Wilson beckons me from behind the truck and nervously looks around to see if anyone else is watching. Once he’s sure we’re alone, he unwraps his bright red blanket and pulls out a 10cm-long lion’s tooth on the end of a leather necklace. A smile suddenly breaks out on his youthful face and, while overcoming the language barrier is a problem, it’s obvious to see how proud he is to be wearing his prize.

Although he’s the son of a Maasai chief, and lives a life a chief’s son can expect, Wilson hasn’t received any preferential treatment when it comes to village traditions. Maasai villagers, both male and female, have undergone these rites of passage for centuries, but it’s a reality of life that these ways are being threatened by the encroachments of modern society.

Where Maasai boys were once required to hunt and kill a lion before they could return to the village as a man, they now go out as groups of 10 with the boy who spears the lion first receiving all of the plaudits. Wilson, now 20, was one such boy four years ago and wears the mark of a man around his neck. Back at his mud house, he also dons a fur hat made of the same lion’s mane.

Although the smaller number of lions roaming the plains on the Masai Mara is threatening this journey from boyhood to manhood, so too are societal pressures that frown upon such activities in a modern and environmentally conscious world.

Large areas of land are now sliced up as conservation areas where Maasai people are forbidden to live – such as the Masai Mara or Serengeti National Park. While this is viewed as a positive outcome for tourists who flock in their thousands to see the wild animals, it has resulted in a period of displacement for the Maasai, who have been forced to try to forge out a new existence away from their traditional. A hunting and gathering society, they’re also forbidden from killing animals, including lions, inside the game reserves.

Rules and tradition

Maasai villagers are governed by a highly traditional set of rules that has served them for centuries. A child isn’t named until they are one year old, at which time the entire village decides on an appropriate name. When their child turns 6, parents then decide whether they want them to attend school or not, and the unlucky ones who don’t receive an education wear the mark of large, heavy earrings that cause their earlobes to sag. At 12, both boys and girls are circumcised in the traditional way before boys are sent from the village to raise livestock before they can return to the village at 22 – once they’ve slain a lion – to marry. Girls reach marrying age earlier at 16.

As the story goes, the eligible male who jumps the highest, a ritual Maasai warriors are famed for, receives preferential treatment and isn’t required to pay a large dowry, usually about 10 cows. Furthermore, depending on personal wealth, a Maasai man can take as many wives as he likes, sometimes up to six or seven.

That is the theory, anyway. Depending on who you talk to, Maasai are said to have lapsed somewhat in observing these traditions. When recounting my encounter with Wilson earlier in the day, it was met with something of a guffaw by a local but well educated guide, Mwongi. Rather than be impressed by how high a man can jump – and it is truly impressive – a tribeswoman is more interested in the size of a man’s wallet, he says.

Instead of leaving the village to hunt a lion, Mwongi tells me that boys instead leave home to line their pockets. Some find good jobs, perhaps working on a farm or in a market somewhere in Kenya or Tanzania, while others take to the streets and dress in the traditional black with white painted face and a white feather – the mark of a boy who has been circumcised.
They then attempt to attract wealthy tourists by posing for photos. It’s a fascinating, yet quite sad sight to see a once-proud race basically reduced to begging.

Others seek financial gain by trying to sell traditional wares or by performing a traditional ‘cultural’ dance. For some observers, this is a spectacular exchange that can be a highlight of their trip, for others it can come across as disingenuous. It needs to be remembered, however, that these approaches are ways the Maasai have adapted to life in the 21st century as they’ve had to come to terms with 100 years of displacement.

It’s indisputable that the Maasai culture, like that of other peoples, will need to adapt if they are to continue to exist as a colourful component of African life – as colourful, in fact, as their bright clothing and vibrant traditions. And they have tried as best they can.

As Wilson told me, and as tradition told him before that, killing a lion is supposed to bring good luck. He nods in the affirmative when I ask him if he has experienced good luck, but something tells me that this might have had more to do with the fact he’s the son of a Maasai chief than the bearer of a lion’s tooth.