Every seven years or so, Maasai warriors from different lands gather at training camps called emanyatta. After receiving an invite to a warrior jamboree last week, I trekked up to anemanyatta atop a range of hills along the border of Tanzania and Kenya.
Spanning more than 100 meters in diameter, the circular structure consisted of a vast series of small huts made with branches and cowhides, all covered with (a modern touch) blue plastic tarps.
More than 100 warriors paraded and skipped about in the enclosure, led by two men wearing headdresses made from the golden manes of lions. Foreheads and limbs painted in ceremonial deep red ochre, the warriors chanted undulating songs and some blew into black pipes that rang out with a hypnotic bass hum like a didgeridoo. They danced in half-moon circles and jumped to lofty heights.
On the periphery, mothers weaved together the huts’ branches and tied down cowhides. In the middle, elder males and spiritual leaders huddled together, many of them sipping from jugs of honey brew. (Warriors are forbidden from drinking alcohol, and it is taboo even for junior elders to do so, making the Maasai drinking age closer to 51.)
This celebration kicked off the commencement of the fourth emanyatta to be constructed over the past year in this area. It is at the emanyatta where elders pass on ancestral wisdom to the next generation so that they can graduate from being warriors to junior elders. Like a new semester, each new camp brings about a different set of teachings and rituals. In a few months, when this final emanyatta ends, mothers will shave their sons’ braided and plaited hair. They will be warriors no more.
The Maasai social structure is organized by age-sets, with specific names for each generation. I fall into the junior elder group called Ekorrianka, ranging approximately from current 24-35 year olds. One warrior asked me if we have age-sets in the USA. Sure. As a male consumer in the 18-34 year old age bracket, I make marketing agencies salivate. But I won’t be there for long.
“Wewe unazeeka sana!” exclaimed one sinewy warrior in Swahili, meaning “you are really getting old!”
As surrounded by fierce hyper-masculinity, I could not let such a snide, however accurate, remark go unchecked. I challenged the kid to a match of enkiguran (sports), specifically the Maasai form of grappling that closely resembles Greco-Roman wrestling.
What the warriors did not know is that the techniques of enkiguran grappling felt like a first language to me — throws, trips, fighting for underhooks, overhooks, and body locks. It is a language that goes back millennia and emerged among countless cultures around the world.
It also did not hurt that I had about 35 pounds on my first opponent. Lithe and muscular like mid-distance runners, Maasai warriors’ bodies are built for covering vast distances at furious paces and surviving on protein and fats, sometimes purely milk and blood.
After winning a few matches, however, I found something out: the older warriors closer to my weight were just sizing up my skills. They said I will definitely be welcomed to the next emanyatta brouhaha, and, instead of drinking honey beer with the elders, I should expect a full day of fighting challenges from warriors. Great. At least I'll stay in shape out here.
J.D. O’Kasick is a Cornell graduate student currently in Tanzania conducting research through a fellowship with The Nature Conservancy. For more of his photos, videos, and blog posts, follow www.fightwritewild.com.