On his first junket to the United States in 2002, Joseph Ole Koyei, cultural ambassador for the Masai people, raised $7,000, enough to build two classrooms for a village school. So when he left his home in the grassy pastures of the Great Rift Valley again this April, this time to raise money for a new well (the women in his village haul drinking water from several miles away), he was given a hero's send-off. Two truckloads of well-wishers, some of whom had walked for three hours just to get to the trucks, came to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi to see him off. That might have been on April 27, or maybe 28--where he comes from, they don't keep close track of things like that.
Standing on a stage in the converted Lutheran church that is the Portage Park Center for the Arts, Ole Koyei explains that because the Masai don't keep records he doesn't know his birthday, or his exact age either. "I believe I'm between 28 and 30," he says.
Jennifer La Civita, the director of the center, knows what time it is: 6:35, five minutes after Ole Koyei's talk is supposed to begin. Though she placed a thousand flyers in libraries and churches in Portage Park, Galewood, and Austin, the pews are pretty empty. La Civita delays the presentation for a few minutes and is rewarded with a trickle of stragglers. Most of the 20 attendees are women and young children.
"I do not put this on to impress you," begins Ole Koyei. "This is how we dress." Dark and slight, Ole Koyei wears an array of flat white beads over a red togalike garment called an ilkarish and a braided headdress from which dangles a small mirror. He speaks softly and with a strong accent. La Civita hands him a microphone, but the feedback just makes things worse. Ole Koyei discards the mike and speaks up instead. "I forgot my long spear," he says. "That's the spear I use for hunting lions. But I brought my club."
A small minority of the half-million Masai of Kenya and Tanzania have absorbed the trappings of modernity, including cell phones and the Internet, but most of them live as their ancestors have for thousands of years, as seminomadic pastoralists for whom wealth is measured in cattle, goats, and sheep. They live on the land in tribal units, tending their livestock and defending them against predators. The women still build family huts in the traditional manner, from cow dung, grass, sticks, mud, and urine. "It doesn't smell in Africa," Ole Koyei says. "It really doesn't."
Like another people out of time, the Amish, the Masai are accustomed to being ogled by tourists, although unlike the Amish some Masai will insist on being paid if you take their picture.
Ole Koyei says he was chosen to represent his people by a council of Masai village elders, each of whom sold a cow in order to cover the costs of his airfare and expenses. As an English speaker, the son of a chief, and an employee of the Kenyan government (he works in the revenue office of the Maasai Mara Game Preserve), Ole Koyei was a logical choice for the position. While working at the preserve he befriended some tourists from Berrien Springs who invited him to visit them.
As a result of the Berrien Springs connection, both of Ole Koyei's diplomatic missions have been to the midwest. Neither trip was exactly a stopwatch affair: Ole Koyei is inclined to let his itinerary develop as he goes along. His speaking engagements--at schools, churches, libraries, and community centers--are typically arranged on short notice by people he meets along the way, who often provide him lodging as well. Often one appearance precipitates the next. "I have good friends showing me, introducing me to individuals, you see?" he says. "Sometimes I just show up and I want to see and meet people and I can just see them."
On this trip, Ole Koyei's fluid schedule has taken him to Detroit, Racine, Lansing, Milwaukee, South Bend, and San Diego; his monthlong 2002 mission included stops in San Francisco and Little Rock.
Onstage Ole Koyei describes the rites of passage every Masai warrior goes through on the journey from childhood to manhood. He shows the audience two darkened disk-shaped scars that were carved into his upper thighs when he was about ten. Around the age of 12 he had to remove his bottom incisors with a knife, he says, opening his mouth and showing the gaps. The audience gasps. Upon reaching puberty a few years later, he underwent a ritual circumcision--unanesthetized. "While it is happening you cannot blink your eyes, not even move your eyelashes," he explains. "You sit like you are unconscious. You are not supposed to move any part of your body or they will consider you a coward." Following his circumcision, Ole Koyei says, he spent eight months in the bush training to be a warrior. He killed his first lion, then survived a lion attack that left claw marks on his left calf, which he shows to the audience.
Once he has completed these and other rites of passage, a young Masai warrior enters a world of adult male privilege. Ole Koyei, who has 6 mothers and 48 siblings, shows an older brother's wedding video. He explains that the bride, who's wife number three for the brother and brings with her a dowry of ten cows, is crying "because she's never seen her husband." The women in the audience laugh nervously, but grow somber as the crying continues. The bride's head is shaved--"It's very hot," Ole Koyei says--then milk is poured on her head and shoulders, followed by handfuls of grass. This, he explains, will bless the marriage with children. "He's really blessing her," he adds as the groom heaps more grass on her neck. "No wonder she's crying," responds a middle-aged woman in the second row. Ole Koyei chuckles.
