We inched our way through the herd of cattle, the bells reminding me of an Oklahoma ranch a long time ago. A young boy beat the animals’ flanks to open a path to the village beyond.
A group of Maasai men stood in the shade of a tree. Dressed in native robes of traditional patterns and colors, they moved toward us as the Land Rover came to a stop. I was introduced to the head man by our guide. The hanging silver discs danced on his forehead as he nodded his greeting. As instructed, I asked what he would charge for a visit to his village. Without hesitation he said, “$100”.
I looked back at Dixie. “I’m arguing price with a tall guy holding a spear”. She smiled, knowing full well I could handle the negotiations with my usual aplomb. “Sixty-five”, I countered, my voice cracking ever so slightly. “Ninety”, he replied.
After ten more minutes of give and take, our guide told me I did very well to get him down to eighty-seven. Had I not negotiated at all, they would have thought less of me. The head man counted the crisp new American bills, threw his garment over his shoulder and gestured us toward the opening in the village’s enclosure.
About a dozen small huts circled close to the round outer wall. Little kids peeked out from the doorways only to hide when I lifted my camcorder. Goats were staked here and there. Chickens scattered underfoot. In the center open space a group of about fifteen tall, very tall men had already started chanting. Holding their spears and staffs close to their sides, they began to undulate. Thrusting their shoulders forward to the time of the song, they slowly formed a single line. And danced toward Dixie and me.
They serpentined between us and around us, smiling as they sang. No real melody, just nice, rhythmic sounds while they furrowed their brows, or widened their eyes giving the words real meaning. I held my camcorder low to accent the height of these wonderful warriors, letting them slip by one by one. Great stuff, I thought to myself as they danced, and never once did they look at the camera. We were mesmerized by the incantations. Repeated. Repeated. Slowly they danced, occasionally brushing against us. I remembered reading somewhere that the Maasai possessed no musical instruments, no drums, no jangles. Only haunting human sounds marshalled this wonderful parade.
They stopped. And quickly formed a semi-circle. I almost mewed in anticipation. I knew what was coming. The jumping. Who hasn’t seen travelogues of the famous jumping Maasai? But this was different. We were there. We were live in the Serengeti. We had video. We had fifteen warriors taking turns jumping almost three feet in the air with a flick of their toes. One at a time. Two at a time. Sometimes three at a time.
I thought about why this strange ritual had come about. Could it have evolved to spot lions or jaguar in the tall grass? The sensible thing would have been to ask the head man. So I pondered and I shot and they jumped with what I suspected was an occasional, “Way to go!” from some of the onlookers.
We went on to dance with the women, to visit the inside of one of the homes, buy some trinkets and enjoy the singing of the young students at the distant school enclosure. But nothing will ever compare to those magic minutes we spent on the Serengeti, in a Maasai village with fifteen magnificent men dancing and jumping amongst us.