Together, we all bumped across the Kenyan flatlands, heading towards the Mara, rough rutted tracks jostling us side-to-side. When we reached the river camp, my two Aussie safari companions parted ways. They would sleep at our river camp guarded by two Masai men, Morani warriors, spears ready for marauding lions or leopards. I would be bunking at a nearby manyatta, a cattle enclosure surrounded by traditional Masai homes.
This wasn’t the obvious choice. Even Chris, the co-owner of the eco-adventure company who coordinated my trip had emailed to dissuade me.
“An overnight stay with a Masai family? In their home? Are you serious?”
I assured him that I was quite keen. “Absolutely!”
But then, came another warning.
“I don’t know how to put this, without offending someone, but the Masai existence is poles apart from Western standards. Their tiny dwellings of mud, grass, and sticks are cramped, windowless, smoky, without running water or toilets, and they keep ailing calves and baby goats inside the home overnight. Their villages, built in two ring-like clusters of six or seven homes, create a corral to shelter cattle from nighttime lion attacks. The stench is pungent.”
I was completely baffled, knowing that Chris’ wife was a Masai schoolteacher from the Mara. I advised that, except for cattle and the stench, his description could be applied easily to the Maya with whom I live while in Belize and Mexico. I urged him to proceed.
And that’s how I ended up entering the constricted passageway with Kopune, my Masai host. I squeaked through the encircling thorn brush barricade into the manyatta founded several decades ago by his ancestors. Once we passed through the constructed thicket, I was joined on my guided tour of the enclosure’s houses by Nailepo, Kopune’s wife, and their five-year-old daughter, Tusia.
Kopune’s septuagenarian father leaned against his haphazard home, a garden-shed-sized lean-to. He required nothing bigger as he rarely slept there, hopping instead from wife to wife to wife. By comparison each of the four wives enjoyed luxurious space. I was cautioned that, if necessary throughout the night, I should be very careful to “soil” the area surrounding the home of Kopune’s mother, the “first wife”. To urinate (or worse!) on or near the homes of his step-mothers, the second and third wives, would be a grave insult.
“I should go to protect the river camp,” Kopune stated. “Will you be alright?’”
“Yes, of course.”
“Are you certain? You’ll be all alone.”
“Really? I thought your wife and daughter would be in the home with me.”
“Yes but I will not be with you. Are you sure you’ll be alright?”
“Should I be frightened?”
“No. Not at all. Do you like to sleep alone?”
Nothing had prepared me for this question. “Well, I prefer to sleep with my husband but my husband is at home in Canada. He will be joining me next month.”
“It is getting late. If you’re sure you’ll be alright. I will go.”
He left me at the door of his home. I entered the narrow gloom, slightly hunched over, guided by flashlight. I stepped gingerly two feet forward until arriving at the wooden gate of the night pen for injured or ailing calves. A right turn then, a quick left, past bleating baby goats in their night until arriving at a four-foot-wide X nine-foot-long pathway. Nailepo and Tusia crouched on the dirt floor, cuddled beside a spare fire with faintly flickering flames, finishing their supper of vegetables and grain porridge.
Neither spoke much English. Tusia indicated the bed of her father, a tanned cattle hide stretched tautly across an elevated wooden framework, where I would be sleeping. Eventually.
Within minutes the interior was crowded with twenty Masai, packed like NYC subway commuters going to the office, as fascinated with me as I enchanted by them. They entertained me with song and traditional Masai leaping dances. Nailepo’s evident disquiet about a white foreigner in her home was eclipsed by the delight of her relatives. Kopune’s brother, seated beside me, translated. And hours later, as the crowd dwindled, he queried:
“Do you like to sleep alone?”
Aghast, just as I began to emphasize my married state, I suddenly recalled that sleeping alone is improper for Masai women. “Whom do you suggest?” I asked, hoping he wouldn’t misinterpret.
By prearrangement, he beckoned to a young girl, who approached timidly. Everyone nodded, smiling in appreciation. “Young Silalei will sleep with you.”
She bowed her head as I patted the crown gently in the Masai custom. She crawled onto the bunk, snuggled beside me and fell instantly asleep.
Satisfied that at least something was normal about me, the visitors departed.