The Kidnapping of Edward the Maasai
By Claudia B. Flisi

A scary encounter on a shepherd boy's route alters his future—and that of a few dozen family members.

Tanzania Maasai warriors
(c) Dana Allen/Unique Safaris

Spear-carrying Maasai warriors with flashlights accompanied us from our tent to the dining area of the lodge at the rim of Tanzania's Ngorongoro Crater. They had to: Lion's Paw Lodge is an open camp so animals—including lions, hyenas, warthogs, and occasional elephants—can cross your path at will.

My son and I gathered at the rough-hewn mahogany bar of the lodge, where our host, the clean-featured young man who had greeted us upon our arrival, was waiting to offer us a pre-dinner drink. Hadn't he introduced himself when we checked in?

Edward"My real name isn't Edward," he began earnestly. "But you wouldn't be able to pronounce it in Maasai language. So don't feel bad about calling me Edward. That's the name the missionaries gave me and I am a Christian now so I am used to it."

"What is your real name?" my son asked. He was much closer to Edward's age (mid-20s) than I was and he speaks several languages fluently, so tackling something in Maasai didn't faze him . . . until Edward whipped out a long list of syllables, sounds, and clicks so densely packed that I couldn't begin to represent them. He repeated it twice more to no avail. "Edward" it was from then on.

Our host didn't look like a Maasai. He was shorter than the seven-foot giants we had glimpsed herding cattle and carrying spears here in northern Tanzania. He wasn't thin and reedy, but perhaps his job as food and beverage manager for Lion's Paw had something to do with that. He did not have a noticeable perforation in either earlobe, unlike many of the other Maasai we had seen since arriving in Tanzania. He did speak very good English, compared to the rest of the staff.

"How did you learn English so well?" I asked.

Edward half-smiled, snuck a discreet glance at his watch. "It's a long story, but dinner won't be ready for another 20 minutes. So if you can risk being bored..."

My son and I could risk it. We curled up on the bar stools with our drinks.

Snatched Away at Age Seven

"I was brought up in a traditional Maasai family. My father had five wives and 36 children. At least, I think I have 35 brothers and sisters, but I may have more. You know that Maasai are nomadic herders, and the wealth of a man lies in the number of animals he possesses, as well as the number of wives and sons.

Maasai goat herders
(c) Dana Allen/Unique Safaris

"When I was about seven, as the youngest son of my mother, I was sent to do the work of my age. I had to tend a herd of goats for my father. It can be dangerous because lions and leopards see a goat as an easy meal, and what can an unarmed seven-year-old do about it? But I didn't question because my father's word was law and my purpose in life was to please my father.

"One day I was herding the flock near a dirt road and a government car went by. It stopped and reversed and stopped again in front of me. There were two men inside. They spoke to me in Swahili, a language I didn't understand. When they realized I didn't know what they were saying, they motioned me to come closer to the car. One of them jumped out and grabbed me and pulled me into the automobile. Then, just like that, they drove me away. It was the first time I had ever been in a car and I was terrified."

Tanzania sunsetEdward recounted these details impassively as we gripped our drinks with whitened knuckles. To add to the atmosphere, the electricity in the dining tent began to flicker, then died completely. We were in absolute darkness for several seconds, then the lights went on again. They continued to flicker on and off for the rest of the tale. Edward's dark face receded into the background, but his white teeth glowed like spotlights.

"The men brought me to a government institution where boys like me, boys you would not normally find in a classroom, were boarded and schooled to make sure we received a basic education—reading and writing in Swahili and minimal math.

"No one in our family had ever gone to a government school and my father didn't think we needed a formal education. He wanted me to tend his herd of goats, and he was not happy. After a few weeks, he found out where I was and the local government officials found out where he was, and they met. The officials told my father that the law had changed and that children were obliged to go to elementary school. If my father didn't like it, he could try to remove me, but he would be fined a lot of money and he would go to jail.

"Well, my father didn't like it, but he didn't want to pay money or go to jail, and he had my 35 brothers and sisters to help him with the animals. So he let me stay at the school. My mother missed me but she had to go along with her husband's wishes.

Another World of Opportunity

"Meanwhile, I found that I loved learning. I picked up Swahili quickly and did well in my classes. One of the staffers at the school was an American missionary. He pulled me aside one day and said, 'You are a clever boy. If you learn English, you have a good chance to find work after you graduate.'

So he began to teach me English.

"I stayed at the school for five years. I went home for vacations to help with the animals, but otherwise I studied. When I was 12, the missionary said he would arrange a scholarship for me to continue my studies at the high school.

This was no longer a legal obligation, so my father had to give his approval. I wanted to continue, but my father refused. He said, 'You have studied enough. Now it is time for you to work.'

"I couldn't go against my father's wishes, but I said to him, 'Yes father, I will work now. But instead of herding goats, let me work in a tourist lodge for a year, where I may be able to earn more money for you. If you are not happy at the end of the year, I will come back home and watch the animals.'

Maasai boys with goat

"Teachers at the school helped me find a job at one of the nearby lodges. Because I could speak Swahili and English, I did all sorts of work. At the end of the year, I had accumulated quite a bit of money through salary and tips. I took my earnings and went to the local market and bought as many animals as I could afford—sheep, goats, chickens, a cow. I brought them all to my father and threw myself on the ground before him. 'You see, father, what a boy can afford with five years of schooling. If I could go on to high school and complete my education, just think how much greater my earnings would be!'

"My father immediately gave me his blessing to finish high school. And not only that: he decided that all his children, all 36 of us, would go to school and complete our educations. And we all have, and our family has done well by his decision."

I tipped my drink toward Edward, and suggested to my son, "Let's make a toast to the value of education." As we raised our glasses and downed the last of our aperitivi, the lights stopped flickering, almost on cue.

Claudia Flisi is a dual citizen writer based in Milan, Italy. Her stories have appeared in the International New York Times, Newsweek, Fortune, Variety, and many airline magazines. Her book about an Italian dog, Crystal and Jade, was published in 2016. Photos by the author except where indicated.

Related Features:
A Modern Story from Old Africa - James Michael Dorsey
The Warrior Scholar from Kenya - James Dorsey
Meeting Reggie - Judith Fein
Wining, Dining, and Cattle Driving in Uruguay - Claudia B. Flisi

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