I was born in 1956 near Amsterdam and studied literature at the university there. In 1980 I made a trip around the world in six months. The experience made me decide not to become an academic but rather a traveller and a writer. In the 1980s I started working as a journalist. In that same period I started travelling again, often to Africa. I crossed the Sahara 12 times in this period and explored most parts of the continent. From the late 80s I started filming, first as a documentary maker for Dutch television. I founded my own production company and produced more than 30 feature length documentaries and feature films in the years that followed. You can read more about my films (in English) here. In 1996 I sold my business and went to Africa, where I lived and travelled for the next 12 years. I have written 8 books about Africa, some of which became national bestsellers. Since 2000, I made three feature documentaries about Africa and from 2011 I started my documentary series Spirits of Africa. I have also published two historical novels and three childrens' books.
My books have not yet been translated into English. One of my stories appeared in an English collection which also featured stories by Michael Palin, Paulo Coelho and other international writers. However, here is a brief introduction and a synopsis in English of four of my books, including some excerpts from the text.
Solitaire - The Sandcastle - Secrets of the Maasai - The Dance of the Spirits
Ton van der Lee: a short introduction to his 'African trilogy'
Ton van der Lee was a successful film director/producer based in Amsterdam. At age 40, hungry for adventure and spiritual renewal, he gave up everything and left for Africa with a one way ticket and no plans.
His first book, ‘Solitaire’, starts off in South Africa and recounts the three years he spent in a remote part of the Namibian desert. He joined two local men, who taught him how to hunt and survive. After a year they set up a primitive restaurant and campsite as tourism to the Namibian desert began to develop. Things got out of hand when, within a year, the amount of visitors grew from two a week to fifty per day. Ton van der Lee learned the meaning of the proverb ‘money is the root of all evil’.
The book includes descriptions of trips into Bushman land (Botswana), the Kalahari Desert, Okavango Delta and the remote Himba region (near the Angola border).
It is a tale of paradise found and lost again.
In the second book, ‘The Sandcastle’, Ton van der Lee continues his quest for the heartbeat of Africa. It recounts his move to the heartland of West Africa. As a student he had stayed with the painter Salvador Dali, who had designed a house for him in the shape of a surrealist castle. In a remote part of Mali, not far from Timbuktu, he found a traditional style of building resembling Dali’s design. He settled there, learned the local language and helped by local masons with millennium old secrets he built his ‘Sandcastle’, which is actually constructed of adobe. During this time (4 years) he develops a relationship with a local woman from a nomadic tribe who is finally and tragically forced into a pre-arranged marriage by her family. The book includes a crossing of the Sahara desert (Mauretania, Morocco), a journey along the historic cities of the Senegal river, and an exploration of the region where the legendary Dogon live, but is chiefly centred around the ancient cities of Timbuktu and Djenne in Mali.
His third book, ‘The Dance of the Spirits’ centers on the spiritual side of the African experience. It recounts how the author becomes the apprentice of a shaman, is initiated into the ancient religion of the Songhai tribe, and participates in dances of possession. Guided by an initiate, he embarks on a hazardous quest to follow The Path, a journey through remote regions in search of enlightenment and the traditional heart of Africa. Its locations are Niger and Mali.
All three books are a combination of travelogue, adventure, and a personal quest for the spiritual heart of Africa. For many Dutch and Belgian readers they have become a favorite introduction to Africa.
In 2008 Ton van der Lee published 'Secrets of the Maasai', a book-DVD which is the account of a very special expedition to the mountain stronghold of the high priest of the Maasai. Van der Lee and his travel companion were the first western persons to be received by the high priest and were allowed to film, witness and participate in a number of hitherto secret rituals. The book-DVD contains a wealth of unique material. To see some of the film material, go to Youtube.
SOME FRAGMENTS FROM THESE BOOKS
SOLITAIRE (appeared 2001, 11th reprint in 2012, more than 50.000 copies sold)
I live under a tree in a dry riverbed. All around me, the barren wastes of the Namib desert stretch away into the shimmering distance. I sleep on an improvised bed in the sand. Around my bed I have made a circle of rocks and branches to frighten off the scorpions and the snakes. I don't know if it works.
The three buildings which make up the village of Solitaire are a mile away. Peter, the owner of Solitaire and the surrounding desert, lets me camp here.
He has lived at this remote junction of dirt tracks in the middle of the Namib Desert for years. His only company are Moose, his brother-in-law, and the jackals that howl in the night.
His wife ran away with the kids. She lives in the capital, where she owns a small shop that sells bridal clothes. Once a year, at Christmas, she comes round. Moose never had a wife. He’s too fat, and he drinks too much.
Peter and Moose live off the shop and the petrol pump. Solitaire is the first stop after Walvis Bay, 180 miles to the north. In between there is nothing, absolutely nothing, except barren desert. People have no choice, they have to fill up here. The next town down the road has twenty houses, and is almost 200 miles away.
The shop sells canned food, beer and liquor, strips of zebra meat (shot and dried by Peter), and homemade bread, the specialty of Moose.
Solitaire is always open. Four or five cars pass by every day. You can see them coming for miles because of the dustclouds.
The two men sit on the old, creaking veranda all day and watch the mountains in the distance. I slept in the kitchen behind the shop for a while. Moose sleeps in a cabin next to the generator, which is usually broken. Peter lives in a small house made of corrugated iron, by the well.
The kitchen floor became too hard for me so I moved to an enormous camelthorn tree on the bank of a bone dry river. It comes out of the mountains in the east, winds its way through the plains, and somewhere in the west it must reach the hills I call the Three Sisters. The mountains here have no names, except in the language of the wandering Nama, which nobody understands, and is impossible to pronounce with its strange clicks.
I’m very happy with my camp. The river sand is soft and white. Between the banks there is a microclimate. There are a lot of bushes and plants, yesterday I counted twelve different ones that were flowering. It almost never rains in this desert, but there is a heavy dew every night. The animals and the plants have adapted. There is a lizard here that climbs up on the edge of a dune at dawn and unfolds a specialised collar. The dewdrops are caught in the collar and roll straight down into its mouth. There are lots of insects and small animals. I see their tracks in the sand every morning. There are burrows of earth wolves in the riverbanks nearby. At night I hear them sniffing around, rustling through the undergrowth.
The tree provides me with a pleasant shade. It is January and in the daytime it gets very hot, up to 40 degrees. I sleep on a mattress in the sand. Around my bed I have made a circle of rocks and branches, and I have dug out a shallow moat in the sand, to frighten off the scorpions and the snakes. I don’t know if it works.
