MASTERPEACE WALK: MAASAILAND
We crossed the country of the Masai, and followed the footsteps of a traditional explorer. For a week long we travelled with a group of people from diverse backgrounds from Kenya, The Netherlands, Great Britain, Scotland, America and South Sudan. The composition of the group almost as unusual as the journey itself. The youngest participant was 19 years old, the oldest 70. From ‘screen-addicted’ townsfolk to low literate farmers. This is a report of a fraternizing walk, which has been made possible with the support of the international peace campaign MasterPeace.
text and photography: Nils Elzenga
translation: Judith Kreukels
“Lions have been spotted”. The message spread like wildfire in the safari bus that drove us through the Amboseli, a national park at the foot of the Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain. Not long after, we indeed faced the group of lounging cats. Hours before, we had already become acquainted with East-African’s famous fauna: elephants, hippos, buffalos, wildebeests, antelopes, baboons, and zebras. It was almost too much to process for those used to polders and the unusual sight of a fox.
The beautiful journey starts the next day at the natural paradise in Maasai country, located on the boarder of Kenya and Tanzania. We are about to follow the Scottish explorer Joseph Thomson’s (1858-1895) footsteps. In 1833, Thomson was charged with- what became- the first successful Western expedition in Maasai country, from the Kenyan coast to Lake Victoria.
This second edition of the MasterPeace Maasai walk, even descendants of Thomson’s family are walking along. The great grandfathers of John Hastings-Thomson (69) and Margaret Green (70) were in fact brothers of Thomson, who died at the age of 37 as a result of tropical diseases that he contracted during his wanderings, of which he was commissioned by the renowned Royal Geographic Society.
Luckily times have changed. That evening, under a starry sky, with the Kilimanjaro on the background, John explains that “lots of explorers violently fought there way through Africa”. However, Thomson did not, he was very peaceful. His motto was: ‘he who does gently goes safely; he, who goes safely, goes far’. I am pride to wander in his footsteps for peace”.
At the starting point of our trip, we are introduced to about twenty Maasai who will accompany us, together with the members of the MasterPeace Club in Nairobi. In those four years that MasterPeace is active, clubs like these have arisen in about fifty countries. The MasterPeace Clubs set up activities based on ‘soft powers’ such as music, nature, and debate, and mobilise peace talent worldwide.
Everybody introduces himself; first the initiators, Maasai-fore man Ezekiel Ole Katato, and Aart Bos, Managing Director of MasterPeace Europe. Ayak from Juba in South-Sudan is the one to finish the introduction round by saying, “I hope to meet a lion”. “I really hope not to meet one”, her neighbour Fiona from Nairobi responds. What follows is laughter; the ice is broken.
On the road
There we go, with fifty men sharp, through flat and dry landscape. We are supposed to walk in quietness, but out of curiosity we start talking. “Did you know Nairobi was once Masai-land?” Elias asks a slim Maasai in a bright orange robe. “Until the other tribes came we did. But if we, the Maasai, are being upset, we move on, like wild animals”. This according to Elias is also the reason why the Masai are spread over such a large area- in Kenya and Tanzania.
At lunch, the Maasai warriors go straight javelin and high jumping. Physical challenges are popular among the Maasai who, although traditionally dressed, often prove quite worldly. For instance Gideon, who studies Finance and Banking in Nairobi and follows recent ‘trending topics’ on social media on his smartphone. In Kenya these topics are important anti-corruption channels. According to Gideon, “especially Twitter can make or break you”. He recalls an example of a parliamentary journalist who has recently been arrested for writing a critical article by order of the Minister of Internal Security. Social media exploded and within two hours, the journalist was released from prison. “If you would have written an article like that a few years ago, you would have been dead”.
After lunch we regularly see antelopes and ostriches. Once we even find a family of giraffes in the bushes. Maasai do not eat wild animals,” says the Dutch Stefan. “They only eat their own cattle”. Nevertheless, according to Ezekiel the amount of wild animals decreased significantly over the years as a result of the growing population. “For example, when I was little you could find rhinos everywhere”. By the time we are back at the camp, the curious children from the neighbourhood are waiting for us.
Kenya’s first Buddhist
In the days that follow, walking becomes a way to connect with one another. There is high mutual curiosity for each other. This is not surprising, knowing that there are several special personalities walking along. Take for instance Dennis Odeny (25), from Nairobi. While he was instructed in a Thai monastery as Buddhist, he now teaches mediation throughout Africa because of the Peace Revolution organisation. Dennis’ dream is to set up a centre for personal growth. “Where people are able to question their blindness while chasing the money. Where people take responsibility for their own life, and do not put themselves in a victim role”.
When we pause at a tree, that has been disrupted a few days before by an elephant, warrior Musa (24) tells us how he, as a shepherd boy, challenged an elephant up to the point where the animal nearly crushed him. Later at lunch we hear exuberant singing, coming from two corrugated iron churches. Many Maasai are Christians, hence the common Biblical names.
