MAASAI DAYS by Cheryl Bentsen


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There are a few tribes left, scattered here and there, trying to resist, probably hopelessly, absorption into modern homogeneity. The Maasai of Kenya are one such group, and journalist Bentsen's book is a cleareyed but sympathetic account of their dilemma. Before accompanying her husband to Kenya in 1980 on assignment, Bentsen had read the tributes by such writers as Karen Blixen to the Maasai--feared by other tribes as warriors, admired by colonials for their courageous independence. A chance encounter on her first weekend with a group of Maasai men walking nonchalantly through a lion-infested game-park intrigued Bentsen so much that soon she was driving out into the Maasai lands to see more of this distinctive people. She befriended two young Maasai schoolboys and their families, and it is the story of their lives over the following years that gives an underlying narrative structure to her study. A nomadic people, monotheistic, with cattle central to their culture, the Maasai are being threatened by land shortage. Speculators and corrupt politicians are acquiring more and more of the ancient Maasai lands to satisfy Kenyans' burgeoning land-hunger. To lose their lands would be to lose their identity, and few Maasai have moved to the cities or sought higher education. This stubborn attachment to the old ways, Bentsen demonstrates in interviews with non-Maasai, is thought to be backward, and ultimately futile. In the meantime, the Maasai honor the old initiation rites, including male and female circumcision, and the herding of their cattle in the dry lands of the Rift Valley, where the herders have to contend with lions, leopards, and cattle thieves. In this immensely readable and informative book, Bentsen gives us a sympathetic and balanced account of a group once described by Evelyn Waugh as ""an intelligent people who have deliberately chosen to retain their own way of life."" But, Bentsen makes forcefully clear, that choice may not be theirs much longer.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1989
Publisher: Summit/Simon & Schuster