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A Maasai Woman
In the face of some Masai matriarchs could be read the tale of a people whose iron code of tradition makes them unique among the earth's beings.
The woman who came through the camp was lean and tall. She could have been of any age between eighteen and thirty. She marched straight towards me in the yellow August dawn, while I stretched to chase away the shadows of sleep, shivering in the early-morning air of the coldest month of the year on the Kenya Highlands. It was 1973, when hunting was still allowed in Kenya.
She greeted me in Swahili and in a high clear voice, without any shyness, she asked me immediately for salt.
'Chumvi. Mimi nataka chumm' She smiled with even, well-spaced teeth.
All creatures in the Highlands need salt to supplement their diet. Rock salt mixed with the soil creates a salt lick irresistible to elephant, rhino, antelope and buffalo. They walk long miles at dusk, drawn by its subtle scent, imperceptible to human nostril. But before leaving the shelter of the shrubs around the area of the salt-lick, which generations of converging animals' hooves have made barren of vegetation, they pause and sniff the air with quivering muzzles, with tentative trunks, to detect any smell of danger in the wind. Reassured, they move on, head down, eager to lick the salt trapped in the earth.
Chumvi. A handful of the precious salt, is a treat that few humans, even, can resist in wild Africa.
I smiled up at her, and nodded. She came close on elegant legs, and sat in the dust next to me.
We hadcamped in the late afternoon, not far from a manyatta in the area of Narok, one of the main centres of the proud Maasai tribe. It then consisted of a couple of petrol stations, a general store kept, like most other stores, by Indian merchants, and a few primitive dukasi shops where one can find a bit of everything, from tea to blankets, from dark sugar-cane to snuff, from tinned beans to tablets to fight--often in vain--the endemic malaria.
We had chosen a spot in the shade of some yellow fever trees, and at nightfall had lit a fire of sticks and dry branches. There we had barbecued, on some rudimentary iron wire, the tender fillet of a Thomson's gazelle that had not been fast enough.
The manyatta was a large one, composed, like all others, of longish low huts rounded like loaves. Made from a mixture of mud and dung plastered on a frame of curved sticks, they reminded me of dried-out chrysalises. The huts were surrounded by a thick barricade of acacia and 'wait-a-bit' thorn branches, arranged so that the spikes were impenetrable by animal or man.
Cattle are the wealth that the god Ngai--the sky in Maasai--had bestowed forever on the Maasai race, and it was within this enclosure that their livestock spent the night, each animal packed close to the other, sheltered from predators and cattle rustlers.
The woman was dressed in goatskins, reddened with fat and ochre. From her right ear, stretched down to her shoulder, hung a tin ornament polished like silver and shaped like an arrow. Her left ear was studded with an old beer bottle top, shiny as a new coin.
Her right leg, from ankle to knee, was encased in a spiralling brass bracelet, so tight that it scarcely allowed any space for her slim bird-like leg. This was so skeletal that it reminded me of the ancient Roman shinbones I had once found as a child in a newly ploughed field I was exploring with my father in the countryside around Quarto d'Altino. How far from Africa my childhood seemed, yet how close.
Her ornaments showed that this woman was married. Innumerable rows of small coloured beads swayed gently from her neck, on her forehead, and around her stunning black eyes, like a dancing mask. They were threaded with infinite patience, extravagant skill and a symmetrical elegance that no mirror had suggested. They framed her tilted eyes, around which countless flies, motionless and undisturbed, formed dainty patterns like points d'esprit on the lacy veil of an Edwardian bonnet.
I poured the salt straight from the plastic bag onto her pink palm, proffered as a cup held between her slender black fingers. She licked it laughing, greedily, like the most sought after delicacy. Only when she had finished, and I had put the remainder of the packet in her hand, did she look me straight in the face and begin to ask questions. Because she spoke Swahili, which was unusual in those days for a Highland Maasai, I could understand her.
Our talk was oddly feminine and for a time we became as close as one can only be over a handful of salt in the solitude of a newborn day, when the Maasai men, carrying their spears against lions and thieves, had gone out grazing their herds among far-off lowings, and the European men, in a hurry to follow fresh buffalo tracks, had forgotten to drink all their tea.
The only sign left of Paolo that morning was a still steaming cup, and the squashed stub of his first cigarette. Quick to notice these traces of a male presence, 'Wapi bwana yako?' she asked.
'Where is your husband?' But before I could answer about mine she told me of hers. Her story was typical of all the young beauties of her tribe and her age-group, just after circumcision.
A handsome moran, or young warrior, who had already won, by raiding, enough cattle to afford a wife, had shown his interest by offering her a necklace, which she had accepted.African Nights. Copyright © by Kuki Gallmann. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.