Africa's Beefeaters

September 22 2006 | by

FOR MANY decades the image of their bright red tunics and lean muscular build has, not only captivated the world, but has also been seen as a kind of photographic symbol of sub-Saharan Africa. Television documentary producers, professional photographers and even tourists from around the world have been fascinated by them. They are the Masai, Kenya's most traditional tribe and, as one report said, also the most romanticised. Even in modern-day Kenya they still live the semi-nomadic life that has marked their community for generations. And, from far and wide, many have been ensnared by their ways. Not too long ago, when a certain 57-year-old British antique dealer began walking around in Masai attire back home after a holiday in Kenya, A.A. Gill, writing in the Times of London, said the Masai have also wandered through the English imagination, describing them as 'Africa's Beefeaters and its Morris Dancers'.

Polygamous males

Such fascination, some say, must be responsible for the phenomenon of cross-cultural marriage, which, until recently, was rare among the Masai. So rare, in fact, that in the spring of last year, when Jackson ole Seyio, a Masai man in his 20s, married Maki Nagamatsu, a Japanese tour guide, in a traditional ceremony on the edge of the Masai Mara National Reserve, the event raised eyebrows from Masailand all the way to the Japanese city of Kitakyushu, where the bride grew up. But many religious exponents frown upon such marriages, not for their cross-cultural nature, but indeed because of their polygamous character, which is incongruous with the Christian faith. The Masai, who are generally illiterate, are not inclined to the Christian doctrine of one man one wife.
Furthermore, like elsewhere in Africa, certain humiliating practices that deprive women of their rights and dignity abound here as well. Female children here, for instance, are still subjected to the custom of genital mutilation, commonly known as circumcision. Women rights organisations, which are opposed to such tradition, say that Masai women, like their counterparts all over sub-Saharan Africa, are habitually deprived of basic human rights that women elsewhere in the world take for granted. Often subjected to the whims of their fathers and husbands, Masai women are habitually denied a say in the way their home is run, after being forced, by the dictates of their male-dominated society, to submit themselves to polygamous marriage arrangements.
Such marriages, like all polygamous arrangements everywhere, are not devoid of shortcomings and regrets, even if celebrated in spectacular manners, as in the case of Maki Nagamatsu, who adorned herself in elaborate Masai beads. But for this Japanese tour guide, who is in her late 30s, and who has lived on and off in Kenya for 10 years, becoming Mr Seyio's second wife was not exactly a novelty. Indeed, this was not a first marriage for her as well. A divorcee once married to an urban Kenyan and therefore familiar with the intricacies of polygamy, she was nonetheless concerned about what she might encounter, though she claimed to have accepted the fact that her husband has a younger first wife who stays with him while she is travelling. She said of her cross-cultural marriage, 'Our nationalities are different and our cultures are different, but there's a connection there. Nothing else matters'.
Yet, it was said that a few things might have mattered if she hadn't extracted important promises from her husband. For one, Mr Seyio pledged that he would not circumcise any girl that his Japanese wife might give birth to, as is the custom in Masailand. He also agreed to allow his wife to continue to work as a tour guide, a job that takes her frequently to Japan and other parts of Kenya as well as promising her that there will not be a third wife. 'If we break the promises we made,' Ms Nagamatsu said, 'the family and the tribe must come together to discuss. On my wedding day, I felt that this wasn't between me and him but between the Japanese community and the Masai community. That's why there is so little divorce'.

Crying out

Christians, however, who frown upon such polygamous arrangements attribute the low divorce rate to a rigid tradition and a strong tribal influence that tend to bind wives to their common husband even if they have to suffer in silence. Not all such wives have agreed to suffer in silence though. A case in point is that of the Swiss writer Corinne Hoffmann, who brought the woes of her polygamous marriage to world attention in her autobiography White Masai, a story that has been made into a film of the same title, which opened last September at the Toronto International Film Festival. White Masai is one of the books she wrote about her rocky marriage to a nomad who came from the Samburu tribe, which is closely related to the Masai.
Remarkably, the Masai kingdom and its myth, which seems to have fascinated many outsiders is said to be facing a threat from white settlers, who possess a good portion of the land, leaving Masai tribesmen on a barren landscape that is overgrazed and unhealthy, and certainly no place for Africa's endangered species, because their herds are too large for the land available. Out of frustration, some Masai herders have recently begun to march their livestock onto the land that belongs to white settlers, by cutting the private fences that crisscross central Kenya's Laikipia district, creating anger inside the ranch houses at the destruction of the private lands and fear that the conflict could sharpen.

The mzungus

The Masai say Laikipia was stolen from their ancestors a century ago in a colonial-era treaty between a Masai leader and the British that transferred the land from the Masai to the whites. They claim that the document is now out of date and that the vast ranches of Laikipia owned by the settlers are now officially a part of Masailand. While some settlers show a bit of resignation that their wonderful way of life might not last as long as their leases, some of which extend in excess of 900 years, there is also sympathy for the plight of the Masai.
'I'm sympathetic to them,' Laria Grant, 32, whose father bought a 14,000-acre cattle ranch known as El Karama around the time of independence in 1963, was quoted as saying. 'I know how it would feel if I were them, even 100 years later. To me, it's not the exact details of the lease that's the issue. It's about land and their feelings toward it. They are poor and can see our huge acreage of beautiful grass across the fence. But we feel as strongly about this as they do'. Indeed, though the Masai refer to the white settlers as 'mzungus', a Swahili term for foreigners, most of them are now Kenyan citizens even if not with ties to the country that stretch back as long as the Masai.
'I'm as much Kenyan as they are,' insisted Martin Evans, a white settler who has cattle, sheep, goats and camels on his 30,000-acres. 'My dad was born here and I was born here and my sons were born here too. I'm as Kenyan as anyone else.' One prominent settler is Kuki Gallman, an Italian by birth who moved to Kenya some 30 years ago with her husband and later became a Kenyan citizen. She has chronicled her life in a series of books, including I Dreamed of Africa, which had been made into a film. She is one of several dozen white ranchers in Laikipia with combined holdings that stretch far and wide. Her ranch, Ol Ari Nyiro, sprawls over 100,000-acres just north of the equator, and boasts the largest population of black rhinos outside a national park.

Clear conscience

Ms Gallman, who has had no clashes with the Masai so far, said, 'My heart is at peace. My conscience is clear. I don't think I've muscled myself into anywhere at the detriment of the local community.' She, like other landholders, claims she contributes to Kenya as well as the local population, starting from the salaries she pays her staff, numbering about 200. 'I'm a curator of a living museum,' said Ms Gallman, who brings schoolchildren from around the world to her property. 'Nature here is so majestic. The world will need places like this more and more in the future. They are impossible to reconstruct once they're gone. My dream for the future is just that this place will remain whole'.
The Kenyan government says that Zimbabwe-type situation, in which whites were ousted from their land, would be an economic disaster. To avoid further clashes between Masai cattle herders and white settlers, it has stationed police officers on white owned property to keep invaders away, and says it is studying its land use act and limiting the length of leases, a go-slow approach aimed at respecting property rights.




Updated on October 06 2016