Being in the backcountry of Africa had presented some incredible opportunities to witness things I never had. An elephant charging our car only to be shouted off by a tiny (by comparison) man with a big attitude. A patient cheetah stalking her prey for what seemed like hours, finally scoring a meal for she and her three cubs. A pride of lions encircling our camp to close in on a clever water buffalo who knew her best chance at refuge was to walk amongst the world’s foremost apex predators (and in the meantime worrying many of the American variety of these apex predators). It was stunning to witness these things unfold in the land which these creatures called home. To watch them behave as they have behaved for the millennia in which they have dominated the Serengeti plain. This land is nearly unspoiled by man, far away from the rapid development of the last few hundred years and barren of the resources which have caused many other areas of the continent to be mined, drilled or scraped of its character.
But perhaps the most foreign element of all to the entire trip was not the elephant the lion nor the cheetah, it was the people. Living among these wild creatures all around the Serengeti are the Maasai. They have learned to coexist with nature here and live a primitive and nomadic existence on the vast plain, shepherding their herds of goats and cows from place to place as their resources dried up or become more abundant elsewhere. They would leave behind their humble circular Shambas made of cow dung and sticks as they moved, only to recreate the same village again to put down temporary roots after each time.
These people were those that made up our guides, our spotters and the camp staff. To even quantify their existence based on the money they lived on in a day seemed silly, as none of them took part in an economy which saw any need for currency. They lived, breathed and existed for each other and for their cattle: eating their meat, drinking their blood and milk. The Maasai did not even need water as they could bleed and milk their cows and goats over and over again. In a remote plain where clean water was hard to come by, this was a key to their existence on the Serengeti: as long as the herd was healthy, they survived. They wore shoes made of recycled car tires or cow hide and richly colored robes and beads crafted by the women of their tribe. The men all carried a seme, not much more impressive than a broken lawn mower blade, and this was their all purpose tool throughout their lives. Here chopping through underbrush to make a way to a waterhole for their cattle, there fighting back a lion from entering the gates of the Shamba at night and terrorizing the goat herd.
These men of the most humble existence I had ever seen took great pride in their way of life. In their early teens they were inducted into the warrior class, growing out their hair and charged as being protectors of their Shamba. Sometime in their 20’s then becoming junior elders, being circumsized without anestheisia in front of the elder council and officially entering into manhood, having proved themselves as protectors and worthy of a spot in the village and a woman (or several) to call a wife. And through all of this hardship; amid all of their humble surroundings; they looked at us like we were the ones to be pitied. They laughed and found it utterly ridiculous that we could not throw a spear straight and far. They could not understand how we could sit in a open vehicle a mere 200 yards from a camouflaged lion crouching in the grass and not see it clear as day. As entertaining as it may be for me to see one of them attempt to type a vlookup formula in Excel was the level of ridiculousness they likely saw in our western ways. How could we have gotten so far in life without having developed such essential skills as knowing the proper way to protect your family, friends and neighbors? To be able to spot a predator coming in enough time to develop a plan to evade or prepare for a fight?
In college as an Econ student I learned much about the West’s efforts to ‘enrich’ the third world through foreign aid: World Bank or UNICEF grants and programs, designed to westernize these ‘backwards’ civilizations and often war torn or oppressed people. But I can recall being challenged in this thought when meeting and talking to some of these ‘backwards’ men and women. If I could flip a switch and westernize them… would they be better off? They would objectively have more money, yes. Better shoes. An education which would allow them to be a viable player in today’s global economy. But really.. better off?
In economics we are taught that the rational individual sets out not to maximize their profits, their money or their wealth, but their ‘utility’. It’s the jargon-y economic term that basically means happiness. All rational decision making stems from this simple framework. We all strive to be happy, whether that be in amassing wealth, moving to that Thoreauesque cabin in the woods, or standing with a spear watching the sunset on the Serengeti. Some of us in this search find we have been pursing an incorrect course all along in order to achieve this utility, but we are all striving to get there nonetheless.
