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  Issue Date: 3 / 2018  
 

A Modern Story from Old Africa



James Dorsey
 

Image Courtesy James Dorsey Click image to enlarge.

       In those fleeting moments when the indigo of the night is lashed a bloody red by the dawn; you can smell the essence of Africa. It was there that I learned that antiquity has its own smell. Yes, it is red earth and a hot wind mixed with the blood of a kill, wood fires and human grease, dung and mud that has always defined spear and lion cloth Africa. That is the Africa that first called to me and I have watched as it disappears.
       
       It was on that sun baked Savannah that I first saw Ndoko. He was a silhouette; a tiny drip of black against the swirling Van Gogh sunrise. His spear identified him as a Maasai, that ancient race of majestic warriors who measure their wealth by the size of their animal herds. They are a people in transition as are many who have thus far clung to the old ways; nomadic herders becoming pastoralists. I could hear the jingle of his ankle bells above the bleating of his goats. The Maasai are a part of the land, and to see them in nature is to realize that the sight before you has been unchanged in a thousand years.
       
       Ndoko was too young to be a morani, a warrior. He was herding goats that day as the young men must do before advancing within the tribal hierarchy. I had spent much time with elders and some morani on previous trips, but I wanted to talk with a boy who had not yet undergone the initiations rites, to get his thoughts, his feelings, his fears.
       
       In developing countries I have always tried to talk with the children. Now more than ever, with the internet and social media shrinking the world, it is the younger generation that is in transition as more and more leave the old ways behind to pursue the adventures of the modern world. They are the last vestiges of a dying way of life, and boys like Ndoko will decide how quickly it dies.
       The Maasai have no chiefs, only elders, and Ndoko was the nephew of a revered elder who happened to be my friend. He was approaching puberty and would soon undergo an initiation rite that had officially been banned for decades, but was openly practiced within the tribal clans as a hereditary part of their upbringing; hunting lions.
       
       The Maasai are known for their prowess against lions. Stories abound of young boys tending cattle or goats herds that single handedly drove off or held off a lion with a spear. It is not simply a matter of bravery; it is imprinted in their DNA. As warriors, the Maasai feel a kinship to the mightiest of African beasts, and are thus, equal rivals. They are willing to die to protect their herds. The boys wear bells while working and the lions have come to associate the Maasai with the sound of those bells.
       
       A Maasai boy does not have to actually kill a lion, but he does have to participate in a traditional hunt, and that means with an animal hide shield and metal tipped spear. They do not use guns. When a lion is spotted, the morani will form a large circle around it, then slowly advance, closing the circle inch by inch until the lion is threatened enough to attack out of desperation. Obviously a man with a spear is no match for a 400 pound carnivore in full survival mode. The idea is that the victim throws himself to the ground and covers with his shield until his fellow warriors can move in and dispatch the great cat. That sounds simple enough, but I have known many morani who bear lifelong scars from their ritual into manhood.
       
       When I asked him about his upcoming hunt there was a momentary flash of fear in his eyes, but he quickly regained his composure and agreed to talk. He told me stories of friends who had been mauled or killed during a hunt, and one great tale about his uncle who was so fearful during his moment of truth that he actually skewered his own leg with his spear he was so afraid. He told me his greatest fear was not measuring up to those on either side of him when the time came. For a Maasai boy, the lion hunt is a pivotal moment in his life and nothing else would approach it in importance. To lose face is an unbearable thought. With that he stood up and made several spear thrusts at the air, punctuated by his best warrior yells. Coming from one so young added a slight touch of comedy, but I had no doubt that he would hold his ground against a big cat.
       
       He followed that with another story that I had never heard. One day he saw a leopard watching him from a tree and slowly backed away, never lowering his spear but knowing how ineffective it would be against such a fleet predator. He told me that a lion will make a kill and drag it off to eat in peace, but a leopard will kill everything in sight before settling down to a meal. That sent chills up my spine.
       
       We spent two days in conversation, sitting in the elephant grass of the savannah, watching a vast intermingled herd of zebras and wildebeest migrating through the great bowl of a valley spread out below us. The clouds shifted about like kinetic sculptures while delicate yellow and white butterflies danced a ballet around us. There is something about the light on the savannah that is unlike others, but its subtleties are too finite to be expressed in words; it is ethereal, like a candle behind the finest sheer cloth, and to witness the African savannah is to sense the immensity of the universe.
       
