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Making Music With The Masaai


Francis Lee

“In the heart of Kenya resides the warrior tribe of the Masaai.  I set out to teach them singing but ended up being taught about the music of life.”


A Masaai warrior holds a sharp, glinted blade up to the throat of a quivering cow. There is an eerie silence in the air and the cow looks pleadingly at me as if I am its only chance for survival. It crosses my mind as to whether I should untie its bruised, bloodied legs and let it free. But I dare not face the wrath of the Masaai men. After all, these are warriors who kill lions by the age of fourteen and drink pints of fresh goat’s blood instead of pints of beer. More importantly, I still want my throat to be intact when I teach their children singing later.


I arrive at Hope Secondary school at 10am raw nerved and dazed after the pre-breakfast slaughter. The classroom I enter is like nothing I have ever seen or experienced in my whole life. It is more a tin-roofed shelter than a room, with dried mud and grass as its floor. There are no doors, windows or walls just a 360 degree panoramic view of a land filled with mountains, banana trees and the occasional pet ostrich. More then fifty children aged three to six sit bare footed and crammed on the floor. Dressed in traditional Masaai clothes, I face a chattering sea of reds, golds and greens. In the corner of the classroom, stands a beautifully handsome boy with clear coffee coloured skin and a sparkling smile; in another life he would be snapped up to model for Versace or Calvin Klein. Instead, here he is - an introvert teenager whose main goal in life is to finish secondary school. He shyly introduces himself as Noah and with his excellent translation skills I am able to teach the children some English nursery rhymes.  Obedient and attentive, the children copy my every move; clapping when I clap; stomping when I stomp and without any difficulty they learn the words for Humpty Dumpty and Jack and Jill. The only time they get out of control is when I distribute gummy bears. Squeals of delight and excitement fill the air as the colourful delights are passed around the class. There is grabbing, laughing and even kicking and every child leaves carefully cradling the prized sweets as if they were nuggets of gold. Noah quickly scuttles off with the children before I get the chance to persuade him return with me as the next undiscovered supermodel.


After class, I mention to the headmistress that I would like to explore the nearby hill and would one of her students kindly guide me up the hill. She says she will get a volunteer from her boys and I can meet him at the front gate in half an hour.


On arriving at the gate, I expect a reluctant student who has been forced to guide the slow wazungu (white man) up the hill but am astonished to find twenty boys waiting. I’ve never felt so popular and feel a little overwhelmed by this sudden entourage of boys. One boy with a cheeky, bucktoothed grin is particularly eager to talk to me. He introduces himself as Jack and tells me excitedly that he wants to work in tourism. He hangs onto my every word, eagerly offering a hand when I trip, giving me water when I am thirsty and insists that I take a photo of just me and him. This will be a first – having a Masaai boy try to hit on during a hill walk.


Jack and the boys share with me their dreams; there is a deep trust and openness towards a complete stranger that I have never experienced in the West.  A boy called Abraham tells me about how he wants to attend university so that one day he can buy his family a tin house. His friend David wants to be an actor and without hesitation comically acts out feelings of anger and laughter while the other boys clap. Another boy called Jason amusingly tells me about his fourteenth birthday when his father and uncle brought him along on a hunting trip to kill his first lion. Stoning a lion is a mandatory ritual for circumcised Masaai boys – a journey into manhood. I take in their chatter while looking out at acre upon acre of dry bush land framed by clear, turquoise skies. There is a quiet, untouched serenity in this place and I feel more peaceful than I ever felt back home in the stifling, concrete madness .


We pass a ten year old girl with her younger sister walking unaccompanied around the hills, picking little red flowers. I ask Jack whether it is safe for the little girls to be alone. He looks incredulously at me and says: “Of course, what on earth could possibly happen to them?” All the boys look at me with puzzled frowns on their face and I learn that they live in a world where kidnapping children is unthinkable and paedophilia is non existent. It is a wonderfully utopic place where children can wander freely and teenagers are free from the addiction of drugs, computer games and violent TV shows. From my conversations with them, I see an endearing innocence in the boys that Westerrn teenagers will never possess.


We arrive back in time to see the women preparing for dinner. I stay and try to help out while the boys wander off. In their culture, men hunt the game and women prepare the food; a bargain I’m quite happy to be part of! The open air kitchen reminds me of a large scale BBQ with wood burning in three troughs resembling ones that English farmers use to feed their horses. Alongside the roasted meat (freshly taken from the dead cow this morning) there are yams, bananas and sweet potatoes cooking on the fire. Through the smoke I see woman chopping garlic, peeling nuts and turning the barbequed meat with their bare hands. Everything is done meticulously and in silence, there is no stressful shouting, swearing or clanging pots – it puts Gordon Ramsey to shame.  Like soldiers, the women will be working through the night so that everyone can have a feast tomorrow at the school’s anniversary party. It’s getting late; I’m tired and with my slow reactions and weak hands I realise that I can offer absolutely no real help – so I embarrassingly retreat to bed.


I lie on my mattress under my mosquito net mattress unable to sleep. Many thoughts rush through my head and I wonder what I could possibly teach the boys at their singing class the next day. My Western songs seem so frivolous – they are songs that were created for the money driven machinery of pop and don’t seem to deserve a place in the Masaai. The boys put family above everything and learn many skills at a young age; milking cows by six; growing crops by twelve and playing musical instruments that they have made with their bare hands. What right do I have to be here and teach them frothy pop songs when they already know so much? I decide to give them a Q & A session about my life and culture instead. I can teach them about my culture just as they have taught me about theirs.





The Q & A session is a success! The boys have many questions to ask me about my life. They are surprised to hear that not all Westerners have money coming out of their ears. Some boys nearly jumped out of their seats in surprise at the mention of homeless people. Everyone in the Masaai is so hungry to get a good education; these boys are the lucky ones as many don’t have the opportunity to go to school - especially the girls. It hurts to tell them about how children in the West often bunk of school or even abuse their teachers – education as it should be is a pleasure here rather than a chore. A few of the boys share that getting into an American university would be the absolute dream and one cheeky student asks if they married me will they be allowed to return with me. After a few boys jokingly asked me to marry them, I decide it’s time to end the session and let the boys practise for the anniversary celebrations that evening.


The Masaai really know how to party, there is a feast load of food, wild drumming and everyone is dressed up in Masaai finery. Red is the colour of the season along with rainbow coloured beaded jewellery. There is also a game where the boys compete to see who can jump the highest to the beat of the drums. As I watch the boys giving the performance of their life; I find myself feeling so very thankful that I can be here. I went to live with the Masaai with the aim of educating the tribe but instead found that they were my teachers instead. Through meeting them I have learnt that music is not just notes on a piece of paper or words that are sung; true music is living your life to a never-ending tune of hope, determination and trust. Something the Masaai know so well.BW



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