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A Maasai Grandmother’s Tale

While on safari, we were privileged to meet a Maasai grandmother, ask questions about her life, and listen to one of her stories. Here’s what the experience was like.

“Supa!” comes the gravelly, baritone shout from one end of our camp’s lounge tent. Our group looks up. We were expecting this encounter, but like most people who feel slightly out of place our response is timid.

“SUPA!” booms the voice. This time the dozen or so of us in the tent are now ready for the Maasai greeting. “Ipa,” we respond in our best effort to provide the traditional reply. Our storyteller is here. Like many Maasai, she is tall. She is also stout, aging, and completely bald.

It’s warm out, but she’s dressed in layers. She wears a shuka, or blanket, shaped into a dress that reaches below her knees. The shuka is a light red, with thick black bands and thin white ones woven into a tartan. A floral print of white flowers on a cobalt blue background peeks out from the bottom of the shuka. Tied around her shoulders is a small white blanket with pink flowers and a frilled edge. It looks like a child’s blanket.

She is festooned with jewelry. Each wrist sports several bracelets. The ones on her left hand are small and smooth, of wood or metal. Two more simple bracelets wrap her left elbow. One is black, the other a bright orange. She sports more bracelets on her right elbow, and on her right wrist is a wide, beaded bracelet. At least three inches across, it has a colorful zig-zag pattern of green, yellow, black, and red, all ensconced in a thick white border. It is a blast of contrast against her dark skin.

Each ankle bears a pair of thick beaded anklets similar to the bracelet on her right wrist. Looking up at her ears, I see her earlobes are pierced and stretched. The bottom of each lobe loops around a hole the size of a half-dollar. Heavy-looking strings of oblong white beads hang down from the lobes and other piercings.

All this jewelry, though, pales in comparison to her necklace. I think it’s a necklace. Instead of looping around behind her neck, it looks like it might be attached directly to her earlobes. I’m not sure what to call that, but the effect is of a necklace. On each side of her neck are a half-dozen strings of small white beads. Some of these loop way down below her belly. Others support a wide pendant of white beads that sits on her chest. The pendant has two solid circles on either side of a tall rectangle. From the pendant dangle more strings of beads, in groups of three. These strings hang down below her knees.

Our Maasai guide + translator enters the tent behind her, and asks me to move. Shit! I’m sitting in her seat! I quickly find another chair and sit down, feeling sheepish.

The grandmother ambles over to her chair. She moves slowly, rolling a bit from leg to leg as if on a ship. Nonetheless her movement is somehow full of energy. It comes from her smile – she bears a huge grin. She takes her seat gingerly. Her life has been longer and far more physically demanding than mine, and I can only imagine how painful her joints must be.

She surveys the others in the tent, then looks across at me. I have a full beard. She brings both hands to her face, and with a twinkle in her eye and a bit of a smirk she makes earnest scratching motions at her jaw, as if scratching a beard of her own. Then she says something to our translator. They both laugh. I’m pretty sure I’m on the receiving end of some mischief, but the only reasonable reaction is to meet her gaze and smile. A couple others in the tent laugh nervously.

We learn a bit more about her. One guest asks how many children she has. “5,” she replies through the translator. He then explains this is not true. She has 11 children. She responded “5” so as not to offend anyone who might be jealous because they couldn’t have as many children, or any at all.

I ask the significance of her jewelry. She explains that the pendant was made by 2 of her daughters. The circles on either side represent those daughters. The shape that connects them is love – their love for her. The audience murmurs approval, and for a second I’m proud of myself for asking such an insightful question. I can’t think of any others, and the moment passes quickly.

The matriarch has 2 stories for us, and asks us to choose one. We choose the story about the lion and the hyena.

She begins, speaking in her native Maa and making liberal use of hand motions as she narrates. Our translator serves as the bridge between her world and ours:

There is a lion den – home of the lions. In that den, there was only one entrance. The lioness had a cub in the den. Only one cub. She used to hunt and kill animals to bring back food for her cub.

The jackals are scavengers. One day the jackal was around and saw the lioness carrying the food to her cub. He followed the lioness and saw where she took the food. Then he waited outside of the den until the lioness went out again. He went in and started eating the food. He used to eat the food and get away and run.