Towards dusk I make a small fire and stare at the sun going down between the Three Sisters, somewhere far away where the cold South Atlantic Ocean breaks on the desert beach. It’s a magnificent spectacle, and it is different every day, orchestrated flawlessly by an invisible director for my pleasure.
I go to bed early and get up at dawn. The tree also shelters me from the cold dew.
Usually, I wake up sometime in the middle of the night. I put on my slippers and walk up the river bed, by the light of the moon I watch for scorpions I might step on, they stand out black against the white sand. I take a pee, look up at the enormous sky full of white shiny stars and feel happy. I think I’ve found my place.
I’m not quite sure yet, but I do get the feeling that I’d like to stay here, in this beautiful, virgin desert, where nature is untainted, where tourism has not reached yet, and where the spirit of mother earth hovers over the plains.
When I stand there and look up at the sky I feel the spirituality I was looking for all around me. I suddenly understand the people who say that the earth is one big, living organism. I’d like to include the sky and the stars, too, because it all feels like a logical, organic whole that could not have been different, that is perfect in itself. I can almost hear the creature breathe. How can it be that I had lost every inkling of its existence, back in Amsterdam. Almost lost, I should say, I remembered enough to go and look for it.
This is how our ancestors must have lived for hundreds of thousands of years, in harmony with nature, a part of it.
Romantic feelings, which are interrupted roughly when the diesel pump by the waterhole roars into life at six in the morning and tears the pristine desert silence to pieces. Fortunately it only takes half an hour to pump up enough water for the rest of the day.
Today was very hot. Little fluffy clouds have been hovering around the mountain tops for some days now, they move around but nothing much happens. Moose talks of rain with an excited expression on his fat, shiny face. But there has been no rain here for the past eight years, not a drop.
At the end of the afternoon it gets a little cooler. I go for a walk with the dogs. They’re already waiting for me. With my arrival, a new type of human being has appeared into their lives: someone who doesn’t kick them, beat them or throws empty cans, but talks to them, strokes them, and, best of all, goes for walks with them, for hours and hours.
I have a stick to beat off snakes ( I doubt whether a stick is effective against puff adders, spitting cobra’s and zebra snakes, but it’s nice to swing it while I walk), a cap, a bottle of Windhoek beer in my shorts, and I wear high walking shoes against the spiky bushes.
The track to the west peters out after a few hundred meters, at the pile of bottles and cans, tangled masses of rusty wire, car wrecks and useless wood by the old well. I walk westward, across the plain which is covered in short brown grass. In the distance I see the Three Sisters, and much further away I can see the low chain of mountains I call Tibet.
The sky is intensely blue. The four dogs are running ahead of me, the two biggest ones soon dwindle to tiny dots that move around me in enormous circles. They smell earth wolves, mongoose and other burrowing animals, and hunt them in vain. Sometimes they start to dig up a burrow, but after a few minutes they look at me helplessly with their snouts full of sand, shake their heads dumbly and run off again, in search of the next exciting smell.
In the distance I see a herd of springbok that has not noticed us yet. They have turned their brown backs towards us and are grazing calmly. Scampi has run far ahead of me, he’s already seen them. I stop and watch anxiously. As usual, I’m afraid that the herd will notice the dogs too late. But then the leader pricks up its ears, looks around and takes off with elegant bounds. The whole herd of maybe thirty animals follows. They’re not in a hurry, they do not need the giant leaps of fifteen or more feet they make at full speed to stay ahead of the dogs.
A little later the two big dogs, Scampi and Lily, are back and look at me shamefaced. The two small ones have not even noticed their fruitless hunt, they’ve been rooting around in an abandoned mongoose hill. I give Scampi a pat on the back and they’re off again.
An hour later we find ourselves in very different terrain. Here, the sand is coarse and the ground is crisscrossed by old channels. Bushes with leathery leaves and long, spiky thorns grow everywhere. The dogs are far ahead, except for Ghost, a bastard terrier, the smallest and fiercest of them all. I can hear them barking excitedly in the distance. When they haven’t come back after ten minutes, I begin to wonder whether something’s the matter. They’re barking very nervously, and very intensely.
With Ghost at my heels I hurry towards the sound. I scale a low hill and see the three dogs running in circles around a big dead thornbush, barking like maniacs. A young springbok has become entangled in the bush. Panting with fear, the animals struggles in the thorny branches. The dogs make brief sallies and fall back again.
They don’t need to be afraid, for the young animal is defenceless, but apparently they dare not go in for the kill. I push my way into the bush and try to pull the branches apart. The antilope begins to moan and shiver, it looks like it will die of pure fear. While I am tearing my skin on the branches and try to pull the thorns out of its fur, which is sodden with sweat and saliva, a white blur flashes past me, and Ghost is at the throat of the animal. He growls and grunts, the springbok shrieks with fear, hot blood spouts all over my bare legs. Now the other dogs pounce as well, and a few seconds later, I hear the animal’s death rattle.
It slumps to the ground and the dogs look at me triumphantly.
My city heart is deeply shocked, and with shaking legs I look at the dead buck. I sit down and open my bottle of beer, while the dogs sit down in a circle and watch me expectantly.
Finally, I hoist the lifeless carcass up on my shoulders, and with blood streaming down my chest and back, I begin to walk.
Tonight we’re having springbok steak.
The clouds over the mountains have been moving around ineffectively for several days. Until this morning. They began to mass and turned grey, a hot wind blew clouds of red dust across the plains, and suddenly a few fat drops fell on the powdery dirt. A few at first, then a downpour. It lasted for an hour. Then it was suddenly dry again. In the mountains it must have rained much harder. This is the first rain in eight years. Moose is very excited, he says we should go and wait at the river bed, he thinks the water will come soon. He has seen it before, when he arrived from Zambia, ten years ago. We put the padlock on the door of the shop, although no one has passed in the last two days, and get into Peter’s ancient pick up truck to drive to the place where the old river bed crosses the dirt road.
Moose sits down on a flat rock under a huge old camelthorn. He pulls out a can of Holsten. It’s twelve o’clock and he’s already a little drunk.
‘I should clear my camp’, I say, ‘if there’s really going to be a flashflood’.
‘We’ll make it’, Moose says.
I hear a rumbling sound in the distance.
‘There it is’, says Moose.
A huge brown wave is washing towards us, faster than I’d thought possible. It roars past, carrying branches, uprooted shrubs and a dead jackal. The water is dirty, it bubbles and hisses.
I’m worried about my camp, two miles away, in the bed of this same river. I jump into the pick up truck and start it while Moose scrambles into the back, laughing. Dodging bushes and trees, skidding in the sand, I drive to my tree as fast as I can. I can see it in the distance, but I have no idea how fast the flashflood moves.
