Good Friday morning ...
Were it not for the corona virus, I would be in Tanzania right now with a team of youth and young adults working in the Serengeti village of Piaya. And so, my heart and mind have taken me there this week to recall a special encounter I had on one of my many visits to Maasailand. On this occasion I had been invited to meet a special local leader from the area renowned for his wisdom about Maasai traditions.
I sat on a tonga stool beside a fire in the cool of an evening. Four morani (Maasai warriors) squatted with me. We waited ... drinking hot chai while dusk quickly morphed into darkness ... awaiting the arrival of the special guest. He arrived suddenly ... without warning ... accompanied by several other morani.
He was old and weathered. His eyes were sharp but tucked beneath a furrowed brow topped with greyish hair and a brimless cap. His hands were gnarled and wrinkled. In one he held his well-used walking stick, in the other a piece of beaded leather.
Slowly he stepped closer, wrapped in a red shuka ... his confident pace divulging that he had once been a warrior ... perhaps a brave one. It was not necessary for him to speak a single word to impose the full respect and silence of the company of men gathered. The running conversation by the fire ceased immediately and all those present ... including myself ... stood silently in place and nodded considerately at the mzee.
He was quickly invited to sit down upon a stool by the fire and with a slight hand gesture thanked the morani who had accompanied him to our meeting. The mzee ... with a nod of his head ... noted that the morani spears had been stuck in the ground beside the fire ... in respect of Maasai tradition ... their long blades shining in the firelight as a reminder that the special guest was safe and well-protected. He was offered a cup of chai, holding it between his rough, weathered hands.
The mzee remained silent for several long minutes ... a seeming eternity to me ... while he closely studied my face as if with his piercing eyes, he could scrutinize my very heart and soul. So fierce was his gaze ... that I felt he could see right through me and could decipher my every thought. The flames from the fire revealed a face lined with distinct wrinkles ... testimony that his life had been spent on the windy steppes of his native land. In the middle of his right cheek was the trace of a scar ... testimony perhaps of a battle against a lion or another warrior. He continued to stare ... but then suddenly began to speak ... convinced, I suppose, by what he saw and by what he had been told beforehand ... that the Mzungu before him was worthy of a conversation.
His voice was soft ... almost rhythmic ... like a song. It seemed that each word mattered. He was deliberate, hardly in a hurry, waiting for his guttural Maa (the Maasai language) to be translated into English for my benefit ... and seeming to know whether the translation was accurate or not, though he spoke not a word of English or Swahili.
He told me of the legend of the cattle.
A long, long time ago ... long before the Wazungu came to Africa ... all people lived peacefully together on top of green, lush mountains. They believed in one god, Engai, who lived on Ol Doinyo Lengai (The Mountain of God). In the beginning, the creator of the universe had three sons. To his first son he gave honey and arrows and made him father of all hunters and gatherers. To his second son he gave seeds and a hoe and made him father of all farmers and tillers of the soil. And to his third son he gave cattle and a prodding stick, making him father to all who raised livestock. And it was this third son, Natero Kop, who gave birth to the Maasai. He believed all the cattle came down to earth sliding along a huge rope stretching into the sky. The cattle were thus a special gift from Engai to the Maasai.
And so, the Maasai came to believe that they, and they alone, were given charge of all livestock ... providing oversight, protection and prosperity as a directive from Engai. For this reason, they had no qualms about taking cattle from neighboring tribes or even going to battle to steal cattle from adjacent territories. They came to believe that every herd on earth was theirs to tend and care for because Engai confided them to their safekeeping. And so, for years they pillaged and raided and stole cattle wherever they found them and consequently earned for themselves a bad reputation. But they were only doing what they believed was their assignment for life.
It was a legend I had heard of and read about before ... but never first-hand from an old, weathered mzee ... and never in such a personal, private, traditional Maasai setting. It was quite a unique experience and settled deep in my heart as one to never forget.
The legend of the cattle has held for these many years and is still retold today ... but a new understanding has unfolded among the Maasai, allowing them to participate in the growing of crops (though they are not very good at it) and in the hunting of animals for food. Though still steeped in tradition and nomadic by nature ... the Maasai are, out of necessity, learning to look at other ways to support their families and are focusing more on education as a means to an end.
The Maasai legends, however, are still very important and are passed along from generation to generation ... mostly by the old men who harbor memories of years gone by. The legends and traditional sayings are part of the culture learned by young Maasai boys as they prepare for circumcision and manhood.
Perhaps you are wondering about the cautious mzee who shared with me the spoken legend of how the Maasai became cattle herders. Well, after his deliberate telling of the legend he suddenly rose and, without warning, left our small fireside gathering. Again, everyone rose as one in honor of the old sage ... and with his four morani escorts, he disappeared just as suddenly as he had made his initial appearance. I was never told his name ... and still have no idea from where he came ... only that I had been invited to meet a special, revered leader who wanted to impress upon this white leader about whom he had heard, the importance of Maasai traditions. Needless to say, I was and still am impressed.
In my travels to Maasailand over the past twenty years, I have met many present day Maasai who still respect and honor their legends and traditions but have come to welcome the teachings of Christianity and have responded to the working of God’s Holy Spirit through the gift of faith. They have come to understand the truth about the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and now call Him “Abba Father.” They acknowledge Him to be the Creator and Giver of all things including all the cattle … but are now certain He did NOT mean them only for the Maasai. Most importantly, they have been washed in the blood of the Lamb, have professed a living faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and have begun a serious walk of faith. Though Maasai tradition is important … they have learned that God’s Word supersedes their legends and tales from the past.
Twenty-eight of these men have become Christian Evangelists and eight have become pastors in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tanzania. Another six are in training to become Evangelists. These men and hundreds like them have become the impetus for the enormous growth in Christianity among the Maasai in northern Tanzania ... a growth that astounds westerners like myself because of its simplicity and absolute acceptance of Biblical truth as God’s blueprint for life. I marvel at their faith, their dedication, their absolute confidence in God's everyday presence in their lives. They are becoming a legend themselves ... to be passed on to future generations of Maasai youth. For this we praise God.
Then I saw another angel flying in midair, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth – to every nation, tribe, language and people. He said in a loud voice, “Fear God and give Him glory, because the hour of His judgement has come. Worship Him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water.” [Revelation 14:6-7]
Have a great weekend with the Lord …