“There’s a circumcision party in a nearby Maasai village. Mela is inviting us to join her. Do you want to go?” Kisioki asked in the sort of unassuming manner one might use to ask a friend to a new restaurant around the corner for lunch.
After repeating the phrase and looking at my shoes, I ruminated on this concept, turning my knees inward just slightly, clenching muscles in my pelvic region I never knew I had.
“Sure.” I mean who in their right mind says ‘No’ to a Maasai circumcision party?
Note: If prose isn’t your thing and video is all you're after, click here.
Along the way, as we wended our way through an acacia-dotted clay track creviced by recent storms, Kisioki offered a bit of background. Earlier that day, at dawn, in the village where we were headed, a group of Maasai boys aged between 16 and 18 years old had just been circumcised. More specifically, as the boys were cut, they were expected to stand perfectly upright unflinching and tear-free in front of a group of warriors and elders — all in a hopeful first step on the journey to becoming Maasai warriors themselves.
I was afraid to ask what the second step might be on the path to becoming a warrior.
Arrival, The Veldt
Two hours later, we arrived in a clearing dotted with a few huts and a large animal corral. Maasai villagers of all ages walked about perfectly upright with unassailably good posture. Men were dressed in dark cloth — red, blue, purple, some checked. All carried ceremonial fighting sticks. Women were decked out in bright, colorful jewelry made of tiny stringed beads — just as Mela, our host, had been.
Remember the first party you ever attended as a kid? Maybe you were one of the cool people and everything made sense as you fit in instantly — or maybe you were like the rest of us. Our arrival in the village carried for us the same uncertainty of being perfectly out of place. Audrey and I were the only visitors, and amidst the lithe and remarkable bodies of the Maasai who surrounded us, we felt awkward, travel pants, goofy one-dollar bush hats and all.
“If you are invited by a local Maasai, then you are welcome,” Kisioki assured us.
“But you need to split up. Audrey go with the women, Dan with the men.”
“But wait,” I said in my head, feeling cut loose.
Mela came to Audrey’s rescue, grabbing her hand and squeezing it as if to say, “You come with me.”
Dan: A Man’s World
I was whisked away, or rather drifted away to a section of open field where men gathered and puttered in the sort of managed chaos that no outsider could reverse engineer. Amidst the veldt and scrub, men talked, drank, and danced occasionally. A few tended to large meat hunks smoldering on grills.
“The village chief tells everyone what’s next — when to eat, when to dance.” Kisoki explained.
A few minutes later, it was time to dance — or rather to practice. The real moves were for the benefit of the women of the village. (We humans have a lot more in common with one another than we’re often aware.)
Men gathered closely, their fighting sticks echoing the leanness of their bodies. This is the Maasai warrior dance I’d seen before on previous trip to Tanzania. This time was different, though. This wasn't a performance for my benefit, it was all theirs.
For as out of place as I was, the men paid little attention to me. Until, that is, someone handed me his stick. Unprepared, I moved forward, stick in hand. In response, the men laughed in anticipation of how much a fool I would make of myself.
“It’s time to eat,” the chief announced.
Just like that, dance practice was over. Men scattered; meat was grabbed, pulled, torn and cut from the makeshift lattice-work grill stretched across a segment of creek bed. An entire cow whose skin and bones lay deflated, discarded just a few meters away. Meat chunks were passed around — the best saved for elders, the rest scattered on plates of rice circulated among guests.
Kisioki and I sat down with two other men and ate from a heaping plate shared between us. “Do you have that hand disinfectant with you?”
“No,” I said.
“Hmmm,” Kisioki replied, looking mildly concerned for my well-being.
We ate, passing the plate, taking a handful, scooping it into our mouths, passing again, repeating.
In taste it was nothing remarkable, but in ceremony it was something to savor.
I hoped that my digestive system would find itself on the right side of hygiene.
A few minutes later, mid-scoop, it was time to move on.
“Let’s join the women.”
Audrey: A Woman’s World
After Mela grabbed me she led me to a place behind the corral where the women were gathered. They told stories, laughed, and motioned others to join in.
Though I felt a little out of place with nothing to add, I could read the body language clearly – hushed voices, pointing, explosions of laughter, more gasps. Some things are universal. This was a gossip circle.
Infrequent occasions and celebrations to catch up on the latest news, I know them myself.
Then at once, the women turned and piled into a nearby hut. Aware that I was clueless, Mela grabbed my hand and led me inside. She found a small stool for me to sit on as people poured into the space around me. Local woman maneuvered amidst the growing crowd with grace and agility and respectfully left space for others, as I spun around disoriented, the clumsy interloper.
Several plates were passed into the room — meat soup and a pile of rice mixed with meat. Mela made certain to give me the best chunk of meat she could find. I felt guilty, but also knew that refusal would offend her hospitality. Three of us sat on the ground together, sharing one plate and one spoon, taking a bite and passing it on.
The process exhibited a simple rhythm and fairness. Simultaneously, the women made me feel like a guest yet also one of them.
Bottles of Coke and Fanta were handed into our space. Problem was, no one had a bottle opener. Mela motioned to the carabiner hanging off my camera bag.
I shook my head, “No, this is not a bottle opener.”
But it was. A few failed attempts later I finally got the hang of angling the carabiner and I took on a new, important role in my group: bartender. There I was opening bottles of soda for a group of Maasai women in a hut in the middle of Tanzania.
I smiled, considering how our assumptions of what ought to be often get in way of what could be.
Then another sound, indiscernible to me, that apparently indicated it was time to gather by the corral.
In the distance, Maasai women descended from the hills. They sang, their voices carried. They bounced, undulated, their wide beaded necklaces mesmerizing, synchronized. I learned that Maasai women announce themselves on their approach when visiting another village. Should a woman find herself alone, she'll wait to join a group so she doesn't join the party by herself.
Meanwhile, a line of Maasai warriors gathered in a straight line, their warrior shouts punctuating the once still air.
Mela pointed to our camera, tucked away in Audrey's bag: “Pictures OK.”
“Where are the boys from the ceremony?” I asked Kisioki, noting that none of the boys in front of my appeared as if they had just been circumcised that morning.
“Recovering in nearby huts as their friends and family party into the night,” he replied. Raw deal, I'd say.
We followed the group into the open-air corral and moved to the edges, positioning ourselves to absorb a widening scene in front of us. Grunts followed chants, harmony mimicked heartbeat. On the opposite side, a competing village began their own dance circle. The men jumping in the middle shot higher, their shouts growing more pronounced.
A fleeting beat, a universal rhythm.
Kisioki tugged at each of us, indicating we had to leave; it was late and the sun would soon set.
I was aware how fortunate we were — to be there, to be humbled by the generosity of this Maasai community to welcome two foreigners like us into a piece of their private world, their celebration.
Mela was the instigator, in all the right ways. She grabbed Audrey’s hand one final time, as if to squeeze it goodbye — for now.
And somewhere nearby a group of young boys nursed their wounds as their family and friends celebrated them.