When we arrive at the camp it’s deceptively quiet. The sun is shining, bees are hovering around a flowering bush, the wind rustles through the leaves of the tree. I jump out of the car, run into the riverbed, and start throwing my stuff up on the bank. It’s not that much, really. I’ve just finished by saving my cooking gear when Moose puts up his finger. The water is coming. I pull myself up by a large root and see the wave coming, a little smaller now, it seems.
A few minutes later it’s all over. The river dries up into a tiny stream, which sinks into the sand without a trace before Moose has finished his next beer. He throws the can into a bush and nods with satisfaction.
‘You’ll be surprised tomorrow, you should go climb the koppie ’.
At dawn I am woken up by the sun as usual. The camel thorn branches are motionless above my head. Fat drops of dew are covering my blanket. That’s new. I get up and see that the sand is moist. The dew must have been much heavier than usual, probably because of yesterday’s rain.
When I arrive at the kitchen after a twenty minute walk Peter is already eating a springbok steak with fried eggs. His enormous belly is bulging over his threadbare shorts. He greets me sleepily and concentrates on his meat. I look in the oven and pull out one of the loaves we baked yesterday. After breakfast I fill a bottle with water, get my walking stick and whistle for the dogs.
We head for the koppie, the round hill rising in the middle of the plain, not far from the junction. Everything is further away than it seems in the crystal clear air of the Namib desert. It takes me an hour to get to the base of the koppie. I begin to climb across the black boulders.
A puff adder is sunning itself on a big flat rock. Lily begins to bark nervously, and I freeze. It’s a large specimen, at least two metres long, and a thick as my wrist behind its small, wedge shaped head. The scaly body is marked with perfectly symmetrical, brown and white zigzags. The puff adder gives no sign that it has noticed us. That’s what makes it so dangerous. All other snakes take off when they hear something big approaching, or rather feel, because snakes are deaf. Except for the puff adder. It will stay put in the middle of a track and strike in cold blood when man or animal gets too close.
I watch the adder motionlessly. All the dogs are barking now. Slowly I walk backwards, without turning, feeling behind me with my stick and hoping I won’t stumble on a loose rock. When I’m three metres away, the adder has not moved. I relax a little, turn and climb up quickly on the other side. My hands are trembling.
At the top of the koppie I look around and hold my breath. There’s a bright green haze all over the brown desert plains, everywhere plants and grasses have started to spring up. Seeds that have lain dormant in the ground for years are sprouting in a frantic hurry to grow and mature before this rare supply of moisture dries up. That is why the Namib desert dons its green robes within a few hours after the rain.
A narrow, worn track runs right across the summit of the hill. I have crossed it a few times on the way up. Later, Moose will tell me it’s a zebra trail. The mountain zebra’s of Namibia, which have been named Hartmann zebra after their discoverer, like to survey their domain from high places. At the same time, the trails are migratory routes, and they enable the zebra to take flight quickly from their natural enemies such as the leopard, which is ill at ease in treeless surroundings.
On the way down I find a baboon skull. It’s lying on a ridge, watching me calmly, bleached perfectly by years of sun and wind, with a little help from the insects and worms.
I take it with me and put it on the shelf in the shop, between the giant dried lizard and the propellor of a microlite that crashed here a few years back.
Moose is on his third beer. He nods at me.
‘Beautiful, isn’t it’, he says, and takes a gulp. ‘I love the Namib. I’m never going to leave’.
Some excerpts in English (all excerpts are abridged)
Excerpt one: a visit to Salvador Dali
Salvador Dali is dressed in a long, flowing, purple robe. In his hand he holds an antique staff embellished with miniatures.
He fingers the long, stiff points of his famous moustache, and proudly tells me the staff was made for Catherine de Medici, medieval ruler of Florence.
‘Since those days’, he says with an offhand gesture, ‘it has only been in the possession of the great and mighty of this earth, such as myself’.
I nod, and look around me. We are standing on the patio of Dali’s house, where he has lived for almost forty years now with his wife and muse, Gala. The view of the bay is familiar to me from his paintings, as is the naked back of Gala, which is visible through one of the windows.
‘What do you think of the house?’, he asks.
These are the early seventies, the time of hashish and psychedelic rock, and Dali’s surrealistic paintings are popular with young people all over the world.
I know the history of this house. Forty years ago, Dali bought a derelict fisherman’s cottage on the bay. He restored it, bought the one next to it, and another, and another. He linked them together, added weird and fantastical constructions of his own invention, and slowly this whimsical castle came into being, full of twisting stairways, strange turrets, unexpected patio’s and terraces.
‘It feels like I’m in a dream’, I tell him.
He smiles, gratified.
‘One day, I would like to build something like this’, I say spontaneously.
Dali looks me in the eye. He does not laugh at me.
’You can, you can. Every human being is a God’.
He picks up a sketchbook. In a few strokes, he draws a building with strange towers, a cloister of twisting columns, and bizarre roof ornaments. A castle of dreams.
It seems to awaken something deep inside me.
‘Something like this?’, Dali says, with a smile.
I nod, speechless.
‘They build in this style somewhere in Africa. I’ve forgotten where’, Dali says. ‘Wanted to go, but never made it. And now I’m too old’.
He hands me the sketch.
‘Don’t be afraid. Follow your dream.’
Excerpt 2: Caves of the Dead
The cliff rises up steeply in front of me. High up, I can see the ruins of an ancient, abandoned Dogon village. The crumbling houses cling to the rock face and balance precariously on narrow ledges. Life must have been tough and dangerous here.
I am getting a little winded from the steep climb, and ask Arama to stop for a rest in the shade of a stunted baobab. While I drink some musty water from a gourd, Arama clims into the tree and collects its juicy leaves. They are used to make a delicious sauce. In Dogon country, there are no shops, and most people still live from hunting and gathering, and a little agriculture.
As we climb on, the sun rises high into the hazy blue sky and the rocks begin to get hot to the touch. Here and there I have to hoist myself up by grabbing roots and ledges. Far below us, the village we have started from is no more than a dark speck on the hot, shimmering plain.
Finally, we arrive at the first caves. They are little more than shallow holes in the cliff face, where the Dogon have been burying their dead for centuries. In the first cave, we find a single skeleton. The grey, crumbling bone is partially covered by shreds of the shroud the deceased was wrapped in when he was taken to his grave. The skull has come loose and has rolled into a dark recess. The next cave, which is much larger, startles me. Dozens of skulls stare at me with hollow eyes, there are stacks of yellow bones everywhere. Between the dead I see broken gourds, earthenware pots, necklaces and other objects. Arama fingers the protective amulet around his neck, and stares at the dead bodies of his ancestors with a mixture of reverence and fear.
