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Kenya: Following the Footsteps of a ‘White Masai’

This week was about Masai memories…I came across pictures of fashionista Olivia Palermo in Masai Mara, working together with a Spanish footwear brand Pikolinos on the 2013 Maasai Collection campaign and it brought some sweet memories I wanted to share. Adorned from head to toes with Masai jewellery and accessories, Olivia looked amazing as ever. This project, which seeks to provide Masai community with alternative sources of income while supporting their traditional craft making, combines fashion with development – two things I truly care about.

I too have fallen in love with the Masai and their beautiful culture and traditions. My most prized possession from Kenya, a beaded multi-tiered necklace, hangs above my bed and I look it at every day. Somehow it brings the memories of Kenya and that feeling of happiness I felt there. This is my story of meeting the Masai, a tribe that stole my heart…

Eremit welcomes

I visited Kenya twice and travelled to different parts of the country and wherever I was, Malindi, Nairobi or Lamu, I always spotted Masai tribesmen. These were always tall, thin men in red shuka, fabric sheets traditionally worn wrapped around the body and secured with a leather belt, wearing colourful jewellery and carrying long shepherd sticks in their hands. From the way there were dressed to the way they carried themselves (with a distinct sense of pride), they always stuck out in the crowd, no matter how big and diverse it was.

I was lucky, unlike many visitors to Kenya, to get to know Masai at a personal level. During the first trip my expat friend took me to meet his Masai acquaintance in a remote village Eremit in southern Rift Valley. After at least a couple of hours of driving from Nairobi, we were in the middle of nowhere or a “bush”. Our arrival caused a lot of interest as compact cars, let alone with two foreigners inside, is not an everyday event! Little kids were particularly amazed by my pale skin and painted toenails. Despite being a bit afraid of strangers, were very curious and playful with me.
Each family in Eremit lives in its own small compound, separated by a fence made out of tree branches, that usually includes several mud huts that house several generations. Our hosts were among the wealthier in the community and the head of the family, Richard, had two wives (Yunis and Helen) and many children, owned a big plot of land and large cattle. Yunis spoke good English so she immediately took me under her wing and adorned in Masai jewellery that belonged to her, while Helen, not being to communicate without the help of the other wife, mostly observed us with a big smile.
The main mud hut, where Yunis lived, included some basic things that can be found in any typical home – a sofa, comfy chairs, bookcase, table, bed and a big poster of Jesus. Yet her kitchen in a separate hut had nothing apart from a set of cooking pots and a place in the middle of the room for open fire. Very quickly Yunis managed to make us delicious chai and fry some chapattis. While eating, Richard and Yunis shared their thoughts on their everyday life – the fears of drought and cattle dying, securing their children’s education and diversifying ways they could earn money. Yunis as it turned out, like many Masai women, makes traditional jewellery. She brought a whole bag of all kinds of things she made and showed with pride patterned bracelets, earrings and belts. Always tempted by colorful and unique ethnic jewellery, I had to buy some of the Yunis’ creations!
Here in Eremit, far from the modern civilization, I felt so in peace with myself and my surroundings as though I had been here for a long time. Leaving these wonderful people was hard but I could never imagine I would see them again…soon!

MANDO girls

Fast forward 7-8 months later, I was back to Kenya. This time I was on the mission to volunteer for the Masai community that was so warm and welcoming to me during my first visit. I spent two incredible days in the same Masai area, which I discovered was much larger than I thought. It’s just kilometres of wilderness with all kinds of wildlife (I saw a giraffe, hyena and hogs there) in their natural habitat and only from time to time you see lonely Masai shepherds with their goats.
I decided to volunteer at a small project of the local community organization, MANDO (Matonyok Nomads Development Organization) set up by our acquaintance, Michael. Apart from many great things they do, they raise funds for the local girls to attend school. Like in other developing countries, girls in Kenya are more likely to drop out of school when situation at home worsens. So, the idea was similar to ‘adopt the child’ approach used by many international charities. Each girl would have her picture taken, we would talk to her, ask few basic questions about her family, daily life and hobbies, and then I would write a story about each girl. This information then would be distributed through MANDO partner connections in the US and other western countries so that people could chose a Masai girl they would like to support through small annual donations, which would cover the cost of her education, school supplies and uniform.
In two days, we visited two schools kilometres apart from each other and documented 50 girls. To say I was moved by their stories is to say nothing. We in the west at the comfort of our warm and cosy homes complain about life being unjust and the small petty problems that take hold of our lives. All of that becomes pointless when you hear stories of 8-10 year old girls who each day travel 3 kilometers (one way) by foot in complete wilderness just to attend the school. Some were orphans, others were raised by a single parent and their families were on the edge of survival. 
These girls had a number of chores after school – from gathering wood and fetching water to looking after their siblings or attending a sick parent. Yet here, in these very basic schools with few wooden desks and a small collection of books, they were safe and felt like kids again. Like other  children around the world, they dreamt of becoming pilots, teachers and truck drivers after finishing school. Having very little already, their education was the most valuable thing to them and a chance of a different life.
After the first day of interviewing, I asked Michael if he could take me back to his village to see Richard, Yunis, Helen and their kids. You could only imagine surprise and excitement on their faces when I arrived 8 months later at their mud hut! Once again it was a warm welcome, catching up on news, drinking chai and picking up more Masai jewellery to take back. 

Masai warriors

The second day in the Masai land was once again filled with listening  to the girls’ stories, watching school kids play and observing other parts of the daily life in the community. What happened on the way back to Nairobi though was quite extraordinary! Ahead of us in the bush we saw two men that looked like Masai warriors. Famous for their hunting skills, being fierce and proud, I was curious how our encounter will end. As our car passed them, Michael said Hello and explained that he is from the community and asked something about taking their picture. Unlike Masai in bigger towns or places like Masai Mara that might be accustomed to tourist attention, these two didn’t look like they wanted any exposure or encounter with a foreigner. Michael’s chat didn’t seem to lead to any positive response. Yet, as the car pulled away and Michael waved good-bye at them, they shouted something back that indicated they might have changed their minds. 
Realizing how unique this situation may be, we jumped at the opportunity to take photos with the two men. I have to say I’ve never seen men so well groomed and decorated with various accessories, each of which had its own purpose. Besides the traditional beaded headpieces, necklaces and bracelets, each warrior had a flashlight and a mirror with brush to groom themselves. They were very lean and muscular, wearing only small pieces of shuka, exposing their long and skinny legs. 
But don’t be fooled by this external beauty, deep down these guys are tough as steel. They are fast and furious and can kill a lion with one throw of a spear. Afterall, their main mission has always been to protect their villages and pastures and today, they spend most of their time patrolling Masai territories. 
Having met the Masai and their handsome and fearless men, I understood the experience of Corinne Hoffman, a Swiss writer and author of the “White Masai”.  The book, which was later made into a movie, is based on her own experience of living in the Masai community and being married to a Masai warrior. The movie, shot against the beautiful Kenyan landscape, is as powerful and moving. I highly recommend watching it (full movie is available on Youtube), if you want to discover this amazing tribe for yourself.

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