Author and travel writer Stuart Butler, along with his Maasai friend Josphat Mako, recently concluded a trek across traditional lands belonging to Kenya’s Maasai in a quest to gain an in-depth understanding of how the Maasai live today, how they interact with the environment and how that is changing. Stuart spoke to Phil Clisby about his adventure.
What route did you take?
We started in the Loita Hills. Well, that’s not strictly true. There are two Loita Hills – the real ones near Narok – and the little-known ones further east called the Labtero Hills, commonly referred to as the Loita Hills because of the Loita Maasai who live there. In Labtero the dominant feature is the Nguruman Escarpment, which is where the high hills fall near sheer down to the Rift Valley and Lake Magadi. From here we walked downhill towards the Masai Mara Reserve, skirting the reserve itself as we were not allowed to walk there… Basically, we zigzagged across the whole Mara ecosystem. It took five weeks in all, and we covered around 250-300 kilometres. I’m not exactly sure of the total distance. For me, it was not about the walk itself or the distance covered but what we encountered on the way.
Describe a typical day.
Generally, we would wake up at dawn, and I would conduct interviews and take photos in the village in which we were staying. We’d leave at about 9 or 10 o’clock and walk until about 3pm. This was partially on purpose to avoid the risk of coming across the more dangerous animals. Everyday we walked with zebra and impala.
What’s it like staying in a Maasai village?
We didn’t stay in the huts – there just wasn’t the room – but we set up our tents on the edge of the manyatta, and then went in to eat or drink chai with the villagers. Mostly we cooked for them, usually rice with sauce or ugali with goat. The Maasai cuisine seems to consist of raw goat, raw kidneys and raw fat mixed up with blood. I tried it, but it was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The fat was like eating a slug and the rest wasn’t much better. I can see why there are no Maasai restaurants.
What was the hardest part of your walk?
There was never a moment I didn’t enjoy. Never a moment I wouldn’t do again. I guess the hardest part was the nine-hour walk up a mountain at Maasai speed; that was physically demanding. The Maasai walk fast. Head down, walk, walk, walk. We need to get there, let’s go. Marko, the Maasai guide I walked with, was slower though because he was used to taking tourists around. In fact, at the start, I was faster than him. But after a few days he got back to his roots and it was hard to keep up.
What was the most rewarding part?
Walking through the villages and watching people’s reactions change. In the high Loita they wouldn’t bat an eyelid at the distances we were walking, but after a couple of weeks, as we got nearer the conservancies, it was like: “Wow! You’ve walked all that way with a mzungu. You must come in for some tea.” I discovered so much about the Maasai. Even Marko learnt things he didn’t know about his area and people. Of course, the scenery was hard to beat, as was walking across the grasslands with herds of zebra parting to allow us through.
Were there any scary moments?
In the Olarro Conservancy we were walking through waist-high grass along with a ranger (a Maasai with a stick) and a policeman (with a Kalashnikov) who was not happy at having to walk through the animals. At one point I looked up and thought I saw something about twenty metres ahead. I pointed it out to the others. “Oh, it’s nothing,” they said. We kept walking. Then a buffalo rose out of the grass in front of us. Good job I had all these Maasai with me, who supposedly knew what they were doing! It did make me wonder, if we couldn’t see a buffalo in this grass, what else was in there?
You met a loiban (seer), ex-poachers and morans (warriors) among others, but what was the most unusual encounter you had?
The last person I met, just an hour before leaving for Nairobi, had an incredible tale to tell. Lemeria’s boma was raided by a leopard, which killed a couple of his goats. He decided to track the leopard, following the drips of blood on the ground, eventually finding the big cat up a tree with what was left of one of his goats. The leopard jumped down to attack him and he caught it in mid-air, grabbing it by the throat. The leopard clawed at him (and he has the scars on his face to show for it) trying to kill him. They fell backwards onto the ground. He fought to keep the cat at arm’s length trying to throttle it. Then Lemeria felt it go limp and he chucked it off him. Shortly afterwards the leopard came round and ran off. He’s seen the leopard a couple of times since, and the locals have even named it after him.
Is it true that the morans find hunting an ostrich harder than a lion?
Lions will try and escape if they see a group of Maasai coming towards them, but the ostrich will hold its ground. It will fight to the death. You can’t throw a spear at it because the neck is so thin and you are likely to miss. You have to get it between the wing and the breast. The ostrich can shatter bones with its beak. One moran I met said he had fought five or six lions and had never been hurt. He didn’t know of anyone who had died fighting a lion, but he knew of three who had been killed by an ostrich.
How is Maasai culture and their environment changing?
In the whole five weeks I only met three genuine morans – in Loita. Even Marko asked if it would be okay to take pictures of them. In the villages, they dress up when the tourists arrive – but at least it helps retain the culture. Really, I was ten years too late doing this walk if I wanted to see traditional Maasai culture. We saw elephant, a bunch of buffalo but no cats, which was unexpected, and a bit depressing. It makes you realise how depleted their numbers are… One of the old Maasai I spoke to said there used to be lion everywhere. “When I was a kid, every single night we would hear lions roaring,” he explained. “The kids growing up today don’t know what a roaring lion sounds like.” The whole culture is changing and the younger Maasai, dubbed the ‘digital Maasai’ by the elders, are going to the city.
What was the most valuable thing you took with you on the walk?
Well, it should have been a map. But we forgot to take it! Still, I had a Maasai to guide me.
Once We Were Lions, the book about this walk, will be out in summer 2016. For details of the European and African photo exhibitions and speaking tour dates as well as an author-led walking tour along a part of the route that Stuart and Mako walked please see the project website www.walkingwiththemaasai.com.