Journey takes Coloradan Diggs Brown to Kenya’s 'most trustworthy' people

By Diggs Brown

Dear Friends and Family,

I have just returned from Africa and wish to share a special experience with you that I found truly fascinating.

Diggs Brown is pictured with a handful of Masai natives during his recent visit to Kenya.
Photos supplied by Diggs Brown

I am sure every one of you knows I currently work for Special Operations Command Africa. While we are headquartered in Germany, our missions, of course, occur in Africa. Last week I was in Kenya making preparations for some future events. On a day off, I asked my driver to take me out to the brush to find true Masai people. The Masai are a seminomadic people located in Kenya and the northernmost portion of Tanzania. They are known for their distinctive dress and customs. I am quite sure that if you have viewed any documentaries or seen photos of Africa, you would recognize them. For the most part, you will find them out in the deserts and scrublands. Of course, you also will find them in game parks and suburbs, where some try to make a living off the tourist trade. And some of these will not be actual Masai but imposters wearing the distinctive costumes and seeking payment from tourists in return for posing for photographs.

To find true Masai, we had to drive into the Great Rift Valley. Previously, I had been driven past the north end of the rift on the way to a different location for work, but never ventured into the scrub-laden basin. It was always fascinating to me to gaze down into the rift, past the Suswa volcanic crater. As far as the eye could see, the obviously inhabited locations were few and far between to the naked eye. But somewhere out there, the Masai, in their small villages, raise families and herd cattle. Their lifestyle choice is to remain isolated from the outside world and keep to the traditions.

Our drive into the rift took hours. To me, the great difference in temperature in different locations in the immediate area was amazing. Along the high ridgelines, the air was chilled and the winds were brisk — almost sweater weather. But no sooner than you would drop a few hundred feet into the valley, the oven-like temperature would remind you that, yes, you are in Africa.

A narrow, lazily winding tarmac road meanders through the rift. The scrub and brush often obscure your view of what lays just a few meters beyond the shoulder of the road. The extinct volcanoes lumber in the distance to serve as a reminder that, indeed, this is a land that time has forgotten. All sense of modernization is located immediately along the road. Just a few meters out and you could be in any point in time.

Out of nowhere, we came upon a road crew repairing a section of the road that had fallen into disarray. I thought to myself, “Is this like home, where there will be one guy digging (no heavy machinery here) and several people watching him?” Astonishingly, they were all digging and scraping. And, even more to my surprise, as we passed through, they all stopped, waved, and called out “Jambo!” — “Hello!” in Swahili. When was the last time you passed a road repair crew who called out “hello” and waved?

The further we went into the rift, the less and less we saw of what I could call civilization.

David, my driver, had grown up in the rift. He was not Masai, but admired and respected them. He called them the most trustworthy people in Kenya.

To David, I am sure the drive is monotonous. To me, it is an adventure. Everywhere I look, there is something new to discover. There are termite mounds that stand as tall as me. Goat herders are keeping watch over their flocks, which move precariously through the rugged terrain. Volcanic rock lines the road. Wadis crisscross the desert floor. Scrub and cactus embrace each other.

There is a problem, however.

Kenya is in a drought. When I speak of drought in Africa, it is not the same as drought in Colorado. In Colorado, when we experience drought, we alternate days of watering lawns. Maybe we don’t wash the car. In Africa, animals, livestock — and people — die. In Kenya, there is a drought. Everything is dying. Skeletal remains line the road. The rift valley that should be green is dry. Where Masai should be grazing their cattle, it is vacant. They are on the move, searching for water. This is making our quest even more difficult.

Two and a half hours into our expedition, David spots something in the distance. My untrained eye doesn’t acquire what has caught David’s attention. He slows to a stop and points off into the distance on our right.

“There! There they are,” he states.

I squint my eyes and peer off into the harsh sunrays reflecting off the sand.

“There! Over there,” he points again.

Ah, yes. I see it. About a quarter mile off the road I can just see what I suspect is the roof of a hut above the scrub.

David locks in the four-wheel option of the truck and we leave the road. A few bumps, a number of spinouts in the sand, and we arrive in an open area just a few meters from a formidable fence constructed from thorny acacia tree limbs. At the only access into the circular compound, a young Masai boy, probably no more than 5 years old, watches our approach in amazement. As we exit the truck, he runs back into the compound. Before we reach the threshold, the patriarch of the village appears.

David and the patriarch strike up a conversation in Swahili. Gestures are made towards me. I am a few feet away so as not to intrude on the dialogue.

