We are on retreat at a beautiful lodge, with several small Maasai villages surrounding us – the nearest, from what I understand, being about 20 miles away. Out in the open air, I feel so far away from the densely packed slums we’ve left behind. I am grateful to be resting, even as more sadness sets in: I won’t see the Learning Centre children or Ray of Hope staff until my next trip to Nairobi.
Tonight, a group of Maasai tribesmen performed one of their traditional dances, as entertainment for guests of the lodge. The men were cloaked in beautiful red shukas (their tribal cloth garments), and they were so fabulously bejeweled in their adornments, I actually wondered before they danced if they were true Maasai warriors or the faux variety, reserved for lodge guests who wouldn’t know the difference.
They were real. The guttural tones, accompanied by well-timed, high-pitched shrieks, all set to intentionally paced head movements and line walking along an apparently predestined line, sent chills through me. I felt the warrior energy, and I lost myself in the moment, so much so that I actually felt terrified when the line headed in my direction.
The dance we saw was the one best known by Westerners, featuring several vertical jumps. Afterward, the leader told the audience that the jumps signify the number of girlfriends one has, with higher jumps indicating more relationships. (Maasai communities are traditionally polygamous.) He also mentioned that a Maasai warrior wishing to marry must first kill a lion.
This all sounded fantastical to me, not in the sense that such rituals weren’t recorded in my social studies books, but only in that I had not heard news of any lion slayings in quite some time. I assumed the leader was reporting on tradition, rather than on current events. I approached him after his remarks and asked.
Turns out, I was wrong again: Traditionally and still, killing a lion is required before a Maasai man can marry. In more recent years, the government has restricted the Maasai, in terms of the number of lions they may kill in a given time period. Accordingly, marriage-bound Maasai men are now joined with their peers in age sets. As long as the group successfully kills a lion, each member may marry.
The leader showed me the knife that he and other tribesmen use for the slaying. The very short blade suggests that lion encounters must be handled toe-to-toe ... assuming one is lucky enough that those are the only two body parts involved.
I had never met anyone who has killed a lion before tonight. I have to say, I’m impressed. I am not a fan of animal hunting generally, but when taken on as a prerequisite to achieving a cultural milestone, it sounds – well, warrior-like. And that’s fascinating to me.
I’m going to make a project of learning much more about this compelling tribe.