A step back in time

Moments after arriving at our campsite in Amboseli National Park in Kenya, our 9-year-old daughter, Skylar, was kicking her soccer ball around with a Masai man. Wrapped in red-checked cloth, John stood over 6 feet tall, carried a carved ebony walking stick, and spoke three languages. Over the next few days, John returned to visit us, teaching the girls Swahili and Masai words and telling us about his village.

Interestingly, most Kenyan men choose a biblical name at some point during high school. Perhaps John befriends all the foreign tent campers, but the invitation to his village felt authentic and personal. We had shipped school supplies to our safari company prior to leaving Ashland and needed a recipient; his village had recently built a school. We had a match.

John roused the village from their afternoon siesta to greet our family with songs, the men holding down the rhythm section with their voices while bending from the waist. My husband, Jeff, joined their chorus as the women invited my daughters and me to join their dance. The Masai have a regal presence with their red robes, impressive height and noble bearing. Surrounded by these friendly strangers from such an ancient culture, we couldn't stop smiling and exchanging curious glances.

The newly elected 27-year-old Chief Ipetek welcomed us with kind eyes and flawless English. He explained that we had total access to the village and its inhabitants. We had permission to photograph these typically camera-shy people. He and John would gladly answer all of our questions. We thanked him in the Ma language, "Ashe!"

Thorny acacia branches encircle the village, providing some protection from wild animals for the 180 residents. The inner courtyard holds additional acacia corrals for the cows, sheep and goats at night. Until they reach six months, the domesticated animals spend the night inside the low-rise Masai huts.

Gender and age roles are clearly defined in this polygamous culture. Men govern, carve wood, make fire, protect the village and herd the animals. Women do everything else, including cooking, beading, building the huts and caring for the children. The Masai have real work to do at a young age. Boys of 7 or 8 herd goats, and girls build stick, dung, and mud huts by the age of 12.

We stood in the terra-cotta dust of the courtyard under a lone tree to watch a demonstration of the vertical leaping prowess of the Masai men. Any self-respecting man can jump straight up, as high as his own head. Holding John's walking staff, Jeff made a sporting attempt as well. Three men exhibited another impressive skill when they made fire without matches. Two men took turns spinning a stick between their open palms. This stick was lodged in a piece of flat wood, which created friction and then smoke and ash. A third man dumped the ash onto dried elephant dung and blew on the cinders, igniting a fire most efficiently.

Leaning against his grandmother's hut, John diplomatically answered our questions about polygamy. "A man must have enough cows to afford more than one wife; he must pay each wife's family eight or nine cows. It's not good to have the wives in the same house &

that can be a problem &

so each wife must have her own house."

We ducked low to enter the dark, cool hut. It's built low because the wind would topple a taller structure. John gestured for us to sit on the edge of the stick-and-cowhide beds. "No mattresses," he pointed out. As our eyes adjusted to the dim light, our minds accepted the fact that we were sitting in a real Masai hut in the wilderness of Kenya. Chief Ipetek joined us and talked about the Masai diet, which consists of only three things: meat, blood and milk from their domesticated animals.

The Masai creation myth explains that first God created the cow, then the Masai, then everything else. There was never a time for the Masai before cows. They do not eat wild game, and they hunt the lion only as a rite of passage to manhood. To us vegetarians, it was particularly surprising to hear that on a diet void of vegetables the Masai live to be 90 to 100 years old. Of course, they walk everywhere and don't appear to own chairs, so they get a great deal of exercise. We remarked on the stunning white teeth in the village. John explained that they brush several times a day with the shredded end of an acacia twig. The American Dental Association should study the properties of this plant.

Outside again, we joined the children in the courtyard to give them school supplies. They sang in Masai, then broke into the familiar "Alphabet Song." Skylar stood head and shoulders above her Masai peers. No one could believe that our children were 9 and 12. "They must eat well," we heard numerous times.

This tribe had a meeting three years ago and decided that education was more important than their nomadic lifestyle, so they built a school with the help of a Los Angeles Rotary Club. Now only the men of the warrior class wander with the animals, seeking water and grass. The women, children and elders remain in the village year-round so the children can attend school. When at last we presented our box of school supplies, the Bic pens caused the greatest excitement.

Finally, we visited the improvised marketplace, where the Masai displayed their beadwork and woodcarvings. These are a savvy and entrepreneurial people. Chief Ipetek and John divided our family in half to survey each aisle separately. Despite our protests that our money supply was not infinite, we were instructed to choose one item from each Masai family, and we would bargain at the end. What a cornucopia of gorgeous artifacts: carved animals, beaded bracelets, necklaces, baskets, wooden clubs, and more. One man removed his own anklet to sell to us. Raindrops came to our rescue, but not soon enough. We'd accumulated 38 items, which the men arranged on a blanket to inventory. The bargaining began at a shocking $550. After much back and forth and a bit of discomfort on our part, we put a few items back (making sure we kept the chief's wooden hippo) and arrived at a fair price.

We left the village with more questions than when we arrived. The Masai we met do not yearn for plumbing, electricity, transportation or modern medicine. They have no prisons, and they nap every afternoon. They also practice polygamy and female circumcision. Our family had spent the afternoon with a gracious and affable group who live an ancient lifestyle in the wild. The pressure to modernize, however, is intense; and it's likely that within a decade this village will cease to exist in its present form.

Later on our travels in Kenya, a Masai man offered us 100 cows and two donkeys to marry Maya, our 12-year-old, when she finished high school. We were intrigued by this culture but not eager to adopt it as our own, so we politely declined his offer.

is director of educational services for the Ashland School District. She is currently on leave, traveling around the world with her family. You can read their blog and view photos of their adventures at .

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