Excerpt 3: In love with a nomad’s daughter
Every morning around eleven, the papaya girl stops at the hotel where I live until my house is finished.
She is tall and slender, she has the light brown skin, almond shaped eyes, and graceful features typical of the Fulani nomads. She puts her basketful of fruit down by the gate and waits for customers. Sometimes I buy a papaya, which I eat in my room.
Her name is Mamou. As we get to know each other, I pay less and less for my papaya’s. I start buying one every day, although I can hardly eat all of them. But I don’t want to disappointment Mamou. And I want to see her shy smile, the graceful way she puts her basket down, I want to see her body move under her dress while she picks out a nice, ripe papaya for me, and hands it to me. Every time she tries to pronounce my name, she breaks down in giggles because she just can’t get it right.
There is a vague smell of fruit and milk about her that makes me feel good.
One day, Mamou does not stop at the gate but climbs the stairs with her basket. She enters my room and sits down as if this is nothing out of the ordinary. Her long dark hair is in plaits today. She wears a necklace of golden amber and her earrings jangle faintly when she moves her head. The tattoos around her mouth and eyes form dark, intricate patterns on her lightbrown skin.
She has put henna on her feet, and small silver rings on het toes.
Without a word, she comes and sits next to me on the bed. She takes my hand. I feel the warmth of her body and hold my breath, too astonished to do or say anything. Giggling softly, she gently pushes me backwards, onto the bed.
Hours later, I wake up. Mamou has left while I was still asleep. On the window sill is a large, orange papaya. She is gone, but inside the room, some of her fragrance still lingers. After a while I open the door and walk out on the veranda with blinking eyes. The sun is already setting. She is probably back in her family’s camp by now, a few miles outside the town, somewhere in the bush, among the straw huts, the cows, the goats, and the smouldering campfires.
She’s gone, but I know she will be back.
Excerpt 4: Why I wanted to leave
The walls of my hotel room in St. Louis are covered with ancient black and white photographs from Senegal’s colonial past. French gentlemen with tropical helmets and stiff collars look me straight in the eye, across the threshold of death. They are posing by the riverport, where a ship has just docked. Two young, black girls are watching them curiously.
Everyone in this photograph has been dead for years, reduced to no more than a few handfuls of dust.
It makes me feel melancholy. It does not seem to matter very much what we do on this earth. In the end we all end up as food for worms and insects. On the other hand, that knowledge should be a reason to make a difference. And that is why I am here.
During my last years in Amsterdam, I was constantly plagued by the thought that there must be more to life. All too often, I woke up with the thought: is this all there is? Is there nothing else in store for me?
I had it all. A beautiful house, a successful job, a pretty girlfriend. But I knew there must be more. And I knew I woud not find it in the west.
Slowly I began to realise I would have to do something, and do it fast, or I would become the prisoner of a system I was beginning to detest.
Of course, I had just turned forty, and perhaps I was merely going through a midlife crisis. That, at least, is what my friends told me. They warned me not to burn my bridges. Wanting to leave it all behind, to follow my dream, to leave for the heart of Africa, it was all a foolish whim I should forget about. That is what they said, but I could see the confusion and the jealousy in their eyes. It was a shock to realise that almost everyone has such a secret dream. They came to me, one by one, and poured their hearts out. An island in the South Seas, a monastery in the Himalayas, a horse farm in the south of Spain. I could tell that they all wanted to leave, but none of them had the guts to do it. I decided to be different. And that is why I’m here, to follow my dream.
The Dance of the Spirits
Ton van der Lee
(first published by Prometheus Publishers, Amsterdam, 2005)
two fragments (from the first edition)
translated and slightly edited by Ton van der Lee
Story 1: ‘The Towers of Djenné’
(a three year journey through Africa and arrival in Djenné, Mali)
‘THE TOWERS OF DJENNE’
I am sitting on the flat roof of my house. The sun has just risen and the endless plains of the Sahel are bathing in its orange glow. Below me the river reflects the first light. Fishermen are returning home in their dugouts after a long night on the water. Women squat in front of the straw huts along the riverbank and light their cooking fires. Their long robes billow in the dawn breeze and the first smoke rises to the sky. A flight of white herons swoops down to the water’s edge. The leaves of the tamarind tree by my house whisper in the warm wind.
I love this land with all my heart and soul. It has been five years since I arrived here, after a three year trip that took me all over Africa.
I had fled the West. It was all getting too much for me. Pollution and waste, stress and indifference. Concrete and asphalt, walls and fences. Too much materialism and a frightening lack of spirituality. I felt that I was dying slowly. My soul was gasping for air. I wanted to get back to nature, I wanted to learn how to listen to the heartbeat of the earth. I wanted to become a human being again.
I am not a dreamer, I never was and I never will be. I come from a sober, practical family and I started my own business when I was young. The media fascinated me and I founded my own film company. Before I knew it, I had an office in the centre of Amsterdam, too many employees and three mobile phones that never seemed to stop ringing. I had a lovely girlfriend, a brand new Mercedes and a beautiful house on one of the historic canals.
For years, things went well. Everyone ran, and I ran with the rest of them. I bought stocks, I bought options, I bought a country house. Business was great. I worked day and night. I got up at six in the morning and came home at eleven in the evening. I saw my parents once every few months. My old friends - I had no time for them anymore. I only had colleagues left. My girlfriend left me, but I hardly noticed. I went on. And on. And on. Until something snapped.
It was a small thing, really, that triggered it all. Something ridiculous, in fact. It was a lovely spring morning. I was sitting on a terrace with two colleagues. We were discussing a new film plan. It was to be a major production with a lot of foreign investment. My mobile phone rang and I answered it. While I was talking, my colleagues also started telephoning. I looked around me and saw that almost everyone on the terrace was talking into their cellphones. No one really noticed eachother, everyone was totally occupied with his own phone.
Then a small bird landed on our table. It picked up a few crumbs, looked at us one by one, as if it was surprised by something and then it flew off. I kept watching it getting smaller and smaller until it was just a tiny dot in the air, and I finally could not see it anymore.
‘Hello?’ I heard a surprised voice at the other end of the line. ‘Hello?’
I did not answer. A feeling of enormous loneliness and pointlessness came over me. I hung up, put my cellphone on the table, got up and walked away. I looked back for a moment and saw that my two colleagues were still on the phone. One of them waved to me absently.