The jackal did that a couple of times. Then one day when he came out of the den he saw the hyena. The hyena said, “Hey, Mr. Jackal, where did you get food? I see that you are fat and your belly is full. Where did you get food?” The jackal said, “No no no, I can’t tell you because I know you. You are going to eat bones so I know I cannot tell you.”

“Please, please, please Jackal. We are both scavengers. And you know whenever I get food I laugh so you come and we eat together.” Because the hyena, when it gets food or an animal dies, they say “ka-ka-ka-ka” so other hyenas come. Sometimes the jackal hears so he knows there is something there so he goes there. The hyena said, “OK, you know me. I laugh. And sometimes you come to join us and you get food. Please take me there because I was all day in the bush and I didn’t find any food.”

The jackal told the hyena, “Hey hyena, I can’t take you there because I know, I know you’re going to eat bones.” The hyena said “Please, I promise, I’ll never eat the bones. I can’t eat the bones. Please take me there.” The jackal took the hyena inside the den and said, “Ok, the food is here but please don’t eat the bones because this is somebody’s house. When the lioness finds you here, she will kill you. Please let us take some meat, and then we can run away. Eat fast, and then we run away.” As soon as the hyena got in the den, he found a bone. He took the bone and started eating. The jackal said, “Hey hyena, I told you. Don’t eat the bones!” The hyena said, “I’m coming. Just let me eat this one. Only this one.” The jackal took some meat and ran away and left the hyena inside the den.

Soon, the lioness came back. She heard someone cracking the bones inside the den. She said, “Who is inside my den?” The hyena didn’t hear because he was cracking the bones when the lioness was asking. She asked again, “Who is inside my den?” The lioness went inside the den. She found the hyena eating the bones. She said:

“Hey, you hyena, what are you doing here?”

“Oh, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”

“Did you kill my cub?”

“No, I didn’t kill him! I didn’t kill him and I didn’t see him. The jackal brought me here. Please don’t kill me!”

“OK. Let me check for my cub.”

The lioness found the cub alive.

“You are really lucky. I can give you two options. Choose one. You can take care of my cub, or I can kill you.”

“I can take care of your cub. Please don’t kill me.”

“OK. Now, there is this food here. It is not enough for all of us. You can keep eating this, but don’t eat those bones. I am going out to find more food that I will bring back. Please don’t eat the bones. Eat this meat instead. OK?”

“OK” said the hyena.

And the lioness left to go find another animal to eat.

As soon as the lioness left the den, the hyena took a piece of the bone and cracked it open to get the bone marrow. A piece of the bone flew off and hit the lion cub on the head. The lion cub started bleeding. The hyena checked the cub and said, “Oh my god, what did I do?” He tried to stop the bleeding by putting mud on the cub’s head, and said “OK, this is OK.” Then he took the cub somewhere to rest. Then the cub died. The hyena kept eating the bones.

The lioness came back with more food and said, “Mr. Hyena, bring the cub so he can get food now. The hyena said, “he is sleeping, he is sleeping. It is OK. Let us eat this now. He can eat some later.”

“No no no – I can’t eat without my kid. Bring it here.”

The hyena brought out the cub, who had already died.

The lioness said, “Oh, you killed my kid?” She took the hyena and broke his neck. That is the end of the story.

We all laugh – audience, storyteller, and translator alike. We in the audience are shocked and amused by the abruptness of the ending. I suspect the storyteller and translator are laughing at our reaction. In their position, I’d do the same thing.

We then discuss the moral of the story. The audience puts forth several plausible theories, for example “don’t trust a hyena,” or “don’t go back on your word.” Our storyteller explains the moral is “Don’t mess around with a lion.” There is no place for subtlety in the bush.

3 replies on “A Maasai Grandmother’s Tale”

Yikes! I was left wondering, why was it such a big deal that the hyena not eat the bones? Were these a delicacy for the lion?
Did you have any feeling that maybe they were messing with you? Or did it feel authentic?

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I suspect this was a children’s story, and that the bones were just a plot device. The Maasai guide was with us for a couple of days, and he genuinely enjoyed sharing his knowledge. I wish I’d thought to ask him about the origin of the story!

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