From Mara to manyatta: the Masai experience (Caitlin’s perspective)

On our first full day in the Mara–our 10th day in Kenya–I was beginning to feel the strain of being away from home. The physical and mental exhaustion (not to mention the dwindling sizes of our portions at each meal) were beginning to take their toll on me, and I will admit to being a tad grumpy.  This was exacerbated by the fact that I was assigned to a bus with my least favorite type of driver: the kind that doesn’t actually care about wildlife. Actually, I suppose he did care about wildlife, but only in the sense that he wanted to make sure we all saw the “big five”; what he didn’t care about was the safety or welfare of any of the organisms we encountered during our game drive. He deliberately provoked buffaloes and elephants in order to try to get them to display at us, and he ran smaller animals–including a baby gazelle–off the road just for a laugh. Sadly, this is not uncommon behavior among the drivers, and it’s not the first time I’ve experienced it. Unless really provoked, though, I’m bad about piping up and telling drivers to rein themselves in, and so I mostly just sit and fume in the passenger seat. I hope that other safari-goers are more forceful, both for their own happiness and that of the wildlife around them.

(Composite panorama of a huge herd of grazing buffalo–and a single passing raptor)

We didn’t have that exciting of a morning game drive, but we did manage to see a few interesting things. Perhaps most impressive was the massive gathering of buffalo shown above; I needed to take 5 photographs just to capture all the animals in the group.

(A male lion in his very unnatural habitat)

We also found some lions (two napping males, probably brothers), but the delight of this discovery was quickly soured by the arrival of a seemingly endless horde of safari vehicles. This happens at least once each year, and almost always involves cat sightings. It is a pretty horrible way to view wildlife, especially when you can see that the animals want to get up and move elsewhere but are unsure of how to proceed given that they are completely hemmed in by minibuses. I noticed that this year’s students were quite sensitive to this, and quickly asked our drivers to leave and give the lions some breathing room; if only all tourists were equally well-informed and generous.

(Elephant carcass. When we arrived, the cheeks and trunk were missing, and there was a slash in the belly, but the body otherwise remained intact. Very little changed over the next day and a half, suggesting that scavengers were having a hard time dealing with the elephant’s tough hide.)

We also received word of a “fresh” elephant carcass that we went to visit in the hopes of seeing lions, jackals, hyenas, and vultures. Although there were supposedly lions lurking in the bush behind the body, we did not see any other animals until we departed, at which point we encountered a few hyenas that were obviously waiting for their chance to feed. Although the elephant was clearly not long dead–with the exception of its face, it hadn’t been touched by any scavengers–its scent indicated that it had died more than a few hours ago. We debated whether it was a natural death, a lion kill, or perhaps even a poaching event; human killers will often kill the elephant one day and return on another to grab the tusks, so the presence of ivory is not really a good clue. Since there wasn’t much action going on yet, we decided to visit the carcass later and see how things had changed.

(A spotted hyena waiting for its chance to forage at the elephant carcass. This guy probably could have “opened up” the dead body so that the meat could be accessed by other species such as jackals and vultures, but all the hyenas kept getting chased away by the lions who had been first on the scene.)

(A male elephant in musth, as indicated by the testosterone-rich fluid dripping from his swollen temporal glands)

Near the dead elephant was a herd of maybe a dozen or so living animals, who I’m guessing were probably related to the deceased individual. Elephants are known to grieve the loss of their friends and family members, and so I wouldn’t be surprised if these individuals had stayed in the neighborhood because they were not ready to “let go.” Indeed, one of the other bus groups later saw a standoff between a lion and an elephant matriarch protecting the carcass.

(Martial eagle)

Not all of our sightings were grim and depressing. We also got some excellent views of a variety of raptors, all of which appeared to quite enjoy the overcast conditions on this particular morning. I’d never seen a martial eagle prior to this field course, but on this morning I managed to see two separate individuals (or one individual twice!).

(Field trip to a Masai village)

After lunch, we embarked on an adventure that many of the staff secretly dislike: our visit to a Masai village, or manyatta. The experience is quite educational, but it is also interactive–hence our discomfort; the last thing a lecturer wants to do is be forced to dance around like an idiot in front of his or her students. It is also difficult to take anything too seriously given how keenly aware we are that our Masai hosts are putting on a show solely for our benefit. I have no doubt that there are grains of truth in everything they do or say, but I am also certain that there is quite a lot of embellishment going on. After all, the Masai have opened up their village to outsiders in order to earn money; they charge us for the tour and then they hope to earn additional cash at the end of the afternoon, when they funnel us into a marketplace erected just outside their fence. Thus, it is in their interest to make our visit as exciting as possible, regardless of whether or not that excitement accurately reflects their culture. Or maybe I have just become cynical over the years.

