A Week with the Maasai

African Time, like Antioch Time, is an elusive force that moves all appointments back by anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour. So Sarah and I are not surprised when we are asked to wait for twenty minutes in the back of the truck that is to take us out to the rural secondary school where she is working. Then abruptly, there is a further cause for delay. From just beyond the nearest line of stone-and-metal houses, a cloud of black smoke boils into the air. People from the far fringes of this town become aware of it before we do, and everyone seems suddenly to be on the move. Men and women are running toward the smoke, scooping up small children, while even smaller ones, temporarily abandoned, toddle after.

The ten or so people with us in the back of the truck–most of them Maasais in various purples and reds–also pour out. We follow them. This town is Monduli Chini, and Monduli Chini’s main source of petrol (that’s gasoline, to you) has just burst into flame. The petrol vendor’s house, which was also his shop and storeroom, has caught fire and the man himself has been rushed off to the hospital with grave burns. No one bothers to return to the truck. There is not enough petrol in the tank to get us where we need to go, and not enough in the town to fill it.

The truck sets off in search of a source of fuel. African Time ticks on. Where they find the petrol, Sarah and I aren’t sure. It is nearing dusk when we arrive in Eluai. The place is named for the Maa word for thewhistling acacia: a silver tree with nail-length thorns that alternate on its branches like barbed wire. Each tree is laden with a number of inky black pods, and in many of the pods ants have bored small holes. When the wind blows—and in Eluai the wind is always blowing—they keen eerily.

This is a place full of strange plants. One tree has an acidic sap that can take flesh from bone. “If you swallow,” one local boy warns gleefully, “it kill a man in one minute.” The most colorful plant in the area is a spindly shrub that puts out sprays of yellow, jawbreaker-sized fruits; the fruits are poisonous, but the roots make a traditional Maasai medicine for malaria. Also present are the monolithic baobab trees, with fruits that resemble nothing so much as hand grenades. The grass here is sharp and whiplike. The ground is hard and carved by dry gulches. It seems an unlikely place for the cradle of humanity, but the famed Olduvai Gorge is just next door.

Noonkodiin, where Sarah works, is the area’s only co-educational secondary school, and it serves the Maasai people. With most of the students gone on break, the compound is calm. In the night, the hyenas come out and the wind breaks against the metal roof, which thrums like a sounding board.

But the mornings are quiet. There are women singing over the cooking fire in the kitchen. There is Sarah and her Pali chants. Nothing like it. (One of the mornings, an exception, finds us waking up to the rambling monologue of the local madman, who apparently wanders the area unmolested.)

Then from Eluai it’s out to the home of one of the students, at his invitation. The journey is four hours on foot. At first there is a dirt road. Then there is a cowpath. Finally, there is just scrub. When we reach the half-circle of thatched dung homes that house this student’s family, we collapse onto stools and are given bottles of lukewarm Coca Cola.

Our accommodations for the night are ample by the standards of the place. The student–whom we know as Daniel–and his father have vacated their own bed for us to use, but there is a catch: they have installed with us Danny’s little sister, a grinning, gap-toothed little goblin who kicks in the night and clambers across us once or twice early each morning. It’s a mystery to me how one small girl can find my kidneys so unerringly in near darkness, but she does it.

“No one bothers to return to the truck. There is not enough petrol in the tank to get us where we need to go, and not enough in the town to fill it.”

If I weren’t slowly beginning to learn otherwise, I would assume that these people were living as they had been for hundreds of years. But the land shapes the people, and the lack of it even more so. They are not nomads any longer–there is not room for that. And the bomas, which used to house unrelated people, no longer does–a result of the government’s policy of parcelling land out to individual families.

There are bead-decorated calabashes as well as plastic buckets to be found here. Glass beads and imported plastic ones. But there are deeper surprises here too. Daniel’s father, for instance, calls himself the chairman of the forest. As far as I can tell, his job is to work with the government to make sure local people obtain the paid permits required to cut wood in the area. He complains bitterly about those violators who destroy the environment.

And later, prompted by Sarah, Daniel shows her a pamphlet his father gave him on female circumcision. His father has told him he will never circumcise another girl in the family. It must be a recent decision: in a water-blotched photo album that Danny’s mother shows me, several color photographs show a slim young woman in a white dress, accompanied by her glowing family in ceremonial garb. These document the day of her circumcision. Their expressions are unreadable, but there is an unmistakable air of satisfaction to them. Meanwhile, the male circumcision rite is strong. On the way down from a mountain hike, Sarah and I see young men running towards an unknown destination. Curious, we inquire with our companions, who tell us that the men are running because they must all arrive together at the  place where the collective circumcision of the latest age-group is being celebrated. It’s African Time, and they are late for the party.