Driving home from an afternoon of delicious nyama choma washed down with Tusker baridi at Olepolos Country Club in Kenya’s Rift Valley, we spotted in the near distance a Maasai thumbing a lift. He was far enough away for us to have a quick discussion about whether or not to stop. I was still new to Kenya and unused to seeing these striking people; so tall and lean, decked out in colourful plaid throws and draped in a variety of accessories – some decorative, some that would prove handy in a fight.
“I’m not sure,” I said to Carlos, my driver, “By choice I wouldn’t really sit in a car with a strange man who’s brandishing a spear. What do you think?” Carlos didn’t fully appreciate my concern and assured me that this was a perfectly normal sight and what was I worried might happen? “Well this it, I don’t know. I can’t understand why he’s flagging us down. I mean, where is he going?” Carlos explained that the Maasai often hitched a lift to a spot that’s the closest place to their camp, even though it might still be a further few hours’ walk from where they get dropped. “But then won’t we be guilted into taking him somewhere not on our route, especially somewhere remote? And don’t forget he’s got that spear for a bit of gentle persuasion.”
They were hardy people, he went on, and would be fully expecting an off-road walk once leaving the car. He’d never known anyone take advantage of the situation and was sure this time would be no exception. “But how are we going to communicate, will he speak your language, Kikuyu? As you know my Kiswahili is only very basic so I won’t have much to contribute. Won’t it be a bit awkward?”
“Hakuna shida,” said Carlos, “no worries. It will be fine, but it is your decision whether or not to offer this fellow a helping hand. The sun has set, soon it will be dark and very cold. He may have very far to go across country with no food or water and only the stars to light his way. Sure, he has some small weapons that he can use if he is attacked by wild animals, but then he is already a warrior. This means he has been initiated into manhood by spending time alone in the most inhospitable environment and proved himself by returning to his tribe with the hide of a big animal, perhaps a lion. He has shown that can protect his wife and children when they need him to. I just hope they are safe until he is able to be at home with them. But, it is your choice.”
Ok, so this was sounding unlike any man in my repertoire of men back at home. I was at once full of admiration, fear and empathy for this Maasai. I struggled with the decision that was being laid squarely at my feet but, perhaps selfishly, decided that the opportunity for me to have a close-up encounter with someone whose life experiences could not be further from my own was too good to miss. As Carlos slowed down, I searched the recesses of my brain for a way of being able to communicate with this man who would soon be in sitting directly behind me, complete with the spear I could clearly see him holding and the knife which hung from his belt. I settled on open smiles and gestures plus my trusty Point It dictionary, which had never let me down in any situation.
We pulled up; I braced myself. The Maasai was grinning broadly and approached my open window.
“Hello chaps, Toikan’s the name but you can call me John. I really must say thanks awfully for this, I’ve been stuck on this blasted road for hours. Anyway, I absolutely don’t want to be a burden so if you don’t mind my tagging along in the back until as close as you’re going to Nairobi centre I’d be terribly grateful. I’ll be quiet as a mouse – there’s a podcast I have to catch up on so you won’t even know I’m here. Thanks ever so.”
If Downton Abbey ever had a Maasai storyline, Toikan would surely be their man.