The kids are up and clucking about, the animals bleating and braying in the yard. It’s just past eight, and this is my morning ritual with the Maasai. David hands me two slices of white bread, plain and dry and crumbling to the touch. His wife brings us mugs of chai, which we sit and drink in sleepy silence. After we’ve finished his wife brings in a wash basin and a pitcher of water. Some days it’s scorching hot; today it’s so cold it numbs my fingertips. I dip my hands in, splash my face, and wash myself with a chalky bar of soap. David stretches his legs and straps a machete to his waist. Today he wants to take me to a waterfall past the last of his ten villages – a 30k round-trip – and I smartly fold an extra slice of bread into my pocket, suspecting I might need a lift a few hours down the line.
Along the way David warns that we’ll have to keep a “soldier’s pace.” He takes the brisk, bouncing strides of the Maasai, practically bounding from the balls of his feet, as if his calves were coiled springs released with each step. The sun is already fierce, casting long, lean shadows. When it ducks behind the clouds I’m thankful for the brief respite; after just a few kilometers I’m breathing hard, taking measured sips from my water bottle. I’ve brought along a single liter to last the day, not wanting to carry more and not having a backpack to stow it in. David carries nothing but a spear – a necessary precaution, he suggests, though against what he won’t say. I ask if he’s thirsty and he says he often goes two or three days without water. I ask how long he can go without a good cappuccino, and his eyes imply it’s many days indeed.
We visit his wife’s family nearby, as we’ve done each day since I arrived. We sit in the familiar store room with the sacks of beans and the armchairs upholstered with floral patterns. David’s father-in-law comes in, lean and hacking and tugging at his pant legs as he sits. A local politician has come to pay his respects – an energetic young guy named Timothy, who presses my hand between the both of his and cradles it like a newborn chick. He’s wearing beige slacks and a blue-checked shirt and a light jacket that rustles as he moves in his seat. He explains that he’s running for council in the upcoming elections, smiling wide, his teeth pushing out like someone’s rushed from the yard and forgotten to shut the gate.
He leans forward and fixes me with his eyes and complains about the current councilman, who’s accomplished nothing during ten years in office. Toward the end of his first term, Timothy explains, he arrived in the local villages with blankets and bread. He bought a hundred pairs of new shoes for the elders. It’s easy to imagine how these old Maasai, who have come to expect so little from the idle promises of politicians, would gather around this great, gift-bearing man, testing the sturdy soles of the shoes with their hands. If not him, then someone else, and what’s the difference between one and the other? At least this would ensure they’d get something for their votes. And this is exactly how elections are won in Kenya.
Timothy wants to improve the roads and build more churches and bring a water pump to the area. He complains about the dispensary, its bare shelves lacking even the most basic medicine. “When someone is ill, we have to take them to Narok on a donkey, or in a wheelbarrow,” he says. Not surprisingly, most die along the way. Timothy shakes his head and wrinkles his face with distaste. Chickens cluck around his feet, their heads bobbing and pecking at the ground.
I note that the sitting councilman probably made the same promises ten years ago, so how do we know Timothy will be any better? He laughs uncomfortably.
“Ha ha,” he says.
“Ha ha,” I say.
A moment passes in silence, and then he leans forward and picks up his mug of chai and takes a few sips. David looks at me, tilting his head toward Timothy. “He is a good man,” he says. We stare out the door at the chickens scrambling in the dirt. David’s father-in-law says something to Timothy in the Maasai tongue, and they both give me a careful once-over. Timothy smiles and shakes his head. “George W. Bush,” he begins, resting his hands on his knees. “Are you related?”
Outside the village we pick up a couple of local teens. They have machetes strapped to their waists and bows slung across their shoulders. “In case there are animals,” David says, before reciting a litany of animals we might encounter – buffaloes, elephants – and how dangerous – “very” and “very, very,” respectively – they could potentially be. We hack our way through bushes and side-step piles of elephant dung. David leans and pats the earth, or points to an uprooted tree where, he suspects, an elephant romped the day before.