Walking in silence
Also the silence is powerful. Daily, I walk large distances by myself, and feel a growing connection towards nature. I smell the earth, hear sounds of birds and other animals and feel the wind and sun on my skin. I settle down on a much deeper level than I am used to. The landscape is different every day. Sometimes, it is flat, other times hilly. Sometimes the earth is bride red, sometimes deep black. The tropical vegetation varies from green to dry savannah. Also, the weather changes on a regular basis. Sometimes we have heavy rainfalls, and at others the sun is unconditionally shining. What is more consistent, is the way in which people exit their manyatta’s to see the walking procession from up-close. This results in valuable meetings.
Tradition versus modernity
Every day we share our experiences. Sometimes in a large group, other times in smaller. For the Maasai, an important theme is the tension between their traditions and the encroaching modern world. All the Maasai I speak to, praise the strength of their culture “But cultures are dynamic, never static”, says Ezekiel one evening near the campfire; “Even ours”. Body decorations, as the stretching of the ear lobes, and the removal of the lower teeth are for example on their return. As well as female circumcision, a ritual that in Western eyes invariably evokes great aversion. Ezekiel welcomes the changes. “We are inferior to ourselves if we anxiously exclude us from the outside world. That is why we want foreigners to come here, for exchange to take place”. However, he does not understand all modern enticements equally. With a rueful smile: “My youngest son now wears jeans but lets them down up to a point that you can see his underpants. That is not the behaviour for a Maasai, right?” According to Katato, who himself studied in Nairobi but thereafter returned to his native village, education is fundamental. “We can only survive as a nation if educated Maasai provide us with a voice.”
Agree to disagree
Warrior Jeremy (28), who recently finished his medicine degree and returned to Maasai land, likes to see everything around him changing. “My own wife for example is currently studying in Nairobi. In the past that was not even possible”. Also within his Maasai-warrior group, the men help with typical ‘women jobs’ like doing the groceries or collecting water. Jeremy’s friend James (31) does not have an education, but is – like many other Maasai – very open and curious. “What about the dowries in the Netherlands?” “What is your religion?” “And how does the political system work?” I brace myself when a Dutch person starts talking about homosexuality, a taboo in many places in Maasai land. However, soon it turns out that everybody is respectful and interested in each other. Not sharing the same opinions turns out not to be a problem.
A serene conversation
Halfway our journey, we pause in the smoke of a manyatta- a fenced yard surrounded by with torn branches on which some families live. After spending the morning searching for juicy greens together with a flock of goats and their tiny shepherds, two warriors and I meet the village head. While the 98-year-old village head is dozing away in the shadow of his crumbling hut, they offer him, out of respect, the head of sheep that has just been slaughtered. Respect is an important value in the Maasai hierarchy. The fact that I do not understand the conversation between them is more an advantage for me than a disadvantage. From a short distance, I see the sun setting behind a hill , the conversation continues serene, it is one of those moments of pure bliss, where the idea that everything connects is tangible.
Dialogue before judgment
Back at our campsite, I hear a reporter of the Daily Nation, the largest English newspaper of East-Africa, interviewing Aart Bos. According to Bos, “World problems are too complex to be left to governments. It is up to each of us to take action. We say that the world is home to seven billion talents instead of problems. Hence our motto ‘Dialogue before judgment’.” The next morning Ezekiel reveals that “Maasai can learn from that conviction”. “While there is no real fight between the clans, like when I was younger, there are still conflicts about land and water. Therefore, the dialogue model of MasterPeace suits us well”.
Giant human snakes
Due to heavy rainfall we are forced to sleep one night in a school, which overlooks an endless plain. The reception of hundreds of screaming school kids is overwhelming, as well as the international volleyball tournament which erupts right thereafter. The highlight of the trip, however, is awaiting us on our last day in Ezekiel’s manyatta. Even before we actually see the village, we can already hear the shrill cries of warriors. In a quickly formed line-up, we walk to the village. We are witnessing a dance of two giant human snakes. It is only until the snakes meet and everybody starts shaking hands, that we realize how beautiful the villagers’ costumes are. Especially the women with their jewellery look like walking pieces of art. The men and women finish their ritual separately: while the women are singing and dancing and end up a sort of ‘trance’, the men finish off with famous high jumping. We are then welcomed under a big tree by receiving their blessings and welcome messages. “We may look different on the outside, but inside we are all the same.” “Mostly we see only white people in busses driving past, it’s nice to meet you in this way”.
At Ezekiel’s home
A visit to Ezekiel’s home makes a deep impression. Here is a man who studied in a metropolis, who slept in expensive hotels, but prefers a pitch-dark hut of several square meters in which he cannot stand up straight. The hut is located on tamped earth, reinforced with plastic and exists of walls made up of clay and cow dung. However, Ezekiel is close to his own people, his cattle, and in perfect peace. The landscape is not touched by modernity- everywhere I look I see nothing but green and undulating highland. When looking at the group of zebras in the distance, I experience the peace of untouched nature myself, and realize that here is a man who can still breathe freely. My return to Nairobi intensifies that realization. I inhale the exhaust fumes while being stuck in a huge traffic jam. The metropolis becomes like a bad dream of congestion and pollution, a stinking symbol of everything that is wrong with capitalism, globalizations and ‘progress’. The bitter need of natural and cultural protection, and the prevention of rampant consuming, becomes clearer to me than ever.