I flagged down a taxi, went home, pulled a suitcase out of my cupboard and started packing. I called the travel agency that always arranged the tickets for my film productions. That same evening I was on a night flight to Capetown. With a one way ticket. More expensive than a return flight, the girl from the agency had said with some surprise. But I had insisted. It was a symbolical gesture.
The next morning I took a cab from the airport to the outskirts of Capetown, where all the used car dealers are. We passed through huge, miserable shantytowns where halfnaked, hungry-looking children were playing in the dirt.
A coloured man with a beer belly sold me an old Ford stationwagon. I put my suitcase in the back, bought a map at a petrol station and drove north, out of Capetown and into Africa.
I stopped at a telephone booth, called my accountant and told him to sell my business and put my house up for rent. Before he could utter a word of protest I hung up. From the post office of Paarl, the first small town I came to, I sent a telegramme to my parents: ‘Gone to Africa. Staying indefinitely. All well. Love you.’ At a general store I bought all the gear I needed to camp out, far away from towns, hotels and tarred roads, far from civilisation. That was the start of a long trip which was to last three years.
Africa was all I had hoped for, and more. I felt free, as free as I had never felt before. I travelled through hills and valleys, across endless landscapes of mountain and desert, of forests and lakes. Africa welcomed me like a lost child. It embraced me and comforted me. I learned to listen to the voice of nature. I slept under the stars, I lived with the sun and the moon. Within a few weeks, my past in Europe had become a distant dream. I realised that I had taken the right decision. The urge to get up and leave had been the result of a process that must have been going on for years within me at a deep, subconscious level. Gradually I began to realise why I had left. I was myself, for the first time in my life.
From my rooftop I can see the outline of the town of Djenné in the distance. This is where I have finally settled down. I had seen the tropical coasts of Natal, the summits of the Drakensberg Mountains and the flowery pastures of Namaqualand. I had drunk tombo beer wiht the Herero of Otjiwarongo, spied on pink flamingo’s in the salt pans of the Kalahari Desert with the Bushmen, and I had gone to church with the white reformed farmers of Keetmanshoop. I had spent a lot of time in the heart of the Namib desert, I had seen the giant white spider dancing on the dunes and I had seen the zebras mating in the sunbaked mountains of Kaokoland. I had seen the cold waves breaking on the barren, lifeless beaches of the Skeleton Coast, seen herds of elephant bathing on the banks of the Chobe river, I had seen buffalo graze on the islands of the Okavango Delta and smoked marihuana with the Tonga people of Lake Kariba. I had seen the tea plantations of the breezy Iringa mountains and watched the giraffe of the Tanzanian lowlands gallop through the savanna. I had drunk whisky with war veterans in Mozambique and listened to the melancholy stories of Indians in Dar-Es-Salaam. I had sailed to Zanzibar in a dhow and made love to a Kikuyu woman on the beach of Pemba.
I had been ill, I had suffered from malaria, black water fever, typhoid and dysentery, I had been tired, angry and desperate, but I had fallen in love, I had become hopelessly addicted to the great mystery called Africa. I had travelled on, further to the west. I had seen the island of Gorée, which glitters like a jewel in the blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean. I had travelled up the Senegal river, I roamed through the Sahara and the endless wastes of the Sahel, always onwards towards the heart of Africa, until, one late afternoon in the hottest time of the year, I saw the walls and towers of Djenné rise up in the distance.
I arrived when the sun was already going down and drove slowly through the narrow, twisting streets. Everything was made out of adobe, the streets, the walls, the houses. I got the feeling that I had arrived in an unreal town, which had not been created by the hands of men but had slowly evolved over the centuries like a living organism. I saw towers, stairways and terraces, balconies and turrets, slanting walkways, pillars, walls and facades glowing in every imaginable shade of red, brown, ochre, yellow and terracotta. I saw ancient wooden doors embossed with copper, I saw secluded courtyards with shady trees and cool fountains where graceful people in long robes were resting after the heat of the day.
I knew that Djenné was one of Africa’s most beautiful towns, and definitely one of its oldest, for its history goes back almost three thousand years. But nothing could have prepared me for this overwhelming wealth of shapes and colours. I drove through the streets slowly, until the houses suddenly fell back and I found myself in the large central square. It was dominated by a huge, redbrown building with three enormous towers. Its pointed turrets stood out like dark silhouettes against the slowly dying light on the horizon. I switched off my engine, got out of the car, and I felt small, very small.
The mosque of Djenné, the largest adobe building in the world, radiated a majestic power and effortless beauty I had not experienced before. I took a deep breath, and suddenly I knew. I realised it immediately, without a doubt. This was the pace where I would settle down.
Story 2: ‘Initiation’
(a visit to Sangay Moyo, a shaman of the Sohantye brotherhood in the central Sahel, to be initiated and be cured of chronic malaria)
I am determined to visit Sangay Moyo and be initiated. I have come a long way, travelled for months and undergone many trials to see him. I want to eat the magical, mysterious substance known as kuso, whatever that may be exactly, to partake of the Songhai spirit world and be cured of my malaria for ever.
After a trip of several hours on an oxcart we finally arrive in Sangay Moyo’s village. It consists of a few low, adobe houses and round huts in the shadow of some huge baobabs. Between the trees, tall gray rocks rise out of the red sand. Centuries of wind and weather have eroded them into fantastical shapes.
This must be one of the remotest parts of Africa.
When we walk into the Sohantye’s courtyard with our bags, he is dosing in a reed chair under a tree.
Alfa, my guide, coughs. The Sohantye opens his eyes, gets up with a supple movement and embraces Alfa. The two men exchange some words in Songhai, their tribal language. Then Alfa introduces me in French.
Sangay Moyo is a tall, well built man of about sixty with an intelligent face. His eyes twinkle with amusement as he studies me. I am reminded of Alfa’s words:
‘A Sohantye immediately sees who someone was, who he is and who he will be. In that sense he is no more than the instrument of a fate that is already determined’.
‘Well well,’ Sangay says to Alfa. ‘You’ve brought me a white man.’ He gazes probingly into my eyes. I look back calmly. I have not forgotten the advice of the pilgrim at that lonely shrine on the river Niger: ‘Do not look with your eyes, but with your soul.’ And suddenly the fear that I may not be found worthy to be initiated has vanished completely. Here I am, I have nothing to hide. I am who I am. Yes, I am a white man. No, I do not know what lies in store for me. But take me for what I am.
Sangay seems to feel that my intentions are sincere, for finally he nods. ‘Come,’ he says. We follow him to an adobe house in the far corner of the courtyard. It has been painted in beautiful, abstract patterns of black, ochre and dark red.
