Running With the Maasai

OFTEN, simple things narrow the distance between cultures. For me, four days of running in the bush with the Maasai - one of Africa's most stunning but ``distant'' tribes - helped span the Maasai-Western understanding gap. ``...Fascination with the Maasai has ranged from the awe and terror they inspired among travelers and neighbors in the 19th century through their military and ideological dominance, to their noted resistance to many aspects of cultural change...,'' writes Kenyan anthropologist Mukhisa Kituyi in his new book ``Becoming Kenyans.''

But during a recent camel safari through Maasai territory in northern Kenya, my love of running unexpectedly cracked open a door that allowed me and some Maasai to view each other up close, as individuals.

Only a single, narrow dirt track, built by a former Kenyan game warden, Julian McKeand, slices into the heart of one section of the Maasai territory in northern Kenya, a dry acacia-covered area about 40 miles southeast of the town of Isiolo. The track halts at the riverside tented camp McKeand set up as starting point for his four-day camel safaris.

Its a semideluxe operation: good, full-course meals; lemonade and tea breaks; hot showers. We slept on mosquito-netted cots, and then finished the roughly three-hour daily journey before noon. The camels, when we were riding them, were always on lead ropes.

The safari was staffed by 32 Maasai men who tended to the tents, camels, and meals. Though they have these jobs, their own homes are in the same area, and they live traditional Maasai lives. Their family wealth, for example, is still measured in cattle: Brides' dowries are paid for with cattle. And several times on the safari we saw some of their children herding livestock.

So the safari offered a rare opportunity to get to know some Maasai in their own territory. But it was an opportunity which, except for a frisbee game one afternoon with the Maasai, only a few of the 18 people on our trip took advantage of. The others cited language and cultural barriers as the reasons.

Several of the Maasai spoke English. And the other cultural barriers were not completely impenetrable, either.

THE day my wife Betty (a photographer) and I arrived with the group at the tented camp, I went for a run, alone. It was a bit disconcerting, though exciting, because lions roam the area and have been known on occasion to attack people.

That evening I left our group and walked over to the camp ``kitchen,'' where most of the Maasai had gathered around the warmth of the cook fire. Some sat on logs, others on the ground. (When Maasai stand, they often rest their weight on one foot, leaning on their staff or spear.)

They wore sandals, red skirts, and matching red cloths over their upper bodies and one shoulder. Their beaded necklaces, bracelets, and armbands were just as colorful. Many wore a wristwatch, or the Maasai look-alike: a beaded timepeace with a simulated dial.

Some of the unmarried men wore their hair long, in tight plaits dyed reddish orange, and highlighted with beaded headbands, buttons, and feathers. These men helped each other groom their plaits from time to time.

The Maasai ignored me.

But the next afternoon, Robert Mathenge, one of the young Maasai, said he would like to run with me. I ran behind him for about half an hour on dirt tracks. On the return, I picked up the pace. Despite his lack of running experience (he does play soccer), Mathenge easily kept up. I'm sure it was I, not he, who was more glad to reach camp again.

On our run the next day, Mathenge spotted several gazelle. He suddenly dropped to a crouch, motioning me to do the same. After a few minutes, the gazelle trotted out of sight over a small hill. Mathenge, without any discernible noise, ran toward the hill. I felt like a professional noisemaker by comparison, as I ran to catch up. He led around the hill where we saw the gazelle again from a distance.

By now the other Maasai in camp were welcoming me to their kitchen, and offering scalding hot tea in a tin can. I was learning a few Maasai words from Leden Kortol, the Maasai who set up our campsite each day.

It was fun to watch the Maasai break into broad grins when I tried my tiny vocabulary with them. Usually they repeated the word back for me to learn better.

THE following day, when Leden ran with me, I really began to learn what Maasai running in the bush can be.

Clutching a sheathed knife the length of his forearm - ``for protection against the animals,'' he said - he took off at a brisk pace. Another Maasai fell in right behind us, carrying both a knife and a small, metal-tipped club.

Mathege had stuck to the tracks. But Leden soon cut cross country. We leapt over eroded gullies, scampered down and up larger ones, and dodged needle-sharp plants and thorns of acacia shrubs. I was soon tiring. But Leden kept on. He spotted two lesser kudu (a large antelope) that dashed across our way ahead of us. Dikdik, minature antelope about a foot high at the shoulder, bounded away in twos and threes. Coming into a clearing, we saw impala sprint away.

Now we were heading back toward camp. Leden glanced at his watch. He had to be back for camp duties at 5. Incredibly, he sped up. I had to work even harder to stay close. The Maasai behind me adjusted his pace with no heavier breathing than before. Finally we were back. Leden and his friend, who rarely run, but who walk miles on the weekly safaris, had worked me hard, even though I train fairly regularly.

But the hard runs were worth it. Stern Maasai faces had broken into smiles and laughter. Refreshments had been offered at the Maasai kitchen. Leden, Mathenge, and I had swapped stories about our families, our work, our running.

THE last afternoon, back at base camp again, the Maasai played some traditional games. They threw a spinning hoop and used sticks to try to spear it, as though they were spearing an animal. Then they threw their sticks as javelins - some quite far. And they did a kind of jump dance. To deep, rhythmic chanting made in unison, they took turns alone or in small groups, springing straight-legged, high into the air.

They ended with more chanting, standing in a circle, arms wrapped around each other's waist, jumping slightly. As soon as I asked a Maasai if I could join them, I was pulled into the circle. Twice I started to leave, and twice, one of the Maasai pulled me back.

The next morning as I climbed into the back of a Land Rover to leave, I looked back. Instead of waving goodbye, several of the Maasai I had gotten to know were beckoning at me with one hand to come back. Through the back window, I returned the gesture as we drove away.

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