Last weekend my friend and I had a few great opportunities to chat to two Masai guys (Sunguru and Toican) who pick up casual work as guides around Lake Magadi. Our chats took place in the car on drives around the lake and by the camp fire. Once again, I got some fresh insights into this fascinating nomadic culture. There are always a few laughs too.
10 Random facts learned from chatting to friendly Masai at Lake Magadi
- Masai sleep on cow skins and a ‘bed’ constructed from sticks at home but when on a walking journey, they just sleep with a blanket (worn over the shoulder during the day) and settle down anywhere, even sleeping on rough stoney ground.
- On a long journey on foot, masai carry dry food such as maize flour and beans as well as a couple of litres of water which is refilled from rivers, lakes and streams along the way.
- A lot of Masai who live Magadi have never been to Nairobi, but they often walk to Tanzania to trade and barter with fellow Masai down there. The journey takes 2 weeks and is very tiring but, for the Masai, there’s no border control.
- The masai don’t marry for love and are not in the least bit interested in good looks in a wife. Rather, they look out for someone who is hard working and politely spoken. Young girls can be ‘booked’ by a masai who will then wait until she comes of age. A bride costs around 5 cows, but one masai recently offered 1,000 cows for Barack Obama’s daughter (on Facebook).
- Many Masai around Lake Magadi are Christian, thanks to the influence of colonial settlers who have been mining salt from the soda lake for 100 years (though the factory is Indian run now). Oil has also been found in the area relatively recently but is yet to be mined.
- The star constellation we call Orion, is known as ‘The Mother’ by Masai who see a woman with arms cradling. Masai also read the stars to interpret weather. For instance, spotting one particular star can tell the Masai that there will be no rain.
- Masai navigate their way around on foot using points on the landscape for reference (hills, rivers etc).
- Masai have mobile phones. Some dream of travel (Toican said that he watched English football games on TV and had seen movies set in London, so was keen to visit there), whilst others are perfectly happy to stay put.
- There are ‘plastic’ masai and ‘traditional‘ masai. The ‘plastic’ ones go to school, have a few western belongings, speak some English and/or Swahili as well as Maa and perhaps work part time in town as tour guides, security guards etc.
- The masai have a reputation for being totally fearless (in decades gone by, their initiation to adulthood involved killing a lion), but Toican says that a few of them are still actually scaredy cats. Having said that, my view is that they’re all hard as nails. Living totally at one with the landscape requiring very little in terms of material goods and as a result, also producing scant waste, is nothing short of a miracle in this day and age.