brought her front and center. She struggled, but one man braced her with an armhold, his sandaled feet solid on the dirt.
Another yanked her head to the side, exposing her neck to the third man—the one with the bow—who had grabbed from his shoulder pouch a blunt arrow carved from a stick.
Are they going to kill a cow for us? I thought, horrified.
That may have been what the cow thought too. Wide-eyed, she strained to see what was going to come at her vulnerable spot. The archer crouched on one knee to take aim, placed his arrow, pulled back on the intestine, and let fly the pierce. Direct hit, right at the jugular.
He reached for a teardrop-shaped urn (appropriately shaped at least for the cow, and I’m sure for most of us guests), and caught the ruby-red flow of blood as if it were spilling from a faucet. Once he had collected enough for us all, he plugged the wound with hay from the ground, patted the donor to be on her way, and passed the urn to us.
“Welcome,” he said—perhaps his only English.
Now I would never claim the culinary experience of Anthony Bourdain, but I had sampled termites in Zimbabwe (they tasted dusty), tentacled octopus in Sicily (rubbery), and oysters fresh from an underwater farm in Croatia (after a nausea-inducing drive along a magnificent but winding and dizzying cliff-lined coast). Here in Tanzania, I brought the dime-size opening of the urn to my nose, and it wasn’t the near-briny and obviously beefy smell that triggered my gag reflex. It was the warmth. Bovine heat rose from within the bulbous teardrop of the urn, concentrated in the narrow neck, and careened into my sinus.
This was more intimate than I ever wanted to get with Bessie. And I considered becoming a vegan when I return home.
I did not pass this vampirous test, and prayed that my hosts would not be insulted. I never dreamed that this little cultural insensitivity would become the least of my worries.
Scrutiny creeps closer, and soon all eyes turn to me. I consider lying, fabricating some obedient woman who keeps house while her adventurous husband travels the world drinking the welcome-blood of cattle. Oh, how easy it would be to lie. But I am thinking of the boys, the ones who are not quite man enough to be warriors, not man enough to live.
“In my country …” I say. My voice trembles. My entire body trembles, as if I am freezing cold in that hot, hot hut. I measure the words I am about to say, wanting to be delicate and respectful, to attribute my marital status to my culture instead of my desire. After all, I can’t know what the Maasai know of desire.
“In my country, men are permitted to marry men.” I look to Peter through the dimness for him to translate. I am also baring myself for the first time to him, a Tanzanian who lives with an inhumane law every day. But he—brother Peter—doesn’t miss a beat. “And so I do not have a wife. I have a husband.”
Centuries pass as Peter translates. My colleagues have faded into the dark. I swig my water and wipe my brow. The air has grown unbearably heavy.
Peter stops. And an amazing thing happens.
Up until now, our hosts had been stoic, even stone-faced. I hadn’t been sure there was much to them, and wondered if the Maasai generally have personalities as dry as the land they farm. But with my pronouncement, the room erupts, and five distinct—though not welcoming— individuals emerge.
There are uncontrollable giggles. Grunts. Recoilings. Looks of disgust. One woman pops open her eyes, two white marbles in this dark room, and purses her lips. Another covers her mouth with her hand and sinks her head into her shoulders as if she has learned a scandalous secret. The last, the elder, disapprovingly shakes her head. I hope I appear confident and solid on the outside, because inside I am regressing to a high-school self-consciousness I haven’t felt in more than 25 years. I can’t bear to be judged—even now, even when I know my jury is as insular as the Maasai.
I turn to Peter. “I’m going to get out of here alive, right?” I ask. I’m pretty sure I’m kidding. This cuts through the tension in the room. Everyone except our hosts laughs.
But Peter has his hands full. The women begin pelting him. “Why would two men want to marry? How would two men marry? What use is that?” These are big questions that beg social histories to be reconstructed.
The room is now abuzz. English in seven different accents ricochets off the mud walls, mingling with Maa. A micro-United Nations. My colleagues live for this type of intercultural exchange. So do I. But I’d rather not be the center of it and I feel stymied. They try to bring some understanding to this now-controversial hothouse.
“He wants to spend his life with a man,” says one. Peter tries to translate, but stops short, reconsidering his attempt. “The Maasai marry out of duty to the tribe,” he says. “They don’t know what it is to ‘want’ in this way.”
“It’s just like a man and a woman,” another attempts. But it is not.
Still another goes a step further: “It’s just like love between a man and a woman.” I think that might clinch it.
“The Maasai do not know love in this romantic way,” Peter says. “A man might have more than one wife. And a woman might share a bed with more than one man.”
I lean forward to speak to them directly and let Peter translate from his shadowy corner. Maybe a simple, objective summary will help. “In my country, some men marry women and some men marry men,” I say.
There. That seems simple. I want them to sit back and utter the Maa equivalent of “Okay” to my final word.
But it only leads to more giggles and gasps. And questions—practical questions, in true Maasai fashion.
“Who paid the dowry?”
“There was no dowry; we exchanged rings.” My white-gold band is difficult to see in the dark, but they giggle or harrumph at it anyway when I hold up my hand.
“What does your family say?”
“They accept my husband as part of our family.” This only indicts my family, accomplices all.
“How do you have children?” This question was asked with the most quizzical look yet.
“We can’t have children ourselves. But we can adopt.” Peter explains how adoption works.
And so the conversation goes for another half hour: question … response … then unabashed disbelief or horror. They cannot grasp the idea that two men should live as a man and a woman. And I don’t expect them to. I never expected them to.
Still, as we step back into the Tanzania sun, I feel unsettled. Because if there was to be a bridge that our hosts could have crossed to meet me—to meet us—that bridge would have been love, the cupid-induced kind that bonds one to another. But love, it turns out, is not such a universal language.
I am not as enthused or self-congratulatory. I had been shocked the night before by the demands and expectations of gender among the Maasai. And I, consciously or not, shocked back. In many other contexts here in the bush, my pronouncement could have been suicide.
Instead of bravery, I am thinking about ignorance and knowledge—not ignorance in a derogatory sense, but things we are simply unaware of, or things we might rather not know at all. I am thinking about the infinite shades between the primitive and the civil, between right and wrong.
We slice through the magnificent Great Rift Valley. To our left, Lake Manyara sparkles like a jewel. Beyond, the Ngorongoro Foothills begin their ascent toward an ancient crater. Maasai men still herd cattle around the lush crater’s rim, prone to lion attack, spears at the ready.
The sun beats on us relentlessly. I grab a cold water from the cooler and press it to my forehead.
Ken Lovering is a writer who lives near Boston. This story won the Silver Award for Travel Memoir in the Third Annual Solas Awards.
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