Rite of Passage

By Shane Mitchell

Published on July 19, 2010

Just after breakfast in a village near the Loita Mountains, on the border between Kenya and Tanzania, a roving band of lanky teenagers, decked in beads and armed to the teeth with spears and machetes, approached me while I was seated alone in the back of a Land Rover. At first, one boy's head popped up to check his reflection in the car window. Then two more. Finally, eight were bunched outside the car, peering in at me.

"Original Masai," claimed one, whose tightly woven braids and handsome face were smeared red with henna paste. He perched his forearms on the base of the rear window and leaned into the vehicle.

"Give me money," he requested, grinning.

"Honey, you've got to be kidding," I said, laughing. "Try harder."

With that, we understood each other, even though my Maa was as limited as his English. His name was Kipalonga, he told me with a jut of his chin. He was at the stage in life when Masai males are allowed to adorn themselves handsomely, roam unsupervised by elders, steal cattle, and flirt with girls. It's their version of spring break but with sharp weapons. My translator, a Masai junior elder named William Olesiara, had cautioned me to avoid these potentially lethal young men, but he was off somewhere conversing with other herdsmen. Despite that advice, I soon was cheerfully examining their carved wooden clubs as they swatted flies with my hand fan.

I knew that Masai warriors, called moran in Kiswahili, can be secretive eaters. Men from puberty to their thirties are regulated by restrictive traditional laws about the killing and consumption of meat. But sometimes, Olesiara had told me, being mzungu, or white, means it's possible to plead certain "stupidities" as to what is acceptable or not, like whether a woman can attend a guarded ritual. I offered to buy a sheep if Kipalonga and his gang would permit me to join them during the slaughter. It was a tempting invitation for nomadic herders who, if they're lucky, eat once a day.

There was a huddle at a distance, with much negotiation in both Maa and Kiswahili. Then Olesiara came back to the car to let me know that the moran would make an exception for me. "After all," he said with a shy smile, "you are mzungu."

The slaughter took place later that afternoon, in a parched valley away from the boys' village, at an improvised olpul, or meat-eating camp. I've never seen an animal deconstructed with such grace. Two of the moran smothered the sheep by gently laying it down on a bed of twigs and kneeling on its rib cage while clamping its mouth and nose closed. The sheep's eyes stilled as the boys offered a murmured prayer thanking the animal for its life. They slit the throat and allowed the blood to pool in a pouch they'd improvised by stretching the neck skin. Then, one by one, the young men leaned down to drink, their hennaed faces suddenly a shade more crimson. Using machetes, they skinned and gutted the sheep and separated the legs from the hip bones with a swift backward snap.

Kipalonga sliced into the milky white intestines and dropped them in a curled mass on the hide, which lay hair side down on the dirt. Several pounds of masticated greenery, still damp with bile, were extracted from the stomach. The tallest warrior hung the veined caul on a shrub. It billowed in the wind and dried like parchment. He then shredded it into a pot of water, dumped in the organs and some resinous branches of a prickly acacia, and set the pot to simmer on the cook fire. Olesiara, adjusting the red floral kanga cloth wrapped around his waist, explained to me that this broth is prized for its medicinal value because any nutrients the sheep consumed are transferred to its cooks. Chunks of fat were tossed into another pot to fry; the head was roasted on a stick, then cracked to extract the brains.

Usually, when a village consumes one of its herd, the animal's parts are portioned out according to a code: men in their prime are awarded the thighs; women are given the large intestine, neck, and pelvis; elders take the diaphragm and liver. At a male-only_ olpul_, the kidneys are eaten raw by the slaughterers. That afternoon, standing next to a tribe member named Parmat, who wore a beaded headpiece with jingling medallions, I watched him eagerly suck the marrow from a cloven hoof attached to a blackened, splintered shin bone.

As others gnawed on the ribs, Parmat handed me a juicy gob of smoky, barely cooked sheep fat the size of my thumbnail. I held it between my fingers, and, as everyone paused suddenly to watch what I would do, it occurred to me that Parmat's gesture meant far more than the polite passing of an hors d'oeuvre. No longer just a witness to this wild feast, I'd been welcomed to the table. I put the fat in my mouth and chewed. And chewed. Emily Post does not address occasions such as this. How else was I going to earn my lamb chops? Swallowing, I nodded curtly and smiled. The moran smiled too. Then they handed me more.

In the gathering darkness, we surrounded the blazing fire, wrapping ourselves tightly in tartan red shuka blankets. Lightning and a sheet of cold rain advanced along a distant escarpment as the boys sang about their luck in meeting up with someone willing to feed them. Finally, as Olesiara and I prepared to leave, the young men clustered around me once more and, conferring upon me the African honorific for older women, cried, "Mama, Mama."

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