We pass more villages, huts hemmed in by slanting fences, and David stops to hear the news. An old man complains about the dogs while his wife – bald and muscular and draped in red – stalks a goat in predatory circles. She grabs it by the hind leg, spits into her palm, and squeezes its milk into a coffee mug. In a village nearby, a man sits with his back against a tree, two cow hides drying in the sun beside him. He tells David about his improving health: he’s been sick for nearly two years. David listens and nods. A raggedy boy – grinning beneath knotty tufts of hair – ducks behind his mother’s skirts, chirping and clucking and making inscrutable noises as we disappear into the acacias.
We hear the falls as we approach. David’s eyes are agleam and he picks up the pace. Impala prance across a clearing; bright birds dart past in a flash of yellow and red and blue. There are butterflies everywhere, and things buzzing past my head, and the wind rustling through the trees. One of the boys shows me a massive grasshopper balanced on the blade of his machete. He taps and nudges it and gives it a playful little tug, tearing off one of its hind legs. Gently he lays it back down on the earth, and it makes a few feeble twitches while we leave it to its sorry fate.
It’s the dry season, but the waterfall is still gushing great, sludgy torrents. The surrounding cliffs are draped with ferns and mosses, a garden fed by the constant mist spraying from the falls. In the rainy season, David explains, the roar is so loud that you have to cover your ears. A faint rainbow bends over the murky pool below us; David inches closer to the edge, the mist beading on his forehead as he snaps a few pictures with my camera.
On the way back I polish off the bread I’d tucked into my pocket before setting out. My judicious sips of water have left me with half a bottle, though I’m fighting the urge to tear off the cap and dump its remains over my sweaty head, à la Flashdance. David picks out a detour along a river wending through the valley. There are rumors of hippos in the area; in thirty-two years, he’s never seen one with his own eyes. We come upon a muddy plot that, judging by the imprints in the ground, was the scene of an orgy of hippo activity not long ago. David looks up with encouragement and soldiers on. We follow their heavy footfalls along the banks of the river. A few monkeys poke their heads from the trees; one of the boys scampers ahead, scouts the terrain, and disappears with a rush into the bushes. He comes back disappointed. We skirt along the river’s edge. David points to where the water is displaced by hippos drifting beneath the surface; little whirlpools swirl above their nostrils, the outlines of their massive bodies rippling outward as they float with the current.
The way is blocked ahead. We head deeper into the bush, crashing through the acacias until I’m scratched and scraped and full of more pricks than Paris Hilton. Now and then one of the boys stops and lifts a hand and peers intently all around, though you suspect tracking hippos is hardly the most subtle science. We spend twenty fruitless minutes plodding in circles while the submerged hippos float past, flipping us the proverbial up-yours. David shakes his head and offers apologies: in spite of the tracks and dung piles we’ve been spotting all day, the closest we’ve come to wildlife was when the boys had readied their bows and spears at an ominous shadow lurking in the distance. They suspected it might be a buffalo – “Very, very dangerous,” David cautioned – but it turned out to be an old, gnarled tree stump instead.
That night I help David prepare our last dinner. He hunches over the fire-pit, stirring a pot of ugali with a long paddle; behind him is a single wooden shelf, cluttered with bags and jars and rusty tins full of unspeakable spices and condiments. He hands me a head of cabbage and the dull blade of an old kitchen knife. I make a few futile stabs and slices while, sitting beside me, eight-year-old Lanoi shakes her head. She takes the cabbage and cradles it in her tiny hand, carefully guiding the knife so that small, even slices curl and fall into the bowl at her feet. “See?” she says softly. “See?” She hands the knife back to me, and after a few awkward, herky-jerk motions, I slice open a finger. David laughs and offers a small bowl of water for me to wash my wound. His forehead is damp; the light from the fire flickers and sends monstrous shadows over the dung-packed walls. In a corner of the room, a window lets in the faint glow of the moon, a sharp crescent heralding the start of the new lunar month.
Outside things are creeping through the bush, hungry nocturnal predators who’d happily treat a certain American like so much ugali. But here, in the dim manyatta, behind the smoky swirl of overcooked cabbage, we feel safe, cozy and content. One by one the kids have drifted off. David’s wife collects our empty bowls and soaks them in a bucket. David smiles sleepily, drops his pants, and crawls into bed beside me – further proof that even in the bush, there’s no place like home.