‘This is our guesthouse,’ Sangay says as he goes in. Inside, it is cool and shady. He shows both of us a small room. ‘Tonight I’ll consult the spirits,’ he continues, ‘but first we’ll have a good meal. I love a juicy side of roast sheep!.’ He laughs loudly and disappears.
Sangay is not the sort of person I had expected, I think to myself while I put down my bag and roll out my mat. I had imagined a wizened old man covered in charms and amulets, who would be mumbling mysterious formulas and inspire awe and fear. But Sangay seems to be an open, cheerful fellow who loves a laugh and a good meal.
The next morning, Sangay wakes me at first light and takes me to the sacred hut outside the compound. The sandy floor is neatly swept and in the middle are three large, black spirit stones, the torou I have seen in some other shrines on my way here. The hut is silent and shady. I get the feeling that this is a place somewhere between the real world and an invisible realm, where the spirits live and the Sohantye works.
Sangay takes his staff, which is crowned by a sculpted vulture’s head, and looks at me. ‘Last night,’ he says with a serious expression, ‘the spirits have told me why you have come here and how long your pilgrimage has been. They say you are ready to be initiated. Today you must fast. I will prepare the kuso. Then, at nightfall, it will begin.’
Relieved and excited I return to my hut. At the end of the afternoon I begin to feel lightheaded. It must be from the hunger and thirst, from my high expectations, and yes, also from the fear I experience. My heart is beating faster than normal and the palms of my hands are moist. I am strongly conscious of my own body and it seems that a subtle change has come over my surroundings. Each object, each detail seems to be charged with special meaning. My sleeping mat, my sandals by the door, the stone water jar, it’s as if I see them for the first time.
Towards evening I wash and put on a clean robe. A little later I see how the shaft of sunlight that pierces a crack in the wooden shutter of my room changes from orange to red and then slowly fades into grey.
There is a knock on the door. A small boy stands before me. He must be five or six years old, looks at me gravely, and takes my hand without a word. Hand in hand we cross the courtyard to the ceremonial hut. No one pays us any attention, no one seems to realise that something special is going on. Sangay’s wife is drawing water from the well and two children are playing in the sand. A young girl is pounding millet while she hums softly to herself.
When we reach the hut, the little boy lets go of my hand and runs away. I take off my sandals and push the reed mat in the door opening aside. Sangay is sitting by the three black spirit stones. He gestures for me to come and sit across from him. The hut is faintly illuminated by the yellow light of a small oil lamp that throws long shadows on the walls. Without any further preliminaries, Sangay takes a small, black pot and puts it in front of me. Inside is a yellow-brown substance, something like a cake. A light steam is rising from it.
‘Eat,’ Sangay says. I put my right hand into the pot and pick up the cake, which is still warm. I take a bite. The kuso tastes bitter and dark. It tastes of earth and wood and plants. I swallow, take another bite and then another. The tension I felt when I walked over to the hut with the little boy has gone completely.
Now, there is no way back.
‘Sohon, ni kuungu,’ Sanay says, when I have swallowed the last of the magical substance. He gets up and draws a large circle in the sand with his staff. Within it he draws two straight lines which intersect in the middle.
‘Stand there,’ he says. ‘Stay inside the circle and evil spirits will not harm you on your journey. Empty your mind.’
Then he mutters something, nods at me and leaves the hut.
Now I am alone. I wait for something to happen, but nothing does. I look around me. I see the three spirit stones, the empty kuso pot and the light of the oil lamp dancing across the walls. Outside I hear a dog barking and the voice of a woman calling to a child.
I am standing motionless in the middle of the circle, and suddenly I get the feeling that I am probably a fool. The feeling I also had when, earlier on my pilgrimage, I climbed the holy mountain at Hombori. That there is no point in what I am doing, that this is not my destiny. But then I remember the words of Sangay. I try to empty my mind and open myself to the things to come. Just when I am beginning to wonder whether anything at all is going to happen, I notice that the light of the oil lamp is beginning to dim. At the same time the sounds from outside are sounding more muted, as if they are coming from far away.
Slowly, it gets dark around me, and completely silent. I realise that I no longer feel my body. I try to lift my arm, but I no longer have one. I try to feel the ground under my feet, but it is gone. That is when I start falling.
I fall and fall through an endless void without light or sound.
I floated down like a leaf on the wind, down, always down, until I suddenly saw the earth below me. It was bathing in a bright light. I saw mountains and valleys, lakes and forests, deserts and valleys. I saw a network of energy that connected everything and enveloped the earth in a protective embrace.
And I was filled with knowledge. I became a part of everything that had a soul and had ever existed. I saw mountains rise and fall, I saw boiling oceans and lakes of fire.
I was everywhere. I saw all and I knew all.
I was myself and at the same time I was everyone.
I felt all things a human being has ever felt and I knew everything he ever knew.
I swam in the sea of memory, I read in the book of experience.
I understood that everything around us has a soul, that the force of life suffuses everything, even the smallest stone or the tiniest drop of water.
I felt that we are surrounded everywhere by the energy of the earth. It is a creative force which flows through us and unites us.
I saw the place where all people come from and must return to eventually. A place outside of time and space. It is always light there, so light that there are no shapes and everything is one. The place where the souls live, where they begin their journey and always return. The place that each man knows intuitively, where he can even travel during his life on earth to draw power and knowledge, if he knows the way.
I understood that time is an illusion. The notion of time is a human construct. The present does not evolve from the past, nor does the future evolve from the present. Cause and effect are a fantasy, for everything exists at the same time.
Those who understand this will become immortal. All mortality springs from the notion that we come from somewhere and are on our way to somewhere else. But that illusion is like the veil which will be torn away when the wind of eternity starts blowing.
I fell down, and further down, through a sky that was ablaze with light and energy.
I understood that everyone must travel a road where no one has gone before, making choices that no one else could make. I realised that every person is doomed to an endless repetition of the mistakes so many people have made before him and that will always be made again.
But I also felt that it is possible to free ourselves. If we know the way, if we have the courage to make the right choices. I saw the forks in everyone’s life path and I understood that the wise person standing on a crossroads always chooses the most difficult direction.
And I saw the spirits. They laughed and beckoned to me. Their shapes were shimmering, they faded and reformed, dissolved and shifted, but their souls were always the same. Their souls felt familiar, as if they had always been with me, but at the same time they were strangers in a way no human being ever could be. I saw that the spirits have always been here and always will be. I saw that they have accompanied humanity from the beginning of time, but have had different names in different places and at different times. And those who have eyes, will see.