When the video is over, Ole Koyei sings two traditional Masai songs. His singing suggests the sound of an aboriginal didgeridoo. The sound seems to emanate less from his mouth than from the whole upper body, as if his torso were acting as a sounding board.
As he puts in another video, Cynthia Diaz, who met Ole Koyei at a dinner a couple of days earlier and has brought her 11-year-old son, Gabe, to see him, tells me, "He needs a manager. He's bad at raising money. At this dinner, I was waiting for him to put the bite on me the whole time. Finally, I just went up to him and asked if I could make a donation. He said OK."
The second video is a commercial travelogue produced by a tour company called Travelquest; Ole Koyei purchased it in Nairobi. In it, narrator Alan Thicke explains that "the warlike Masai" consider themselves guardians of all the cattle in the world. There are snorts of derision when Thicke compares Masai ritual circumcision to a bar mitzvah. Ole Koyei doesn't seem bothered. After the talk he says, "I believe if you respect people's culture and their views, you can actually speak anywhere."
Ole Koyei has been staying off and on in the home of Marnie Glaser, who volunteered to put him up in her spare bedroom after he spoke to an assembly of 80 fourth graders at Oakton Elementary School, where she works as a psychologist. After Ole Koyei's presentation Glaser tells me about having a Masai warrior as a houseguest. Dinners, she says, have been easy to plan: "He likes beef. You can win with beef. Vegetables, there ain't much he really likes. I'd give him a spoonful, he'd make a face." The Masai diet is heavy on animal protein: milk, meat, and blood. The late Dr. Atkins would have approved.
Glaser has made it a point to learn as much as she can about relations between the sexes in Masai culture. "Men have the power," she reports. "Women are seen but not heard. Let me add: they are seen and they are available, and they are not heard. He knows it's not like that here, but still there's a subtle undertone of that culture coming in, even if he doesn't intend it." Glaser and Ole Koyei have had to negotiate the odd moment of cross-cultural dissonance--as, for example, when he let her know it was time to make him dinner by sitting down and declaring "I'm hungry." "He has a great sense of humor, so we could joke about it," she says. "But there were moments where it was, like, don't push me."
Asked about the status of Masai women, Ole Koyei asserts that conditions are becoming more liberal. Girls can now go to school with boys, and Ole Koyei feels they should marry later than the traditional ages of 13 through 15, so they can stay in school longer. He also believes that the traditional practice of female circumcision, which is under attack from human rights groups, will disappear with advances in education.
Education occupies an ambivalent place in Masai culture. Historically the Masai have resisted the Kenyan government's attempts to impose compulsory education on their children. "The elders believe if you go to school you're not coming back to tend the cows and help the family," says Ole Koyei, who speaks English only because he was too ill to escape one day when the police raided his village looking for truants. "The other people heard the police car coming, they all ran into the bushes to hide," he says. "I was left alone because I was sick and I was unable to run away. Then they took me to school for five years, without coming back." Ole Koyei says he tried to run away from school several times. By the time he was released, at about 15, he was fluent and literate in English.
Beleaguered by encroachments on their grazing lands, Masai elders have lately begun reconsidering the usefulness of education. "Some of them still don't want it," says Ole Koyei, "but we give them an example: let's say myself. I went to school and now I work for the government and I'm paid some money. And when I come back to the village, I buy some more cows. So they see that if children go to school they can work and earn money and buy some more cows for the family." Education, Ole Koyei says, is a central cause of his mission as Masai cultural ambassador. "We had this plan," he says. "How can we get a school? And there's no money there. So I thought the best way is to maybe go out! Because we the Masai say the I that went out is the champion, is the more clever one. So if someone goes out, they'll be able to get greener pastures. That's why I manage to come out and talk, and say the problems facing my people."
The suggested donation at the Portage Park event was $3; most of the adults gave a little more on their way past the collection bottle at the front door. Though he's only raised $2,000 on this trip so far, Ole Koyei is optimistic. He still had several fund-raising events to attend before returning to Kenya early next week. And on a nonfiscal level the voyage has already been a success for him, full of broadening experiences. Before it he'd never seen a vacuum cleaner, and had never used a corkscrew, swum in a pool, ridden on a train, heard jazz, or eaten pizza. "It's strange to me the way people eat here," he says. "It's not that they eat a lot, but they eat quite often."
When he returns next year, he hopes to bring ten Masai warriors with him. For now, he's looking forward to going home. "They're going to give me a very warm welcome when I go back. Kill a lot of cows, goats, and we'll have a big celebration! And then, according to our culture, I'm going to tell them the story, each and every step I took, beginning from when we parted from the airport--the people I visited, how the people have been treating me, the foods I've been eating, how I've been sleeping, things like that."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andre J. Jackson.