The Man-Eaters of Tsavo/Chapter 21

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Chapter XXI: The Masai and Other Tribes[edit]

A few Masai may still be seen on the Athi Plains, but as a rule they keep away from the railway, the majority of the tribe being now settled on the Laikipia Plateau. Formerly they were by far the most powerful native race in East Africa, and when on the war-path were the terror of the whole country from the furthest limits of Uganda to Mombasa itself. Their numbers have latterly become greatly reduced through famine and small-pox, but the remnant of the tribe, more especially the men, are still a fine, lithe, clean-limbed people. While I was stationed in the Plains I managed to have an interview with the chief, Lenana, at one of his "royal residences," a kraal near Nairobi. He was affability itself, presenting me with a spear and shield as a memento of the occasion; but he had the reputation of being a most wily old potentate, and I found this quite correct, as whenever he was asked an awkward question, he would nudge his Prime Minister and command him to answer for him. I managed to induce him and his wives and children to sit for their photograph, and they made a very fine group indeed; but unfortunately the negative turned out very badly. I also got Lenana's nephew and a warrior to engage in combat with the spear and shield, and both made fine play with their long keen blades, which more than once penetrated the opponent's shield.

The Masai have a wonderfully well-organised military system. The warriors (elmorani) of the tribe must attend strictly to their duties, and are not allowed to marry or to smoke or to drink until after their term of active service is completed. Besides the spear and shield they generally carry a sword or knobkerrie, suspended from a raw-hide waist-belt; and they certainly look very ferocious in their weird-looking headdress when on the warpath. Once or twice I met detachments out on these expeditions, but they were always quite friendly to me, even though I was practically alone. Before the advent of British rule, however, sudden raids were constantly being made by them on the weaker tribes in the country; and when a kraal was captured all the male defenders-were instantly killed with the spear, while the women were put to death during the night with clubs. The Masai, indeed, never made slaves or took prisoners, and it was their proud boast that where a party of elmorani had passed, nothing of any kind was left alive. The object of these raids was, of course, to capture live stock, for the Masai are not an agricultural people and their wealth consists entirely in their herds of cattle, sheep and goats. Curiously enough they do not hunt game, although the country abounds with it, but live principally on beef and milk; and it is also a common custom for them to drink daily a pint or so of blood taken from a live bullock. As they thus live entirely on cattle, and as cattle cannot thrive without good pasture, it is not unnatural to find that they have a great reverence for grass. They also worship a Supreme Being whom they call N'gai, but this term is also applied to anything which is beyond their understanding.

Perhaps the most curious of the customs of the Masai is the extraction of the two front teeth from the lower jaw. It is said that this habit originated at a time when lockjaw was very prevalent among the tribe, and it was found that if these teeth were pulled out food could still be taken. This explanation seems scarcely satisfactory or sufficient, and I give it only for what it is worth: but whatever the reason for the custom, the absence of these two teeth constitutes a most distinctive identifying mark. I remember once being out with a Masai one day when we came across the bleached skull of a long defunct member of his tribe, of course easily recognisable as such by the absence of the proper teeth. The Masai at once plucked a handful of grass, spat upon it, and then placed it very carefully within the skull; this was done, he said, to avert evil from himself. The same man asked me among many other questions if my country was nearer to God than his. I am afraid I was unable conscientiously to answer him in the affirmative. Formerly the Masai used to spit in the face as a mark of great friendship, but nowadays -- like most other native races -- they have adopted our English fashion of shaking hands.

Another very common custom amongst them is that of distorting the lobe of the ear by stretching it until it hangs down quite five or six inches. It is then pierced and decorated in various ways -- by sticking through it a piece of wood two or three inches in diameter, or a little round tin canister, and by hanging to it pieces of chain, rings, beads, or bunches of brass-headed nails, according to fancy. Nearly all the men wear little bells on their ankles to give notice of their approach, while the women are very fond of covering themselves with large quantities of iron or copper wire. Their limbs, indeed, are often almost completely encased with these rings, which I should think must be very heavy and uncomfortable: but no Masai woman considers herself a lady of fashion without them, and the more she possesses the higher does she stand in the social scale.

As a rule, the Masai do not bury their dead, as they consider this custom to be prejudicial to the soil; the bodies are simply carried some little distance from the village and left to be devoured by birds and wild beasts. The honour of burial is reserved only for a great chief, over whose remains a large mound is also raised. I came across one of these mounds one day near Tsavo and opened it very carefully, but found nothing: possibly I did not pursue my search deep enough into the earth. In general, the Masai are an upright and honourable savage race, and it is a great pity that they are gradually dying out.

More or less serfs of the Masai are the Wa N'derobbo, who, unlike their over-lords, are a race of hunters. They are seldom to be met with, however, as they hide away in caves and thickets, and keep constantly moving from place to place following the game. Not long ago I saw a few of them in the neighbourhood of the Eldama Ravine: but these were more or less civilised, and the girls, who were quite graceful, had abandoned the native undress costume for flowing white robes.

In the district from Nairobi to the Kedong River, and in the Kenya Province, dwell the Wa Kikuyu, who are similar to the Masai in build, but not nearly so good-looking. Like the latter, they use the spear and shield, though of a different shape; their principal weapon, however, is the bow and poisoned arrow. They also frequently carry a rudely made two-edged short sword in a sheath, which is slung round the waist by a belt of raw hide. Their front teeth are filed to a sharp point in the same manner as those of nearly all the other native tribes of East Africa, with the exception of the Masai. They live in little villages composed of beehive huts and always situated in the very thickest patches of forest that they can find, and their cattle kraals are especially strongly built and carefully hidden. On one occasion I managed after a great deal of difficulty and crawling on all-fours to make my way into one of these kraals, and was much amazed to notice what labour and ingenuity had been expended on its construction. Unlike the Masai, the Wa Kikuyu have a fairly good idea of agriculture, and grow crops of m'tama (a kind of native grain from which flour is made), sugar-cane, sweet potatoes, and tobacco.

The Wa Kikuyu have the reputation of being a very cowardly and treacherous people, and they have undoubtedly committed some very cruel deeds. A friend of mine, Captain Haslem, with whom I lived for a few months at Tsavo, was barbarously murdered by some members of this tribe. He left me to go up to the Kikuyu country in charge of the transport, and as he was keenly interested in finding out all about the tropical diseases from which the animals suffered, he made it his custom to dissect the bodies of those that died. The superstitious Wa Kikuyu were fully convinced that by this he bewitched their cattle, which at the time were dying in scores from rinderpest. So -- instigated no doubt by the all-powerful witch-doctor -- they treacherously killed him. For my part, however, I found them not nearly so black as they had been painted to me. I had about four hundred of them working at one thing or another at Nairobi and never had any trouble with them. On the contrary I found them well-behaved and intelligent and most anxious to learn.

As is the case with all other African races, the women of the Wa Kikuyu do the manual labour of the village and carry the heavy loads for their lords and masters, the bundles being held in position on their back by a strap passing round the forehead.

Notwithstanding this some of them are quite pleasant looking, and once they have overcome their fear of the European, do not object to being photographed.

Of the other tribes to be met with in this part of the world, the Kavirondo are the most interesting. They are an industrious, simple people, devoted to agriculture and hospitable in the extreme -- a little addicted to thieving, perhaps, but then that is scarcely considered a sin in the heart of Africa. They are clothed (to use Mark Twain's expression) in little but a smile, a bead or two here and there being considered ample raiment; nevertheless they are modest in their ways and are on the whole about the best of the East African tribes.