OLTEPESI: A Maasai Village Revisited
In 1970, I volunteered to work for the World Health Organization’s smallpox immunization program in Maasailand. I was assigned to work at a Maasai village located about 30 miles southwest Kajiado Kenya. We went with many vials of smallpox vaccine by landrover to Oltespesi, a manyatta, or Maasai village. To get there we headed west towards Mile 46, a small village and just prior to reaching the village we turned south in the direction of Tanzania. We traveled on tracks, not roads. Where we started, how we got there, and where we ended up were truly ephemeral. I would find out just how ephemeral because 40 years later I would try to get to Oltepesi once again.
Vaccinating against smallpox at Oltepesi 1970
The Kajiado Distrist Health Officer brought us to the work site by landrover. The WHO provided us with vials and needle kits, a tent and one week of provisions. Altogether we were six American Peace Corps teachers who had agreed to work on the project during the spring trimester break of April 1970.
We had many visitors during those two weeks who were interested in who we were rather than why we were there. The warriors were the boldest of those interested. They would just hang around the tents and stare. Two female members of our team, Mary Lung’aho and Cathy Ford, didn’t seem to be surprised or bothered by the fact that the warriors couldn’t keep their hands out of their hair. Endlessly they’d run their fingers through it, sometimes hold it in handfuls to feel the texture and examine it. These same, curious and bold warriors, were reluctant to be vaccinated. When one of them finally agreed, he jumped a few times away from me and I lost my grip on this arm. Finally, I held on tightly while he winced and turned his eyes away from me as I used the small forked needle to introduce the vaccine into his skin with a series of small pokes to break through the epidermis. His name was Onyako. He was 6 feet 4 inches tall. He was a Maasai warrior and he had killed a lion. He had a non-androgenized, handsome face and a gentle smile. After the vaccination experience we became friends. He taught me how to throw a Maasai spear called an “mbere.” One night he took me on a hunt for a lost cow. He and the other warriors were worried a lion might have taken the cow so we went on a search armed with spears and a small sword called a “simi.” I had my spear, like everyone else. However, about 20 minutes into the search a young warrior who didn’t have a spear asked to use mine and gave me his simi. I felt almost naked with that tiny weapon in my hand knowing that if I ever needed it, I would be facing a feasting lion who didn’t want to be disturbed. It was an intensely anxiety providing experience to walk through the bush that night. After another 10 minutes, I was relieved when a warrior came running up to us and announced that the cow was safe and had returned on her own to the manyatta. I was more than delighted to return to my tent. That night I’m sure I dreamed of sleeping in the comfort and safety of my home in Santa Barabara, located in Rattlesnake Canyon on a small farm in the hills above the mission.
Over the two or three weeks we were at Oltepesi, we got used to the daily lives of the people there. It was a simple life. At dawn the manyatta would open and the cows were brought to pasture. By sunset they would return. Everything else lacked the drama and importance of the opening and closing events. Meals were simple. Some curdled, sour milk flavored in a distinct, charcoal “washed” gourd was the major source of food. I never saw the Maasai eat anything else except when a sheep was slaughtered, but I’ll get to that. The favorite pastime of the older Maasai was “bao,” a board game that used rocks and dice. Years later I would see the same game at Toys R‘Us in San Francisco. It became a unique Christmas gift in the United States and was called “Mankala.” However, Manakala is a child’s game. Bao is a man’s game and it’s played for money, big money. The Maasai used sticks to represent their money like poker players use chips. I was surprised to see a Maasai elder cash in those sticks. I saw rolls of 100 shilling bills that were three and four inches thick. At the time, a dollar was worth 7 shillings and my salary was 700 shillings per month. Any of the Maasai elders playing Bao had more money tucked away in his money pouch that I would make in four years as a volunteer.
Maasai Elders around the bao game. Notice the sticks. That's Chief Jonathan Maora in the white shirt on the right.
