Realities Created, Maintained and Destroyed, WHILE-U-WAIT!

Monday, December 13, 2004

African Lessons part 3

Making Friends With Warriors

The Maasai in Tanzania are still a warrior culture despite all efforts by European colonial powers to "modernize" them. The have managed to keep their culture and identity intact against all comers, and most of them still live in the traditional way of their people. While there is substantial pressure from the governments of Kenya and Tanzania to "bring them into the twenty first century", the Maasai still for the most part hold to their traditional way of life.

All around northern Tanzania you can find traditional Maasai villages of mud walled houses with straw thatched roofs


Where the Maasai live much as the always have.

Traditional Maasai life is divided into discreet stages which reflect the truths of Maasai culture.

For men this revolves around the transitions between child to warrior to elder.

Maasai are easy to spot because they disdain western clothing and will mostly only dress in their traditional fashion.

3 men

It would be a mistake to assume that because these people "dress like natives" as I heard one tourist put it, that they are in any way "quaint" or "backward" .

Maasai men, especially the ones who are in the warrior stage of their lives are often employed as watchmen in the towns. This is because they are both honorable and completely fearless when it comes to dealing with thieves and robbers.

So one afternoon I am going over to a friend's home to have dinner with him and his family. When I get there the gate is opened by a young Maasai warrior. (You can tell the warriors by their hair, which is always long and done up in fine style). I should mention that in Tanzania if you have any money at all you build a ten foot or so high wall around your home and set broken bottles along the top of it.

There were two other Maasai sitting in the yard, my friend made his yard and guard shelter available to all of the local Maasai watchmen to use when they were off duty, so they had a protected place to store their gear, to nap ant to fix food. And my friend always had three or four Maasai keeping an eye on his place for the price of a little kindness.

The two Maasai that were off duty were working on sharpening their Sime (short swords) using a piece of sand paper and a board.

Tanzania imports a lot of tools from China, and mostly what you get is complete garbage. I had purchased a Chinese sharpening stone when I first got to Arusha and any knife would shave a layer off the stone off with every stroke, it was almost worthless. You can find a decent sharpening stone, but they are quite expensive, and when the average salary is about $1.75 US a day it is not something that most people budget for.

Seeing them work at getting their swords sharp gave me an idea.

The next day I went out hunting around town. I finally found what I was looking for, a tile shop.

The shop made tiles for upperclass homes and businesses and they had exactly what I was looking for, unglazed porcelain tiles. I got a half dozen of them for a very nice price, and took them home with me.

The next time I went to visit my friend I took the tiles with me.

When we arrived the same Maasai were there as well as a couple of others. I asked my friend to introduce me to them.

He did and we shook hands all around. I told them that the last time I was there I had seen that they were having to work very hard to sharpen their sime and that I had brought something that they might be interested in. I pulled out the tiles I had picked up.

Now you may not know this, but unglazed porcelain, once it has been fired makes an outstanding sharpening material, especially for carbon steel (as opposed to stainless).

They were looking a little puzzled, but I asked my friend to bring out a sime that he had just picked up a couple of days before and a bunch of coffee.

I sat down with my friend's sime and proceeded to put an edge on it with a tile. I passed it to the senior warrior for his opinion of the edge. He thumbed it a couple of times and you could see his eyes just light up and a big grin come across his face.

I pulled out the rest of the tiles and handed them around, telling the Maasai that I would be honored if they would accept there as gifts from me.

Within a few moments everyone had their sime out and were honing them against the tiles. There were a number of pleased exclamations about the fineness of the edge that the tiles produced.

We sat around the yard sharpening, drinking coffee and chatting. My friend would interpret when my Kiswahili was not up to the task.

The Maasai had all sorts of questions about America and of course I was very interested in how they lived.

My friend had told his watchman, who was sort of the leader of this group that I was a martial arts teacher, and they were very interested to know about that. Of course I in turn was interested in how they trained with their weapons.

We developed a nice rapport just sitting in the yard sharpening knives, talking and drinking coffee, and they allowed that it might be a good joke to try to teach an old Mzungu how to use a sime, rungu and fimbo. I told them I would try not to be too clumsy.

It is often the simple things that break the ice and help to build friendships. If you give a warrior a way to keep his sword sharp he will be happy for it, and he will know that you understand what is important.

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