I saw that those who dare to stop thinking will begin to understand. Thought is a traitor to the soul. But whoever dares to let go can be free and will become a part of the greater whole that is everywhere around us. He will become one with the soul of the earth and so become himself.
And I felt that the earth is energy. An energy that was flowing through me and made me pulse and glow with the joy of life. I existed more intensely than ever before. The earth is the force that feeds our soul if we have the courage to let it flow. It shows us who we are and who we were. This is the original force, the power of passion and joy and the realisation that we are allowed to be here.
And I understood that whoever harms the earth, harms himself equally. Those who understand this can begin to heal themselves.
I experienced all these things in a single instant which lasted a fraction of a second and an eternity at the same time.
I fell closer to the earth and I saw the hills and the stones, the plants and the trees, the animals and the people, I saw clouds and rivers and everything that has a soul, and I understood that they are all part of the eternal and immortal mystery which is the heart of the earth.
‘Listen to the heartbeat of the earth,’ a voice whispered. ‘Put your head in her lap, press your ear to her bosom, dare to surrender.’
When I open my eyes, the first light of dawn is visible through the straw roof of the sacred hut. I get up slowly, wipe the sand off my robe and step out of the magical circle.
Outside, everything is still at peace. The air smells fresh and damp. The eastern horizon is turning red. A bird begins to sing and a light breeze stirs the leaves of the trees. It feels like everything is new and the world is still young.
I take a deep breath and I feel the energy of the earth, which is everywhere around me. And I feel sure that I have been born again. There is no need to be afraid. I am in Africa, and all is well.
SECRETS OF THE MAASAI
(Toya, a former Maasai warrior, recalls the three day ceremony during which he and 2000 other Maasai warriors were initiated into a new age group. This ceremony is also on the DVD)
We left with a small group of warriors for the valley where the ceremony would take place. As we got closer we met more and more other warriors. Some of them we knew, others I had never met before. When I got to the top of the hill and saw the valley below me, full of people, of cows, of dancing warriors, women in their best clothes and priests from all over Maasai land, I was overwhelmed by emotion. I felt myself grow, I realised I was not just one man, but part of a larger whole.
There was a big enclosure where rich Maasai had sent oxen to be slaughtered during the ceremonies. Fires were burning and big red flags were flying in the wind above the sacred huts. Everywhere I heard the battle cries of arriving warriors and the singing of women welcoming them. The atmosphere was very special, a feeling of expectation and excitement but also of enormous power. That old feeling the Maasai must have had in the past, when they were the lords of all East Africa and all other tribes took flight before them. It was a religious feeling, as if our God Engkai was very close that day.
The next morning the rituals began. That night we had hardly slept, because we were so excited. First the warriors formed a long line. Everyone was dressed in his best outfit and carried all his weapons. Everywhere I saw warriors with headdresses made from lion’s manes or ostrich feathers and for the first time, I saw men who had painted their faces half red and half white. Those are the ones that have killed a human enemy.
We began to dance, hundreds, thousands of warriors at the same time. We formed battle formations and executed mock skirmishes. We were one, we sang with one voice and the sound rose up to the sky. Some warriors got into a trance. They shook and shivered, they screamed, they fell to the ground and foam came out of their mouths. Two of our group were touched by god in that way, we had to hold them down so they would not hurt themselves.
They brought a big black ox. There wasn’t a single spot on its skin. It was drunk on the honeybeer they had been giving it and it staggered around. Green leaves had been woven around its horns and it smelled of the sweet herbs they had been feeding it. The warriors grabbed the animal by the horns, wrestled it to the ground and wrapped a leather skin around its muzzle. It was slowly choked to death. It has to be done that way to keep the sacred breath inside it. The blood was tapped from its veins and collected in a flap of skin that had been cut loose. One by one we had to kneel and take a sip of the blood, that the priests had mixed with milk and special herbs. That way we sealed the unison of our age group. We had all drunk the blood of the same holy ox, we belonged together and it would stay that way until we died.
While the old men carefully began to skin the ox, the warriors left for the forest. There, at a special place the priests showed us, we hacked out lumps of white clay and softened it with the water streaming at our feet. We painted eachother with it, our arms, our legs, our faces. We no longer felt like individuals but like something different, something bigger and more important, we had forgotten who we were, everyone sang, danced and embraced eachother, we were one, the bravest generation of Maasai warriors that had ever existed.
Then we returned to the holy village. The girls were waiting for us there, they formed long lines and danced with us. They sang us songs, some in which they insulted us and said we wanted to stop being warriors because we had become old and cowardly, but in other songs they praised us because we were finally ready to start a home and a family.
When the dance was finished we filed past the priests who blessed us by spitting milk on our heads. Then it was time to eat meat and drink honey beer. We went on until we were so tired we fell asleep in the high grass and only the old men and the priests stayed awake.
On the second day they brought the skin of the holy ox that had been slaughtered the day before. The old men cut it into long strips, and the strips into short bits. A priest tied the short strips of leather around the ring finger of each of us. That is how we all got our rings of cowskin. The uncut hide symbolises the whole generation of warriors, which is undivided. The ring around the finger of each warrior means he is now an individual and must go his own way, but will always remain a part of his age group.
Yes, our Eunoto was a beautiful time. Only the third day was difficult. It was the day our mothers came to cut off our long dreadlocks. We had to sit down and the mothers stood behind us with razorblades. When I felt the razor on my head, I knew my life as a warrior was really over. My long locks, which were heavy with ochre and grease, fell to the ground. With each fallen lock I became a little less of a warrior. Now my youth was finally gone.
When everyone was shaven, the women came to grease our bald heads with cowfat and paint them red. Then the priests prayed with us and asked god that we should become responsible tribal elders with many children and lots of cattle.
At the end of that day everything was different. We were no longer warriors. I felt sad and lost. I think we all felt that way. Our thoughts went to the future and the life ahead of us. We would have to make a life of our own, find a wife, start a herd, build a house, we were going to have children.
The priests and the tribal elders spoke to us earnestly, they told us stories and gave us advice about the future. In the meantime, the women were packing up and saddling their donkeys. We said goodbye to our friends, some we had known for years and others we had just met. We were blessed for the final time by the priests. Then we took our things and left the holy village, some alone, some in small groups. Everyone was silent, different, changed for ever. Behind us the ceremonial huts were torched, for that is our tradition. The sky was full of fire and smoke. It was not only those huts that went up in flames, but my youth and my years as a warrior too.
