KIPALONGA / MAASAI WARRIOR
Loita Hills, Great Rift Valley, Kenya
Shortly after dawn in the Loita Hills, on the border between Kenya and Tanzania, a roving band of teenagers, decked in beads and armed to the teeth with spears and machetes, approached my Land Rover, parked outside the thorn barricade that protected their village from predators. At rst, one boy’s head popped up to check his re ection in the car window. Then two more appeared. Finally, eight were bunched outside, peering in. “Original Maasai,” claimed the handsomest, whose face and tightly woven braids were smeared with henna paste. He perched his forearms on the base of the rear window and leaned into the vehicle. “Give me money,” he grinned. “Honey, you’ve got to be kidding,” I said. “Try harder.” His name was Kipalonga, he told me with a jut of his chin. He was at the stage in life when Maasai adorn themselves, roam unsupervised by elders, steal cattle, and irt with girls. My translator, William Ole Siara, had cautioned me to avoid these dangerous young men, but he was off somewhere conversing with other herdsmen, and soon I was examining their carved wooden clubs as they swatted ies with my hand fan. Some had strangely beautiful colloidal scaring on their arms and chests. Shells, buttons, strands of beads, and drinking straws dangled from their necks and ears. A trader out of Nairobi sold them small plastic mirrors marked “Made in China,” which these dandies bound to their wrists like French courtiers. All wore the strap sandals fashioned from recycled tires known as Thousand Miles. Safari really means a long walk or journey, and this band had hiked overland from deep inside Tanzania, crossing the border into Kenya illegally through territory where lions stalked freely. They were gloriously conspicuous in a stark landscape of sand and scrub. Maasai warriors, or murran in Kiswahili, can be secretive eaters. One of the biggest social taboos is the consumption of meat with others not belonging to their age group. It gets even more complicated when women are involved. Warriors can feel downright shameful eating.
in front of their mothers and girlfriends. Even so, I offered to buy them a sheep. Nomadic tribesmen like the Samburu or Maasai in remoter regions of East Africa often subsist on a tin mug of milky chai tea in the morning followed by ugali, a bland cornmeal porridge intro- duced by more settled segments of the population, although historically, their diet consisted solely of milk, meat, and blood. There was a huddle at a distance, with much negotiation. Ole Siara came back to the car to let me know that the warriors would make an exception for me. The slaughter took place later that afternoon at an improvised olpul, or meat-eating camp, with cooking pots borrowed from the village. I’ve never seen an animal killed with such grace. Two of the murran smothered the pied sheep — a hairy red Maasai breed — by gen- tly laying it down on a bed of twigs and kneeling on its rib cage while clamping its mouth and nose closed. The sheep’s eyes stilled as the boys offered a murmured prayer thanking the animal for its life. They slit the throat and allowed the hot blood to pool in a pouch impro- vised by stretching the neck skin. Then, one by one, each warrior leaned down to drink; their hennaed faces became a shade more crimson. Using machetes, they skinned and gutted the sheep and separated the legs from the hip bones with a swift backward snap. Kipalonga sliced into the milky white intestines and dropped them in a curled mass on the hide, which lay hair side down on the earth. Several pounds of masticated greenery, still damp with bile, were extracted from the stomach. The tallest warrior hung the veined caul on a shrub where it billowed in the wind and dried like parchment. He shredded it into a pot of water, dumped in the organs and prickly acacia branches, then set the pot to simmer on a blazing re. Ole Siara, adjusting the oral cloth wrapped around his waist, explained that this broth is prized for its medicinal value because any nutrients the sheep consumed are transferred to its cooks. Chunks of fat were tossed into another pot to fry; the head was roasted on a stick. While the organs bubbled, they practiced dance moves. Adumu is a form of competi- tive jumping — knobby knees locked, heads erect — bouncing as high as possible in the air. Tossing their long tight braids back and forth, almost breathless with laughter, they carelessly abandoned machetes on the ground, more boys at play than fierce warriors. Kipalonga paused to wrap his arm around the back of his best friend, who held him close by the waist.
On the occasion when a Maasai village consumes one of its ock, the parts are portioned out according to a code. Men in their prime are awarded the thighs; women receive the large intestine, neck, and pelvis; elders take the diaphragm and liver. At a male-only olpul, the kidneys are eaten raw by the slaughterers. That afternoon, a warrior named Parmat eagerly sucked the marrow from a cloven hoof attached to a blackened, splintered shin bone. As others gnawed on the ribs, Parmat offhandedly passed me a juicy gob of smoky, barely cooked sheep fat the size of my thumbnail. I held it between my ngers and everyone paused to watch. I put the fat in my mouth and chewed. And chewed. It tasted like snot. Swallowing, I nodded curtly and smiled. The murran smiled, too. Then they handed me more. In the gathering darkness, we surrounded the blazing re, wrapping ourselves tightly in tartan blankets. Lightning illuminated an escarpment as the boys sang about their luck meeting someone willing to feed them. Kipalonga took the role of olaranyani, or lead vocal- ist, calling out a line of the chant in a sweet tenor as the others responded with whistles, yips, and throat humming. Metal disks on their headbands jangled. Before attaining the rank of elder, these boys would pass through several more coming-of-age trials, including one called enkang e-kule, the milk ceremony, where their mothers would shave off their marvelously hen- naed locks. Afterward, all other nery would be discarded when the time came to progress to junior elder and take up the task of herding livestock. Some murran, I learned later, suffered depression when graduating from the way of war- riors. Others might not survive to rest in an elder’s chair. Life in this lonesome corner of Maasai Mara National Reserve is full of random violence. Elephants or wildebeest might stampede; a cheetah or leopard could attack. For this one night, however, they had bellies full of meat and no cares to spoil their rejoic- ing. The warriors stood shoulder to shoulder, moving closer to the blaze, and unintentionally, I was squeezed from the tightening circle as they continued to sing under a stormy sky.
This article is an adaptation from the recent book “Far Afield: Rare Food Encounters from Around the World” Published by Ten Speed Press. James Beard Award-winning journalist Shane Mitchell and photographer James Fisher have traveled the world on assignment for food and travel publications such as Travel + Leisure and Saveur. Along the way, they have encountered the fascinating people who are keeping some of the world’s oldest food traditions alive, such as taro farmers in Hawaii who have never left the islands, Maasai warriors in Kenya, and Icelandic shepherds who still use the techniques of their Viking ancestors. Full of compelling photography from far-flung locations, Far Afield profiles these people, sharing their unique and captivating stories along with forty recipes.