Samantha du Toit recalls her initiation into a Maasai celebration that blends tradition with a dose of common sense
My feet are always dusty; and I love it.
Dust, and lots of it, is part of life here. I love seeing the happy, dust-streaked faces of my kids after an early morning drive; the dust devils starting up, spinning across the plains, lifting and tossing debris in its path like a cheeky child in a sand pit. In the evenings; the dust thrown up by hooves of the cattle as they walk home in the setting sun.
And it reminds me of my Maasai wedding day. It was a dry July, and there had been no rain for many, many months. Maasai women gathered at dawn at the camp to prepare food. After hours of laughter and conversation, none of which I could understand, buckets of chapatis, large thermoses of sweet tea and huge pots of meat stew were ready. My husband-to-be, Johann, a non-Maasai like me, had joined the men in slaughtering a large bull, traditionally a special wedding blessing, which was to be roasted by the men. Throwing himself into the expected role, he had sampled the much sought-after raw fat from the rump of the cow.
I set off to the house of my Maasai ‘mother’ to prepare. Had I been a Maasai, my wedding day would have been the last morning in my childhood home and a sad day for my family and, indeed, for me. As it was, my chosen mother took me in and dressed me in a hand-made skirt and tunic and decked me out in beads from top to toe in a beautiful blend of western and traditional attire. I declined to be covered from head to foot in ochre as a traditional Maasai girl would have been. Once ready, I waited in the dark and smoky hut, waiting for my groom and his party to arrive to collect me.
When they arrived, bearing gifts of warm beers and sodas, with my actual family alongside as observers of the whole affair, Johann was ushered into the small hut to join me perched on the cowskin bed. Four elders, including my Maasai ‘mother’ and ‘father’ and a translator squeezed in too.
The elders started by blessing us and our future, and then embarked on a surprisingly serious lecture, particularly aimed at Johann, it seemed, about the sanctity of marriage. They stressed that marriage was for life, and that nothing should be allowed to change this. Problems were to be talked over, and then taken to the elders if we were not able to resolve them ourselves. The heat in the crowded little hut was intense, as were the lessons of life we were being given.
Presently, it was time for us to leave. As I walked out into the sunshine, my ‘father’ placed fresh green grass into my shoes and on the top of the doorway. I was astonished at the sight of the grass since I knew he would have had to walk for hours to find it. I then stepped deliberately onto some fresh cow dung, and had milk sprayed on me as I stood up; these were blessings of wealth and prosperity. A traditional gourd of milk was tucked into my clothing and I lined up behind Johann, head down and sombre as I had been instructed, following him and his party out of the thorn fence enclosure and towards my new home.
Instead of walking to my husband’s boma, as was traditional, we jumped into various cars and followed each other in clouds of dust, across the plains.
The sight that greeted us is one I will never forget – over 100 Maasai women in brightly-coloured traditional clothing and beads met us and walked us into the camp, singing all the way, welcoming us into our ‘new’ home. More blessings followed from another gathering of elders and then the feasting began. In a traditional wedding, the bride would now be confined to her new home in a dark hut – essentially to mourn the day away and show respect as a stranger in her new home. It was accepted that I would behave differently, and I was allowed to stay outside and join in the rest of the day.
As the sun was starting to set, the celebrations continued. Hundreds of people had turned up, including some young warriors who were dancing and feasting. Johann and I snuck away unnoticed and sat quietly to reflect on the day. We felt grateful for the gracious welcome into this traditional society and the chance to be a part of a special celebration. But they had also been considerate of our different backgrounds in how the celebration had taken shape.
I looked down at my feet. The green grass was gone, but they were dusty. And I was happy.
Samantha du Toit is a wildlife conservationist, working with SORALO, a Maasai land trust. She lives with her husband, Johann, and their two children at Shompole Wilderness, a tented camp in the Shompole Conservancy.