Justin's Travels: Jumping for Joy with the Maasai

Jumping with the Masaai

Iíve been travelling to Kenya for 25 years. What most appeals to me is the wildlife; proud, successful and mostly happy tribal people; and the relationship between the two. You can find wildlife in many African countries, but you can't always get an insight into this unique relationship.

About five years ago I was asked to join the board of a small safari company, and over the years I have got to know some of the Maasai quite well. They are remarkable people to look at Ė thin, tall, ramrod straight, extremely dignified (almost regal) and with their distinctive red clothes and glittering jewellery, they are utterly beautiful. They are also extremely caring, thoughtful and bright.

Having said all this they are also obviously and overpoweringly different to me. And when you are with them you feel you are also with their ancestors, who would have looked almost exactly the same (except perhaps for the ubiquitous mobile phones). The continuity of their lives and lifestyles over 1,000 years has the effect of making me feel, in a cultural sense, impoverished. Above all, they command respect.

Jumping with the Masaai

From time to time the Maasai dance, sometimes as part of a ritual or event but quite often because they feel like it. Their dancing consists of vertical jumps in time with a guttural chanting. Itís very athletic, a display of timing and strength as well as rhythm.

Iíve often watched and admired it, but never joined in. It feels right to leave this part of their culture to them, to not intrude, as if trying would show a lack of respect. Probably embarrassing too. All in all a cultural gap too big to cross.

One night we are around the campfire after dinner. Flames from the fire flicker and illuminate Maasai faces. If I look intently into the dark further away I can see Maasai with spears keeping us safe from dangerous wildlife. The mood is very relaxed, the Masaai happy, and then one man starts a quiet low-throated chanting beneath his breath and the surrounding conversation. Like a spark in tinder it catches alight and the low hum increases and increases.

The conversation stops, and the Maasaiís eyes start to glaze over a little and stare into the long distance. Who knows what hunt or ancestors takes over their minds.

Listen to the Maasai below: Itís impossible not to start chanting a little too, to become absorbed by it. Without knowing itís really happening the dancing starts, slowly at first but building up. A storm starting to break.

At full tilt it sweeps you up completely. Faces and fire, pin prick stars, chanting and jumping, and lions roaring far off in the bush. A Maasai friend asks me to join the dance; I hesitate, and then let go of my reserve and put my trust in him. Sometimes you just need to let go.

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Written by Justin Francis
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