After a moment, David motions me over and introduces me to the Masai. Now, I may get the spelling wrong, but I believe his name is “Olekortinko.” Just behind him, still within the compound, his family gathers to watch the interaction. David mentions that I should give a gift as proper protocol, and I hand over 2,000 Kenyan shillings (approximately $28) to Olekortinko, which he gladly accepts while maintaining his composure as you would expect. A handshake seals the deal, and we enter his compound.

Now, what I had wanted to find was a village of several families, and we possibly had spotted one from the ridgeline an hour or so earlier. However, if it were Masai, it appeared too modern — with a lot of corrugated tin roofs on the mud huts. Where we are now is a single-family compound, but the ambiance is here, and these people are genuine.

Olekortinko, who, much to my surprise, speaks a little English, introduces me to his family. I can’t recall the names, but I met his wife, mother-in-law, three sons (ages 4 to 12 years), and three daughters (ages 4 months to 10 years). The youngest are giving me the once-over, not with apprehension, but because they have never seen a white man prior to my arrival.

Within the thorn-laden fence perimeter, there are three huts, a corral for the cattle and a corral for the goats. At the moment, his livestock are out foraging for any greenery they can find. Of the huts, one is for Olekortinko only. In Masai, the wives do not share a hut with the husband. The only time the wife is welcomed to the husband’s hut is when she is summoned. The wives are responsible for constructing the huts.

The huts are built from readily available materials. The framework is formed of timber poles, which are fixed directly into the ground. Between the base poles, there is an interwoven lattice of smaller branches. The lattice is plastered with a mix of mud, grass, small rocks, sticks, grass, cow dung and human urine. The cow dung serves as waterproofing. The wife proudly explains, through David, that the hut will stand for five years, if they choose to stay that long. Typically, the nomadic Masai don’t occupy a location for a period longer than a year.

We are escorted into the hut. David says that since the wives build the huts, the threshold is low, so the man must bow to honor the woman before he enters. And, yes, you must bow to enter. The entryway is shoulder height, and I also must turn sideways to enter. The hut itself is small. I would guess 1.75 meters high, by 2.5 meters, by 4 meters. It is composed of five rooms. There is a room where the children sleep — and I am guessing not all of them, because it is so tiny — a room for the mother-in-law, again tiny, a storage area, and the wife’s bedroom, which is attached to the kitchen. The kitchen is nothing more than a wood-burning fire pit that has a bench consisting of two rocks and a piece of wood near the pit so the wife can sit and stir whatever she is cooking in the tin pot.

Entering the hut is an experience in itself. You are going from bright African sun to a dark, windowless dwelling. It takes at least a couple minutes for my eyes to adjust. I am very weary of standing erect and bashing my head on the cow dung ceiling. Movement within the hut is complicated for my stature. The family manages to move with ease within these walls.

Olekortinko motions for me to sit on the edge of his wife’s bed with him. I would have never guessed that what we were sitting on was a bed. It is composed of a dried cowhide strung tautly between the walls to form a platform just a few inches off the ground and probably no more than 2 feet in any direction from the center. There are no sheets or pillows, no comfort. The Masai sleep in their clothing. The wife takes a seat across from us on the wood bench holding her baby and stirring whatever is cooking in the pot. She is only an arm’s length away, although across the room. I am adjusting to the dim light, however, and the smoke from the fire stings my eyes as it seeks escape from the hut through one tiny slit in the wall.

The inside of a Masai hut is shown in Kenya.
Photos supplied by Diggs Brown

Olekortinko and I begin a conversation on a number of topics. He is just as curious about me as I am about him. We discuss his education. Apparently, as a child he was taught English by missionaries. This was more than 20 years ago, and I am amazed at his level of diction. On occasion, David must interpret.

The Masai have a high infant mortality rate. Their remote lifestyle and natural birthing are contributing factors. A baby is not even recognized by the family until it has survived approximately three months. Olekortinko wants to have many more children. Eight is enough? Well, not around these parts. Death is common. The Masai do not bury their dead, but leave them out for the scavengers to devour. Only someone of great prestige would even be considered for burial.

What is the measure of prestige or wealth in the Masai world? Children are a sign of prosperity. The more you have, the wealthier you must be. Of course, the more male children you have, the more help you will have with raising cattle. The more female, then a dowry is headed your way in the future.

