Food & Culture

Maasai Warriors: Caught Between Spears and Cellphones

Philip Kisaikae and another Maasai warrior swap email addresses with Juan Carlos Vera, who attended this summer's Smithsonian Folklife Festival. i i

Philip Kisaikae and another Maasai warrior swap email addresses with Juan Carlos Vera, who attended this summer's Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Ryan Kellman/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Ryan Kellman/NPR
Philip Kisaikae and another Maasai warrior swap email addresses with Juan Carlos Vera, who attended this summer's Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

Philip Kisaikae and another Maasai warrior swap email addresses with Juan Carlos Vera, who attended this summer's Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

Ryan Kellman/NPR
The Maasai wear vibrant colored shukas, or robes, adorned with elaborate beaded jewelry made by the women.

The Maasai wear vibrant colored shukas, or robes, adorned with elaborate beaded jewelry made by the women. Ryan Kellman/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Ryan Kellman/NPR
That's a monkey fur headdress — part of the Maasai tradition of wearing animal furs and skins. Nelson Ngotiek, a member of the Maasai, came to Washington, D.C., this summer. i i

That's a monkey fur headdress — part of the Maasai tradition of wearing animal furs and skins. Nelson Ngotiek, a member of the Maasai, came to Washington, D.C., this summer. Ryan Kellman/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Ryan Kellman/NPR
That's a monkey fur headdress — part of the Maasai tradition of wearing animal furs and skins. Nelson Ngotiek, a member of the Maasai, came to Washington, D.C., this summer.

That's a monkey fur headdress — part of the Maasai tradition of wearing animal furs and skins. Nelson Ngotiek, a member of the Maasai, came to Washington, D.C., this summer.

Ryan Kellman/NPR

In the dusty savannah, Maasai warriors go about their day dressed in vibrant red and magenta robes, or shukas. Elaborate beaded jewelry dangle from the necks and faces of men and women — members of one of Kenya's oldest tribes. And some of them can be seen carrying a spear in one hand and, in the other – wait, is that a cellphone?

It wouldn't be an uncommon sight. Stephen Moiko, a Maasai warrior himself, tells me that everybody uses a cellphone, even his own grandmother.

The Maasai are widely known for clinging to their traditional way of life even as nearby cities throb with technology, business, cars and skyscrapers. They live alongside the wildlife in the northernmost part of the Serengeti, in houses made of mud and cow dung. And their livelihoods still depend largely on raising cattle, goats and sheep.

But today's generation straddles the line between preserving their culture and embracing modernization.

The members who came to represent the Maasai at this summer's Smithsonian Folklife Festival exchange email addresses with curious spectators and even our own photographer..

Back in Kenya, the schools teach English alongside Swahili and their tribal language – a sign that the community "yearns" to be part of a global system where English is increasingly a lingua franca. And many younger members venture into nearby cities to work as security guards and merchants.

"They're very willing to learn, they're sending their children to school, they would like to have modern lifestyles, access to new medicines, access to clean water and everything," Moiko says.

But it's not easy. When it comes to providing the community their basic needs, overseeing the day-to-day activities and making decisions for the whole community, the aging elders are stretched thin. And as more people move to cities, there aren't a lot of candidates for elder status, says John Sipitiek, a Maasai elder.

With meager financial resources and limited support from the government, the Maasai people fill in the gap as they always have: They support one another.

Maasai member Stephen Moiko (left) and junior elder Johnson Sipitiek pose for the camera at this summer's Smithsonian Folklife Festival. i i

Maasai member Stephen Moiko (left) and junior elder Johnson Sipitiek pose for the camera at this summer's Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Linda Poon/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Linda Poon/NPR
Maasai member Stephen Moiko (left) and junior elder Johnson Sipitiek pose for the camera at this summer's Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

Maasai member Stephen Moiko (left) and junior elder Johnson Sipitiek pose for the camera at this summer's Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

Linda Poon/NPR

"What people do is they take responsibility for others," Moiko says. The community might look after the disabled, children are expected to take care of their elders and someone who's well-off might help cover the costs for books, uniforms and education fees for a child. Often, the entire community will come together in what's called a harambee (meaning "to pull together") to contribute food and clothing to families in need.

So put aside all the stereotypes you've heard of uncivilized tribes in Africa. It's a mistake to think that they are unwilling to change and "still feeding on blood and meat only," Moiko says. "Maybe the Maasai used to do that when the lifestyle then demanded such a way of life, but in truth, the Maasai people are very forward looking."

As we ended our our interview, Moiko, who's dressed in his traditional garb and topped with a safari hat, steals a quick glance at the watch sitting snugly on his wrist and checks the time.

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