Traditions hold strong among the Masai, despite drought and the pressures of tourism, writes Belinda Jackson.
BREAKFAST this morning in southern Kenya is hot coffee, sweet pineapple, fresh pancakes - and that'll be an armed Masai warrior behind me. A bodyguard for breakfast? That's just so Whitney.
The Masai man is employed solely to chase away little vervet monkeys who eye my pineapple with unashamed avarice. The guard wears two thin red-and-white printed-cotton sheets called kangas. One is knotted around his shoulders, the other around his waist. Beaded bracelets are tied above his knees and his ears are pierced with large holes, maybe five centimetres long. Strings of necklaces are tied around his upper body and black rubber sandals, formerly car tyres, are on his feet.
At his waist hangs a sheathed knife and he carries a long, straight stick that he shakes vigorously at the monkeys when they come too close.
Eventually the monkeys know they will not win against the hawk-eyed man behind me and slink off to squabble, fight and flea each other in a nearby sprawling sycamore fig. This is the daily work of a vervet monkey, Masai man and me, the tourist.
As with many southern Kenyan safari camps, the Fig Tree Camp in the Masai Mara National Reserve employs young men as security guards and runners. It's a good job, particularly during drought, when the pastoralist Masai's precious cattle herds are in decline. And despite their apparent aloofness, the Masai are as curious about foreigners as we are about them.
Moses is a young Masai and, like most of his tribe, which is said to number about 900,000 on both sides of the Tanzanian-Kenyan border, he's most comfortable in traditional dress. He lives in a village 1½ hours' walk from my lodge, so his commute is three hours' walk each day. When he was eight or 10, the outer ridges of his ears were sliced but left intact on his head. The flesh was then twisted around the remainder of the ear and woven into two neat, complex knots on either side of his head.
"Did it hurt?"
"Did you cry?"
I never thought I'd hear a man of the warrior Masai tribes, who lions are said to fear, admit he cried. But I've read about Masai circumcision rituals, which take place when a boy is about 10, sans anaesthesia. To show fear or pain is to show cowardice. Moses would never admit to crying to another Masai. I reckon he's just saying what he thinks I want to hear.
I spy my first Kenyan Masai on the drive from the capital, Nairobi, to Masai Mara, Kenya's largest game reserve, on the Tanzanian border. A woman is on the side of the road, searching for firewood.
We pass through countless villages, called bomas, where young boys and old men drove a few big-headed, bony-ribbed cattle. Most men in their prime have left this area, taking their larger herds in search, literally, of greener pastures.
Masai huts, built by the women, are mud and dung pasted over a timber frame. They are low and so dark it's impossible to see inside, even on the brightest day; the air thick with wood smoke. The bomas are built in a semicircle and surrounded by a tall fence made from thin saplings to keep children, goats and cattle in and lions, and other big eaters, out.
In between, the towns are dusty affairs - some buzzing with a donkey-filled weekly market, others just a collection of rough, single-room shops with such cheerful names as Paradise Hotel, Step-By-Step shop and the Yes We Can hardware store.
All through Kenya, there is life on the roadsides - donkeys, sheep, people and their cattle walk slowly but steadily. The Masai stand out from the rest. "The Masai are so famous because they have stuck to their traditions," says my safari guide, the perpetually happy Julius. He's a member of the mixed Luhya tribe, the second largest of Kenya's 42 tribes after the populous Kikuyu.
The Masai, in comparison, make up less than 2 per cent of Kenya's population of 39 million. "Even those who become doctors, they always go back to their roots," Julius says.
Kenya's constitution allows only the Masai to carry a club, sword or spear in public, even in Parliament. "It's like he's a coward if he doesn't," Julius says.
Boys get a stick at 10 years of age, add a knife at 15 and, at 18, become spear-carrying men. And they're hands-down macho. You'll never see a blind, lame or albino Masai out in public. They're well hidden by their community, I'm told. Even old folks are squirrelled away, though we spot a few aged men playing a board game that looks as addictive as poker.
Mind you, by our standards, these are damned fit old buggers, with swags of great-grandchildren to their names.
Julius gives me a crash course in Masai custom: polygamy is de rigueur. The first marriage is arranged, the second is for love, he says. The third is when the first wife chooses a friend to join the household and the fourth is chosen by the man's friends.
Boys marry from 18, girls from 13. It all sounds so neighbourly. And then
I get confused when someone starts explaining that some people are good Catholics. Or perhaps I misheard that part.
The Masai themselves aren't up for discussing anything past the sanitised basics. However, Corinne Hofmann, a Swiss woman who married a Masai and had a daughter with him, wrote in her book, The White Masai, that if a woman isn't beaten repeatedly by her husband he's considered a cowardly, incompetent man and that beating is a way of restoring love.
Aware of our fascination with their dress, lifestyle and customs, the Masai dislike on-the-run snappers so we seek their consent before taking photos after spending time in their village, a privilege for which tourists pay.
Just outside the Masai Mara reserve's gates is a thriving Masai village, where a band of impossibly tall, lean young men welcome our small group - just me and a family of five cheerful Finns.
Dominic is a warrior of about 20; very tall, very slim and very cool, his shaved head crowned with a headdress of long, thick, braided hair. His wrists are layered with traditional beaded bracelets and a big digital watch and he chats in excellent English. He describes the Masai diet (blood, milk, meat, meat and more meat), walks us through a hut and drags us into their games, which are all about superiority.