I couldn’t help but think as I looked at these proud men that flipping that switch would have robbed them of all this utility and replaced it with a pursuit of happiness which was not at all in line with their own. The elephant dung (figuratively speaking) that I step in on an average day in the office is likely far less palatable to them than the elephant dung (literally speaking) which makes up the walls of their tiny homes on the Serengeti plain.
There were notable exceptions to this showing themselves among the tribe: on the one hand those that were indeed pursing the course of joining ranks with the westernized world. The young man wearing Levi jeans and a polo on break from studying law in Nairobi, but not ready to abandon the culture and traditions of his people. His face and mannerisms blending in with all of his tribesman, but with an appearance that would not have you look twice walking down the streets of New York City. He vowed to fight for the Maasai not with a seme, but in the government buildings of Kenya to bring state funds for building schools, roads, fresh water pumps
But on the other hand, there were those that have been forced into a sad existence from this fascinating culture: the women. I am not so naive as to be blind that taken out of context, traditions, cultures and lifestyles can seem strange or even objectively incorrect to a foreign observer. But it was hard not to gather that the women of the Maasai were little more than objects of their men. These women with their beautiful white smiles so bright against their deep dark skin had eyes that just looked beaten. Not in the physical sense, but one of defeat. Despite being illegal under national law, the Maasai are among many people groups in Africa that still practice female genital mutilation – a dangerous ritual that (without going into details, not that I could even if I wanted to) has been shown to have lasting psychological effects similar to PTSD and diminishes the capacity for sexual desire at a very young age (often around 10). I found myself torn between viewing this just being one more interesting aspect of a culture I did not understand, or reaching for that switch and finding it a tragedy that the West had not come to rescue them from it.
You will many times over course of your lifetime see the lion, asserting that he is the master of his (if small) domain in the zoo. You will see many a bull elephant sauntering around his enclosure, lapping up water and feeding himself bails of hay with his mighty trunk. This at least gives one the perspective of the size and behavior of these beasts, to see them more or less as they look in the wild. But there is nothing comparable to seeing the Maasai. To see the men gather in the center of the shamba at sundown and watch the warriors face-off in how high they could vertically jump for sustained periods of time, the women chanting and the men all cheering them on. They cut an impressive and intimidating figure, their long beaded hair flying up in the air and their faces fierce as they fought to prove their manhood. They encouraged our group to join but I hid behind my camera and made the excuse that I could not trade participating for capturing it on film. This was true, yes, but I also could not help but recall that for what they lacked in Microsoft Excel prowess they made up for in stamina, a 30″ vertical and a pretty damn scary war face; the inevitable result being me totally put to shame. I’ll stick to the Excel.
As we left the shamba that night, the clouds had briefly broken on Kilimanjaro and provided a setting too perfect to seem true. We’d been told that “Killy” only peeps her head at twilight before the haze of the plains sets in daily in this season (and I’d woken up each morning in a failed attempt to capture this elusive sighting). Against this backdrop I thought of how I was but a few minutes Jeep ride back to a fully furnished tent which was worlds more comfortable than even their homes. From there I was a few hours drive and Cessna flight back to Nairobi, a bustling city which though clearly third world in many ways would have blown the minds of many of the humble Maasai. And finally after that: a 22 hour trip on a jumbo jet back to Denver, Colorado which I call home; doing chores around the house, in a few days getting back to work, and intaking as from a firehose the bombardment of mass media, talking heads and the sounds and smells of modern machinery everywhere in sight.
The desktop background of my work computer I set to be one of those photos I took of a mother cheetah perched on an anthill looking out on the Serengeti plain contemplating her next meal, but also I’d like to believe totally content in her surroundings. In a small way it takes me back there, helps me cut through all of the banality of a desk job… and I sometimes find myself thinking… I wish the Maasai would flip that switch for me.