(Being welcomed to the Masai manyatta)

Before entering the village, we were met outside its fence by the chief, who provided some basic background information about the the village and its inhabitants. He then invited Masai performers of both sexes to come sing, dance, and–in the case of the young men–jump.

(The Masai welcome dance)

All of the dancing is interactive, and pretty much everyone is forced to participate. Supposedly, the ceremony is the same one they use when Masai youths gather to look for spouses. Men and women start off separately, but little by little wind up in a more-or-less circular knot of singers and dancers. This group of people then splits up into two chains that pass and acknowledge each other (with a high-five sort of greeting) while singing and bouncing along in time to the music. It is not dissimilar to a conga line. Some people really love getting their Masai groove on, while others are quite reluctant to join in. I felt like a total fool last year, and was very glad to observe the festivities from the sidelines this time around. Some people, like course leader Brendan Godley, manage to look so imposing that even lion-killing Masai warriors are afraid to press-gang them into participating.

(Look at that body language! It’s pretty obvious which one of these guys will eventually dance, and which four will remain standing on the sidelines.)

(Masai conga)

Once the dancing and singing have been completed, the Masai warriors have the opportunity to show their manliness by engaging in a jumping contest. I am not sure how important these sorts of sexual displays are to modern Masai singles looking for partners, but traditionally this was the portion of the festivities when men could demonstrate their physical fitness to the ladies. The warriors jump individually and together, and the heights of their jumps are demarcated by an observer who holds a stick out to indicate the level reached by the highest jumper’s head.

(Toby demonstrates his manliness. Note his straight legs–most UK jumpers bend their knees while in the air, but Toby has managed a very respectable Masai style of jumping.)

With the jumping completed, we went into the village and received another briefing from the chief. Before dividing us up into smaller groups that could more easily fit into the Masai buildings en masse, the chief invited us to watch several young men light a fire in the “traditional Masai style” (friction). I always think this is a rather comical portion of the visit because the adolescents really struggle to get the fire going–suggesting that these days it is more common for fires to be lit with matches or lighters. But, to their credit, the warriors never gave up, and they did eventually manage to get a blaze going.

(Juxtaposition of traditional dress and modern technology. Here, a young warrior uses his cell phone to snap a photograph of the students as they watch the fire-starting demonstration.)

(A Masai guide answers student questions outside his hut. One of the things that surprises students most is that many of the guides are university students in Nairobi or Narok; they participate in these cultural events when they happen to be visiting home during breaks in their education.)

Overall, this year’s manyatta visit was a huge improvement over last year’s–mostly because the much cooler weather meant that we didn’t have students fainting from heat stroke. On our walk home from the village, we had the chance to enjoy some new species of wildlife up close and personal; among other things, we saw a dung beetle rolling along near our path, and a lovely kingfisher foraging for food along the banks of the river running around our campsite.

(Cloudy sky–not only aesthetically pleasing, but also helpful for keeping the temperatures down to a level more tolerable to Europeans)

We arrived home just in time to head out again on the final game drive of the evening. Although the students’ eyes were on the wildlife out on the savannah, their minds continued to linger on the manyatta visit; I heard many lengthy discussions about Masai traditions and the relationship between the Masai and the wilderness around them. It was quite gratifying to find that the students had found the manyatta visit to be so educational and thought-provoking.

It’s just as well that everyone was engaged in such intense conversations, since there wasn’t too much to see out on the Mara. Probably the most exciting find was a trio of dik-diks, the smallest antelope; although it is hard to say for certain, we think that the group comprised a pair of adults and their mostly-grown offspring.

(Female dik-dik; she was distinguishable from the male because she was not sporting small horns)

(Scanning the treeline for leopards. Sadly, there were none to be seen.)

Just as we turned our vehicles around to head back home, we were treated to a meteorological show that partially made up for the lack of wildlife: a late-evening rainbow arcing over our path. Perhaps it didn’t give the same thrill as a cat-sighting would have, but it was still a lovely way to end the day.

(Rainbow over the Masai Mara)