Straight as telegraph poles, the young guys spring into the air, hitting unimagined heights, and all us girls giggle and clap encouragingly.
In their own environment, the Masai are more than happy to strike what they know are incongruous poses with the super-white Finns; very black and very white arms wrapped around each other, a crown made from a lion's pelt perched on white-blonde hair.
They also prove my theory that no matter where you are in the world, there is always a gift shop, Masai villages included.
Hip, grinning Pion walks with me as I cruise the village's open-air trestles, where women display beaded jewellery, animal carvings and masks. I choose a shuka, a beautiful piece of red fabric. We talk prices but I've got US dollars only.
"That's OK, mama," he says, using the Kenyan form of address for women. "We take dollars as well as Kenyan shillings. It's 65 shillings to the dollar."
"Sixty-five? But yesterday it was 75."
"In Nairobi, yes. But in the Mara, it's 65," Pion says, with a flash of white teeth. Then he stoops for a stick and does the conversion, scratching white lines of maths into his dark skin.
He walks me out of the boma and, as he shakes my hands in farewell, reaches into the small bag all the men wear around their waists, pulls out his Nokia and asks for my phone number.
Drought plagues Kenya but it came to a head last year after three seasons without rain, which, compounded with 30 per cent inflation, made one in 10 people reliant on food aid.
The national park gates are haunted by swarms of souvenir sellers so our arrivals and departures are spent running the gamut of giant timber giraffes, ceremonial masks and shields, flapping lines of shukas and beaded jewellery thrown at us by bare-breasted Masai women.
Amid the bad news, we find a good story in a new boutique camp on the outskirts of the elephant highway that is Amboseli National Park.
Satao Elerai camp comprises just five permanent tents facing Mount Kilimanjaro in neighbouring Tanzania, plus four suites: luxury cottages with thatched roofs, deep baths and enormous, romantic beds swathed in snow-white mosquito nets. The camp is a privately run community project with warrior pastoralists to give them an alternative form of employment to cattle farming. Eventually, it's intended the property will be completely run by the local Masai.
Being in a more remote area than the homesteads around the Mara, Elerai's villagers are shyer but the welcome is warmer. They "sing" us into the village, in an infectious, rhythmic chant as they circle around guests, colourful kangas flapping in the hot wind, massive beaded jewellery across their shoulders. Later, I hear they'd all skipped church that Sunday morning to welcome their rare visitors.
Like all Masai women, Elerai's women have clean-shaven heads, high cheekbones and beautiful black, slanted eyes. We sit on the ground, chatting through two translators, from Masai to Swahili, Swahili to English, about the drought and the local school the safari camp will establish for their children. Their men have been gone droving three months now and they have no idea when they're coming back.
You can visit Kenya to spot the "big five", ticking them off your safari sheet.
Or you can put them into context, living alongside the people who share the plains with the game. The Masai's cattle roam the plains, unhindered by national park borders. Fat zebras weave between the herd, grazing on the grasslands shared with lions, hyenas and cheetahs. Lots of animals would look upon the docile cattle as walking dinners.
"But when the lion gets the smell of the Masai," Julius says, "he runs away." Maybe it's their scent; maybe it's their dress sense that scares the kings of the jungle. It's said that lions recognise the shukas, the red woven cloth the men drape over their bare shoulders, and run from the Masai's accurate weapons.
Two nights later, our little safari truck is pushing along scrub-lined dirt tracks through a national park. Suddenly, two shapes hit the headlights. Two Masai men are on foot in a dark landscape filled with bull elephants and hunting leopards.
"Should we give them a lift?" we ask Julius. He shakes his head. "Their village will be somewhere around here, maybe not on the road."
"But won't the lions get them?"
"They're fine," he says dismissively. "They're Masai."
The writer was a guest of Bench International.
There are no direct flights from Sydney to Nairobi. Qantas flies Sydney-Johannesburg, with connections to Nairobi, from $2319. 131 313, qantas.com.au. Emirates flies Sydney-Dubai-Nairobi, priced from $2520. 1300 303 777, emirates.com. Qatar flies Melbourne-Doha-Nairobi, priced from $2540. 1300 340 600, qatarairways.com.
Bench International has three-day packages staying at Satao Elerai, priced from $1275 a person, including return flights to Nairobi, accommodation, meals, drinks, a visit to a Masai village and game viewing. Its eight-day Kenya Highlights safari includes the Masai Mara, Lake Nakuru and Amboseli and Tsavo national parks, priced from $1995 a person. Includes transport, accommodation, meals, game viewing and park fees. 1800 221 451, benchinternational.com.au.
Visas and currency
Australians can obtain a visa on arrival at Nairobi airport for $US25 ($27). Kenya uses the shilling. $1 = 67 shillings. There are 100 cents in a shilling.
Three (other) things to do
1. Giraffe Manor Hotel, where giraffes stick their heads into the breakfast parlour and the owners educate guests about the endangered Rothschild giraffe. Koitobos Road, Karen, Nairobi, +254 20 251 3166, giraffemanor.com.
2. Visit Kazuri's workshop, run by single parents, to watch beautiful handmade ceramic beads being crafted. Mbagathi Ridge, Karen, Nairobi, +254 20 232 8905, kazuri.com.
3. Take a long, long seafood lunch and watch the dhows, traditional Arabian trading boats, sail by at Tamarind, Cement Silo Road, Nyali, Mombasa, +254 41 471 747, www.tamarind.co.ke.