Despite my qualms, the creepiest thing that happened during our stay with the Maasai was that a huge black beetle started crawling across the floor of our hut, just before I climbed into bed. Part of my brain was thinking, “You should photograph that,” but a larger part was driving a shriek that I sincerely hope the Maasai did not hear. I smashed the bug with my sandal (sleeping under thatched roofs always makes me jumpy), and the more-interesting-than-creepy thing that happened this morning was that no trace of it remained. Steve is certain ants consumed or carried it off in the night, though there was no sign of them, nor of any other noxious insects.

Although I’d thought we would have to sleep in a tent, instead we were lodged in an engazi, one of the Maasai’s traditional round structures made of wood poles and sticks plastered with a mixture of termite clay, cow dung, water, and ash, and topped with a thick layer of thatching. Since it was an engazi reserved for tourist use, twin foam mattresses had been placed over the cowhide beds, and a big mosquito net cocooned the whole sleeping platform. We slept surprisingly well.

That was partly because yesterday was so full. The drive from Moshi to the village took about two hours, carrying us through endless fields of sunflowers that at first were tall and luxuriant but grew shorter and more and more withered as we drove northeast. Within 5 minutes after leaving the Tarmac road, the landscape changed abruptly, soon reminding me of the American desert, except for the multitudes of acacia trees and euphobia instead of cacti and yucca. Our entrance to the Olpopongi compound was a hoot; 9 Maasai, young and old, men and women, had assembled to give us a traditional welcome song and dance (complete with some of the incredible leaps traditionally made by the warriors when they kill a lion). Over the course of the afternoon, we came to understand how special this place is: offering the most comprehensive opportunity in all of Maasai-land to learn about this centuries-old culture.

Apparently the Olpopongi center was the brainchild of a German guy who wanted to see the local folk develop some supplemental income for the tough times. After long and exhausting deliberations, the tribal elders blessed the idea, and the tourist boma (compound) was built over 15 months and began receiving visitors in 2010. It looks like it’s all alone out in the bush, but in reality 30 or so other bomas (inhabited by Maasai, rather than visitors) are scattered about, constituting the village of Tinga-Tinga. We were told that the Olpopongi compound contained all the elements of the workaday bomas. An outermost circle of spiky brush barrier serves to keep out wild animals; scraggly little dogs are the alarm system. A similar inner circle of brush corrals the cows, sheep, and goats at night, but in our boma contained picnic tables and a campfire area. In between the 2 circles of brush, the huts are arranged, one for each wife and her children. (Maasai warriors can have bunches of both. For example, our 31-year-old Maasai guide, Freddy, already has 4 wives and 8 children, and he told us his father has 14 wives and 87 offspring.) One concession to the tourists was a free-standing building containing (gents’ and ladies’) Western toilets and hot showers, facilities that surpassed some I’ve seen in American parks.

The other main touristic element was a “museum” pavilion containing educational panels and all manner of items used by Maasai past and present. Freddy and two other guys spoke English well, and they shared the task of giving us a comprehensive show and tell. We all took a leisurely break to consume a yummy lunch of rice cooked with savory chunks of beef and accompanied by chapattis stuffed with cooked vegetables. In the late afternoon, as the distant clouds parted to reveal beautiful views of Kilimanjaro, Freddy and Kimoni led us on a bush walk in which they pointed out an amazing array of plants with medicinal and other uses.

Bibi and two of the younger women

My favorite part of the experience, however, came before the bush walk, when Bibi (grandmother) invited us into one of the huts for Maasai tea. In the dim interior, we gathered around the little indoor fire, where Bibi was boiling the yummy mixture of leaves, milk, and spices. She filled our tin cups, and in short order, we learned that she’s 96. I pulled out my iPhone photo of Steve and his mom last August on her 95th birthday, and everyone thought it was great. Time disappeared for me as we sipped and chatted (with Freddy interpreting). I asked Bibi if life had changed much since she was a girl, and she discoursed at length, particularly noting (with disapproval) the advent of cell phones. I asked if Maasai co-wives got along well together or if jealousies ever divided them, and she had fascinating insights into that question. Freddy, too, held us spellbound, talking about what happens on a lion hunt, which the Maasai say they only do when one of the big cats has begun marauding on their cattle. In Maasai-land, only the warriors can hunt wild animals, and a boy becomes a warrior only after he’s had the foreskin of his penis sliced off publically, with a knife. This typically happens sometime between the ages of 12 and 22.

As luck would have it, a big circumcision ceremony was taking place somewhere in Tinga-Tinga yesterday. Because of that, fewer Maasai were present in the village than normally would be the case. Steve and I were the only tourists. So the campfire session was a bit subdued. No matter. I felt elated that somewhere nearby, new Maasai warriors had just been created; their family and neighbors were happy, singing and dancing. The newly circumcised might soon be toting (might already own!) cellphones that their grannies viewed with trepidation. For the moment, at least, the culture hung on.



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