After the sun goes down, Nkadaru herds six baby goats inside his hut to keep them safe from hungry lions. In the morning, he is awakened by one of the goat's scratchy tongues licking his cheek. Nkadaru laughs and plays with the goats on the dirt floor beside a small fire.
The rest of Nkadaru's family has left the hut to begin their long day. He knots a piece of red cloth over his shoulder like a toga. He sips water from a cowhide bag and eats a few beans. Then he leads the goats outside the six-foot high fence that surrounds his village in Kenya, which is in eastern Africa. It's near the equator.
His friends play herding games under the hot sun. They're about 6 or 7 years old. Because they always go barefoot, the skin on the soles of their feet is tough.
Nkadaru's baby goats graze beside the young animals being cared for by his friends. He joins their game to see who can throw a stick the farthest. They wrestle in the dirt and herd one another with the sticks. Later, they pretend to be fearless warriors hunting lions. But the boys always keep an eye on the animals to make sure none of them wanders off.
Several families have huts in this Masai village, which is called a kraal. Nkadaru and his sister helped their mother build their igloo-shaped hut by weaving long tree branches into sturdy walls. Nkadaru plugged the gaps with grass and leaves to keep out sun and rain. His mother mixed cattle dung and mud in a bucket. Together the family plastered the walls with the clay.
Nkadaru's sister helps their mother with her many activities – patching the hut, making clothes, milking animals, stringing beads, and tending to their small plot of beans and corn. She ties ribbons on their baby brother to show how special he is.
When Nkadaru is older, he – like his brother – won't herd baby animals. Young warriors have more important duties, such as protecting the village from lions and water buffalo. Nkadaru admires his older brother for his strength and bravery.
Like all warriors in this village, his brother wears his long hair in braids. He decorates himself with beaded jewelry made by women friends. A thin bone pierces one ear and a button made from a crocodile-egg shell shines in his hair. He paints his skin with ocher, a reddish clay that is ground up and mixed with animal fat.
Nkadaru's brother also watches over the family's animals. Nkadaru understands the importance of the cattle: All of them have names.
In the Masai language, there are more than 30 names for different kinds of cattle, depending on an animal's markings and the contour (shape) of its horns.
Nkadaru thinks white cows with black spots are the most beautiful. He sings songs with his friends about the colors of hides.
His mother stitches hides into clothing, shoes, and bedcoverings. She also makes jewelry for herself and her family. Her head is shaved to draw attention to a collar of beads on her neck. She earns extra money by selling beadwork to foreigners.
The beads reflect colors in nature. Blue is like the sky, and green is a symbol of peace, a reminder of the healthy plants after it rains.
Her beaded earrings are similar to a wedding ring, because only married women wear them.
Nkadaru is happy when people from other countries visit his kraal. Sometimes they bring gifts: pens, ribbons, balloons, or balls.
Nkadaru's brother and the other warriors show off their jumping dance, a competition to see who can leap the highest. Nkadaru stands nearby and chants to help them keep the beat.
Because Nkadaru's father is an elder, he doesn't work or participate in these games. Elders belong to a council that governs the village. Their duties involve making important decisions and solving problems.
Elders wear beaded jewelry and decorate their bodies for special ceremonies. They carry simple items, including a walking cane and a buffalo-tail fly whisk used for blessings. A thick cotton blanket is draped over their strong shoulders.
Nkadaru's day passes quickly. Near dusk, he herds the baby goats through the open gate into the village. The goats curl up inside the hut. His mother boils water for tea over a small fire. His sister brings in cow's milk and fresh corn.
Nkadaru and his brother settle in beside their father and listen to stories about the history of the Masai people. Nearby mountains cast shadows over the village, as if trying to protect their ancient way of life.