THE LION HUNT
( from: Secrets of the Maasai by Ton van der Lee)
(the author and his travelling companion Senteu are sitting by a small stream with Toya and Meromo, two Maasai herdsmen they have made friends with)
We sit down on the trunk of a fallen tree by the bank of a small stream. Toya gathers some dead wood and starts a fire. Meromo plants his spear in the ground and vanishes into the forest. He has promised to cut me a rungu, the cattle stick that all Maasai herdsmen use.
Toya calls something out to him in Maasai.
‘When he gets back you should ask Meromo about the day of his lion hunt,’ he says to us with a wink.
‘He asked him why he did not bring his spear with him,’ Senteu translates for me. ‘In case he meets a lion.’
A few minutes later, Meromo reappears with a sturdy branch.
When we are settled around the fire and Meromo is carefully peeling the bark off the stick I ask him whether he saw any lions in the forest.
His face lights up.
‘Not today. But if I did meet one, I would know what to do,’ he says in an offhand manner.
‘How do you mean?’ Toya asks.
Meromo does not seem to notice his teasing tone of voice.
‘It was in my days as a warrior,’ Meromo begins. ‘Someone had spotted a lion and we had decide to track and kill it. I had been chosen to round up all the warriors at daybreak in their bush camps because I was the fastest runner.’
Toya winks at us but Meromo does not seem to notice.
‘I had tied an iron bell to my thigh to wake everyone up. That is our tradition. While I ran from camp to camp I sang the song of the warrior who is afraid of nothing.’
Meromo gets up and takes a deep breath. His eyes are glowing.
‘Bird of prey, friend that flies high
Meet me at the battlefield
In the land where the lion lives
For there you will find much food
If I will not be killed there
I will kill. You will feed
On my body or that of my enemy.
Meromo sits down again.
‘The warriors came together. Everyone was fully armed with spears, swords and shields. Otherwise we were naked for a Maasai warrior knows no fear. Our skin shone with grease and red ochre, our hair was long and our knives glittered in the morning sun. There were about twenty of us, all young, strong and healthy. That day, Black Engkai was with us.’
(The Maasai recognise two aspects of their female god Engkai. Engkai Narok, the black god, is benevolent. She is present in the black clouds and the rain that they bring. Red Engkai, Engkai Nanyokie, is the lightning which strikes and kills cattle and people. She also stands for the season of drought that brings hunger and death.)
‘We discussed where we might find the lion and then we started off in a long line. I was one of the best runners and went ahead. Soon I was alone for I ran faster than the others. I ran and ran, I never tired until I saw the lion in the high grass. I stopped and cried “Eele!”. The warriors behind me took over my cry. When we had all gathered we crept closer. The lion had already heard and smelled us, of course, but it hid among the grasses, it pressed itself against the ground. Suddenly, when we were very close, it jumped up and ran.’
‘When a lion sees Maasai warriors, it always runs,’ Toya adds. ‘Normally it will turn around and fight but it knows that it has no chance against us.’
‘The lion wanted to escape,’ Meromo continues, ‘but we were faster and formed a large circle around it. We sang the songs our fathers had taught us, the words that every lion fears, and slowly closed in on him. It was a male, a large animal with black manes. I knew what he was going to do, every warrior knows that. He will attack the man who throws the first spear. The warrior who throws the first spear must call out his name and the name of his clan. That way, everyone knows who he is and he can claim the honor of the kill. If he lives, that is, for when he has speared the lion he must step out of the circle and draw his sword. The lion will run for him and that is the moment when the other warriors attack and throw their spears. If they do not manage to kill the lion right away the first warrior must kill it with his sword. In such a fight people often die.’
‘There is another possibility,’ Toya says. ‘If a warrior is very brave he will throw away his spear, step into the circle and grab the lion by the tail. Once he has grabbed it, all warriors attack at once.’
‘Anyway, we had circled the lion,’ Meromo continues impatiently. He has gotten up again. His knife and the half-peeled stick are lying on the ground, forgotten. ‘I thought of my ancestors and of eternal fame. I thought of the girl I loved and stepped forward while I called out my name and that of my clan. A few moments later the lion was dead on the ground, with twenty or more spears in its flanks and its belly.’
‘You are forgetting something,’ Toya interrupts.
Meromo continues without a reaction.
‘When we got back to the village everyone was waiting for us. The girls were wearing their best beads and dresses, the women had roasted meat and the old men arrived with gourds full of honey beer. The most beautiful girls danced with the warriors who had claimed the kill and adorned themselves with the manes and the claws of the lion. Everyone danced and sang and praised our immortal courage.’
‘So during the Eunoto ceremony you wore a lion’s mane?’, Senteu asks. ‘I was there but I never noticed that.’
Meromo suddenly sits down.
‘Meromo did not wear any headddress at his Eunoto,’ Toya says with a laugh.
During the Eunoto, a ceremony which marks the transition of a warrior to young elderhood, every warrior wears the symbol of his courage. Some have a headdress that is made from the manes of a lion. They are those (rare) warriors who threw the first spear and managed to kill the lion. Some wear a lion’s claw on their belt; it is awarded to the man who threw the second spear during the hunt.
At the Eunoto, there are more warriors who wear the signs of the ostrich or the buffalo, which are easier to kill. Other animals are not considered dangerous enough by the Maasai to be a trophy. Then there are those who have painted their faces half white and half red, a horrendous mask that signifies they have killed a human enemy.
‘I stumbled,’ Meromo says sadly. ‘I called out my name and stepped forward to throw the first spear but I fell.’
He picks up the branch again and starts whittling away furiously. ‘He did try to catch an ostrich later’, Toya says with a grin, ‘but however fast he ran, the ostrich always ran faster.’
He throws some wood on the fire.
‘It does not matter. I haven’t even been on a lion hunt at all. Most warriors don’t get the chance nowadays. There are so few of them left.’
The number of lions in Kenya is declining steadily. According to the latest count there are only two thousand of them left, whereas there were still more than ten thousand in the nineties. One of the reasons is their shrinking habitat: farmers need more and more land for agriculture, so the lions move to the parks. But there, they are often caught and killed in traps that poachers have set for larger animals like elephants and rhinos. Also, a lot of lion cubs are smuggled to the west via the ports of Somalia. The poachers pull out the teeth and nails of the little animals to make it easier for the buyers to keep them as pets. Then there are the farmers whose cattle is eaten by lions. In revenge they often kill a sheep or a goat, poison the carcass and leave the lions who eat it to a slow and painful death.
Toya puts his hand on Meromo’s shoulder.
‘At least our man here has been on a real lion hunt. He is the only one in our village. We do like to tease him a bit, but we are also very proud of him.’