A Modern Story from Old Africa
Story and photos by James Michael Dorsey

A Maasai boy about to become a man confronts the task of facing down a snarling lion in order to become a man, following the old tribal ways of the bush in Africa.

Maasai herder

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 sunbaked 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.

young Maasai herder holding goats

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 often 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.

Boy vs. Lion

The Maasai are known for their prowess against lions. Stories abound of young boys who were tending cattle or goat herds and 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.

Maasai children

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.

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Read this article online at: A Modern Story from Old Africa

Copyright (C) Perceptive Travel 2018. All rights reserved.

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