Book ID 429
Stewart, Stanley A case of touch and go, 2000
Extract Author: STANLEY STEWART
Extract Date: 2000 Dec 10
She moves fast. He's got to run. STANLEY STEWART stays a step ahead of his Masai amour
I HAD been trekking with a couple of Masai guides across the Crater Highlands in northern Tanzania. They were fine fellows, inhabiting God's own country. Their earlobes were stretched with elaborate earrings, and their braided hair was smeared with red ochre. They carried spears and short clubs, in case we encountered any traditional enemies. They wore red togas and blankets knotted over their shoulders. Under their togas they wore nothing. Government decrees to get the Masai into pants have met with little success.
On the fifth day we arrived at a remote place known as the Horn of the Gazelle, where the only habitation was a single Masai boma, or homestead. Hot and exhausted, we fell into the shade of an acacia tree, where a Masai woman, slim and beautiful, stood watching our arrival. She wore a blue cloth and a lot of very complicated jewellery. Her shaven head shone like polished ebony.
The young woman was alone here with her ancient mother-in-law; her husband was in town, three days' walk away. While my guides set up our camp, I lingered with her in the shade. We flirted innocently, miming long conversations. We drew pictures in the sand.
We chased a straying donkey together. We shared a mango, disturbingly juicy. Her lips were like peeled grapes. She had the kind of eyes you
fall into. It helped, of course, that we could not speak to one another. Language only serves to alert the sexes to their mutual incomprehension. In its absence, passion can flourish, unfettered by reality.
Her cloth kept slipping from her shoulders, and her breasts drifted tantalisingly in and out of view. Breasts do not rate very highly on the Masai erotic scale. I struggled to treat their appearance with appropriate nonchalance.
She invited me home for lunch. Her house was a low, one-roomed construction plastered with animal dung. It appeared to have been made for dwarfs. In order to avoid putting my head through the rafters, I had to assume a sort of standing foetal position. Mercifully, the woman guided me towards a low platform, the only piece of furniture in the room. We sat down on what must have been the marital bed.
I say guided because I could hardly see a thing. Windows are one of the many modern innovations that the Masai have declined to take up. The house was pitch-dark and full of smoke. A dung fire smouldered in a central hearth and clouds of cowpat smoke eddied about us.
Almost invisible through the smoke, the young woman nudged my knees playfully. She took a long sip from a bowl, which she then handed to me. I drank eagerly, hoping to soothe my burning throat. The liquid was bitter and sticky. Then she laid her hand on my arm.
In this intimate moment I was overcome, though not by passion. I felt I was being tear-gassed. I stood up suddenly, hoping to find an air pocket, and struck my head on a rafter. I began to wonder if I was going to get out alive. Dizzy, coughing uncontrollably, my eyes streaming with tears, I bolted for the door.
Outside, I ran into mother-in-law, who hit me across the shins with her stick. In this confusing place I had no idea if this was an endearment or a warning. The young woman emerged a moment later, readjusting her robe. She was still holding the bowl from which we had been drinking. I glanced down. It was full of cow's blood.
Our liquid lunch had an immediate purgative effect. I had been suffering in recent days from recurrent bouts of diarrhoea, and now I suddenly required a private place in a great hurry. I mumbled my excuses and set off into the middle distance. I had not gone far when I noticed that the young woman was following me.
Given the close confinement of their houses, it is hardly surprising that the amorous pursuits of the Masai are often conducted al fresco. 'Going to the bushes' is a Masai euphemism for lovemaking. The young woman obviously believed I was leading her to some point of assignation. A desperate chase ensued. I headed for the bushes; she followed. I veered towards some dry stream beds; she veered in my wake. I broke into a trot; she began to run.
Language at this point would have been useful. I really didn't want to mime my condition for her. Her ardour seemed to wane somewhat after the first half mile. Eventually, and with little time to spare, I managed to shake her off.
Our cross-country race was strangely sobering. Returning to the camp, I reminded myself that the woman was married. As a guest, I had an obligation to respect tribal customs. The image of her husband, tall, dark and armed with a spear, also played its part in bringing me to my senses.
I passed a fitful night alone in my tent. In the morning, when we made our farewells, the woman stood on tiptoe and spat softly into my face: a sign of Masai affection. I felt bereft and foolish. As we strode away across the pastures towards Ol Doinyo Lengai, my guides teased me about the events of the previous day. Why, they wanted to know, did I not respond to the young woman?
I tried to explain my reservations, my respect for Masai custom. They guffawed. She is married to an old man, they said. He has other wives. It is expected that she will sleep with other men. This is part of Masai custom, they said. Now they tell me.