        Listening to his stories of a life in the bush was as opposite of my own as if we came from different planets, and yet I saw much of my younger self in him. My only equivalent of mustering great personal courage came when I enlisted in the army during the Vietnam War but even that was not on a par with facing a 400 pound wild carnivore in its own element. We had no reference points for each other, but every life has that moment when childhood is left behind, and Ndoko’s moment was coming. I asked if he had any desire to visit the United States but he did not know what that was, and at the time I thought him the better for it.
       
        I had to leave before his hunt was scheduled so I wished him well and presented him with my Swiss Army Knife as a token, vowing to stay in touch, though how, I did not know: There was no internet let alone electricity in his village.
       Most African hands will tell you that once the land gets under your skin it is like gravity to the human soul. When I am away it calls to me, but life intervened, and seven years slid by before I could return. The land was unchanged as I drove through thick forests that opened to the rolling savannahs where Ndoko lived, and I felt like I was returning home. When I pulled up in my ride, a tall morani stood out among those talking and laughing by a corral. He looked up at my arrival and the intervening years disappeared as he walked towards me, self- assured and noble in his stride. He was wearing a Swiss Army Knife on a thong around his neck. He crushed me in a bear hug that I told him would kill a lion, and that made him laugh.


Image Courtesy James Dorsey Click image to enlarge.

       
       We took a long walk together and he told me about his hunt; how the night before the morani all gave thanks to the lion’s spirit for providing its life in sacrifice to their traditions, then, while having his face painted white, he was shaking so badly he was sure everyone would notice, but when you are truly scared you rarely sense that others around you are in the same condition. Later that day, they cornered a lion in a thicket, but apparently the times, traditions, and local thinking were not as dogmatic as I had thought. The young morani had agreed during their march to find the lion that once surrounded, it was as good as dead and none of them had any desire to kill such a magnificent animal, so just when it looked as though it might lunge out of panic, they opened their circle and the lion took off into freedom. Apparently the elders agreed with this enlightened way of approaching an ancient ritual, performing the entire hunt without actually making a kill. The boys were all welcomed into the warrior class.
       
       Since we met, Ndoko had visited America as a junior ambassador for a now defunct NGO, and his memories were a fascinating insight into the mind of one visiting such a place for the first time. It was enlightening to hear my world being interpreted by someone who did not understand it. He told me he was crossing the street one day with a friend when the traffic sign suddenly changed from “walk” to “don’t walk,” so he stopped in the middle of the intersection insuring a symphony of horns until his friend pulled him away. Another time he stalked and killed a smoke detector in his hosts’ hallway with a broom handle. Seeing the blinking red lights that showed the detector was working looked like the same red glow from the eyes of a predatory animal at night, so he defended himself. One day he was shown how to use an electric can opener and was so fascinated that he opened almost every can in the pantry. That trip was also the first time he had seen a toilet, so he dismantled it to find the river where the water flowed to when you turned the handle.
       
       He told me that America was too strange, too different, and much too fast for him. He had no desire to return. His only regret was that he had not seen any animals. I explained that in cities the only animals were pets, and that the larger animals resided in zoos, and that strange word required an explanation. “Lions in cages?” he said with such a bewildered look that I suddenly felt myself a barbarian for telling him about it. The thought of animals in cages was beyond his comprehension. Maasai live in the moment. For them there is no past or future, and there are stories of them dying while in prison because they simply have no concept of ever being free again. Animals are their brothers and no less immune to such inhumane treatment. That gave me much food for thought. I had not given the topic much consideration before, but I think of that day as my awakening as an animal rights activist.
       
       So on our final day together we returned to our spot on the hill as the valley below moved like rippling water as animals moved through the tall grass. When I stood up to leave one final time Ndoko took the Swiss knife I had given him and placed it around my neck. Then touching foreheads as is the local custom, he said, “Thank you for the knife, but now I have a very large spear and you will need this in America.” Then he whispered in my ear, “No more lions are being killed by Maasai.” I have since read that many Maasai are also changing their hereditary ritual of female mutilation, performing the ceremony without doing any actual cutting. Morani like Ndoko are slowly altering an ancient culture.
       Lately, thanks to social media, there has been a proliferation of photos of dead “Trophy” animals on the internet Seeing those makes me ponder which society is more evolved.
       


James Michael Dorsey is an award winning author, explorer, photographer, and lecturer who has traveled extensively in 46 countries. He has spent the past two decades researching remote cultures around the world. His work can be seen on the web at jamesdorsey.com.
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