Many wives are a must. Olekortinko wishes to have at least two more. I tell him that one is enough for me. He doesn’t laugh, but gives me a perplexed look. He was quite sure that a “wealthy American” such as me must have at least two wives. I explain that some people in America do, but not at the same time. You can imagine where this conversation went. The conversation moves forward to family life in America. After a few minutes of discussion, we revert back to the Masai life.

Cattle also are a sign of status and a primary source of barter among the Masai. Olekortinko tells me that he has a small herd of 10 and is hoping to acquire five more in the near future to use as a dowry to acquire another wife. Tradition holds with the Masai that God gave them all the cattle in the world, hence the acceptance of rustling cattle from other tribes. They believe that they are just taking back their rightful property. Rustling is not as commonplace as it was in the past, but does still occur.

To the Masai, the drought is most devastating. Olekortinko explains that many of his tribe moved on in search of water. The only bright side to the drought, if you must find a silver lining, is that fact that the lions also have moved on in search of prey. Olekortinko’s malnourished cattle will not sustain a pride of lions.

Within the dimly lit hut, the children watch and listen. The youngest shyly peer around the corner at the white man in their home. The elder wishes to eavesdrop on the conversation. They understand and speak a bit of English, as it is a second language in Kenya. I am quite sure that this is the first time they have heard English with a Texas accent. The wife sits across from us while holding the youngest in her arms. She does not join in on the conversation. Only Olekortinko will speak.

The topic switches to attire. The Masai wear what is called a shuka. These are sheets traditionally worn wrapped around the body, one over each shoulder, then a third over the top of them. This explains the sleeping in their clothes. Still, I can’t imagine sleeping on the stiff animal-skin bed. Regarding the shuka, they are typically red, and patterns are a great favorite — mostly plaids.

Olekortinko explains that if they had known we were coming, they would have dressed more traditionally, but today they are in their working clothes. I notice that one of the boys is wearing Croc (plastic shoe) knock-offs, I don’t mention it, but do wonder where they came from. A missionary, maybe?

The conversation rambles on to a number of topics.

The Masai court system, if you want to call it that, is a body of oral law and is directed by retired elders. Punishment for offenses is usually settled with the payment of cattle or a formal and substantial apology made publicly.

Traditionally, the Masai are monotheistic and call God “Engai.” Many of today’s Masai have converted to Christianity, but others keep with the old teachings. They do have what we would call a “witch doctor,” who practices in the larger villages. He is responsible for bringing rain and curing what ails you. Maybe “shaman” would be a better term? Whatever you may wish to call him, he is failing miserably in the rain-making department.

We have been conversing easily for two hours. I know I have interrupted the meager lunch of a white pudding-type dish that was being prepared. I explain to Olekortinko that I must move on and how much I truly appreciate his time and candor. We move outside, into the sweltering African sun.

As we exit the compound, it seems Masai are appearing out of nowhere. Like ghosts, they step out of the brush and come to meet me. How did they know I was here? Where did they come from? Suddenly, I am shaking hands with a dozen or so wellwishers. Apparently, they have left their herds of cattle to cast eyes on the stranger in the village. Visitors, especially white ones, are rare. I make it a point to shake hands with all and say “jambo.” They are all courteous and friendly in their manner.

Olekortinko’s family comes to the vehicle and, one by one, they shake my hand goodbye. Olekortinko is the last. He takes my hand in both of his and says, “Travel well, my brother.”

As we depart, the Masai wave in a broad arch. A smile is on each of their faces. We wave back and disappear in a cloud of red African dust.

I have to share with you, of all the places I have been in the world and all the multitude of different cultures I have experienced, meeting the Masai was probably the most moving and inspirational. They are a pleasant people who enjoy their lives even in the harshest of conditions. They are at ease with the world and with themselves.

The shame, if you can call it that, is that the traditional way of Masai life is vanishing. The governments of Kenya and Tanzania have ongoing projects designed to “civilize” these people. Many of the Masai are leaving the nomadic lifestyle and moving into the suburbs to find employment in the modern world. There is, however, a realization that there must be a balance between tradition and the education of the children in preparation for the world that lies ahead. How this will work out remains to be seen. To me, it is sad to think that so many of these wonderful people will become common laborers in the “modern world.”

That being said, I am thrilled that I had the experience to meet these fine people. I wish them well and prosperity in their future.

Pray for rain.

Cheers!

Diggs Brown

Former Fort Collins City Council member Diggs Brown is currently deployed as a Special Forces major in the Army National Guard. He is expected to return to Colorado soon and to seek the Republican nomination for the 4th Congressional District seat now held by freshman Democrat Betsy Markey.