The children of the manyatta spent a lot of time hanging about our tent. They watched as we vaccinated the hundreds of women and children who had walked up to 40 miles for the vaccine. We had some photos of infected children to scare them. In Swahili, smallpox is called “ndui.” It’s close to the word for enemy or “adui.” It was easy to get the two words mixed up and it seemed like the mix up worked pretty well to motivate people to get vaccinated. One little girl was called Ndia. She was hard to forget. She was somewhere between 11 and 12 years old. She was very pretty and used to just hang about like the other children. She asked lots of questions about where I came from and what it was like in my country. One day she surprised me and asked me if I could marry her and take her with me. I told her that was impossible. She was too young. “When I get older?” she asked. I said, “It must be expensive to pay for a Maasai wife!” “Maybe if you give my father some sugar as a promise!” “Ill talk to him,” I said. Of course, I never did. I never met her father.
After only one week, our provisions ran out and our vaccination supplies were running low. Also during the first week, Cathy Ford, who was pregnant started having pre-mature contractions and needed to be evacuated. Her husband, Peter, would accompany her. With the absence of provisions and diminishing medical supplies the other volunteers also opted to leave. Getting to Kajiado wasn’t easy because we only saw one or two vehicles pass by since our arrival, so someone walked to Mile 46, found a vehicle and everyone made it back to Kajiado. They informed the health officer of the situation and returned to their teaching assignments. I stayed at Oltepesi by myself. The experience had transfixed me. I fantasized of staying forever.
It was during that period, when supplies were low that I tinkered with the idea of hunting my own food. I had Onyako’s spear and he showed me how to use it. What else need be done? So I struck out one day on a mini-adventure looking for prey. I walked into the bush. There was plenty of game around, I just had to get close enough. I practiced creeping in a crouched position, moving quite slowly so to not alarm my intended victims. However, I had no luck. I followed a couple of ostriches around, in particular. I never got closer than 50 yards or so. If I took a mini-step, the ostriches would take a much bigger step. At one point, I stood up and they were 50 more yards separated before I could blink my eyes. I failed and I was quite hungry. On the way back to the manyatta, I saw the chief’s son, Benjamin Maora. Like Onyako, he was very tall, about 6 foot 5 inches. He asked me why I was walking outside the manyatta area with a spear. I told him my story. He laughed quite heartily. “Good thing you never got close to one of those ostriches. He could have killed you with one kick. Let me see what I can do.” Benjamin went into his father’s hut and came out with his 12 gauge shotgun. That I never expected. Guns were illegal in Kenya but the Maasai lived among wild animals and were able to get permission. “It’s supposed to be for protection,” said Benjamin as he led me on a walk. We found some guinea fowl. He pointed, took his shot and I had a meal. That night I ate guinea fowl and I still remember it as one of the great meals of my life. Hunger will do that.
I had another interesting experience with Benjamin. One day after provisions arrived, he asked to go for a walk with me. He also asked if I would bring a can of tuna, which he referred to as fish. I realized he had been watching what I eat. “Of course,” I said. So we walked and we walked. Benjamin kept saying we should walk a little further if I slowed down. After we had walked a good mile into the bush he asked me to open the can. “I have never tasted fish,” he said. “I don’t want any warrioe to see me. We only eat meat (referring to cows, goats, sheep and chicken).” “No problem,” I replied. I opened the can and gave him a taste. His mouth puckered up and he spit it out. “I don’t like it,” he said.
A few days later, we were approaching the end of our project. The district medical officer sent word that he was sending a landrover to pick us up. I would soon be leaving Oltepesi. “My father wants to thank you for you work,” said Benjamin. I noticed Onyako was pulling a sheep towards me.
“Let’s go,” said Onyako.
“Where?” I asked.
“To prepare your celebration meal.” So, I followed Onyako and the sheep to a small clearing about 50 yards outside the manyatta. Onyako reached over the sheep, grabbed all four legs in his two hands, and pulled. The sheep was on his back. “Grab his mouth,” he said.
“What?” I asked.
“And put your hand over his nose, too. Hold tightly.” There I was, suddenly, smothering my dinner celebration. Onyako held the legs to prevent the sheep from kicking us. I held on for what seemed an eternity. I just wanted the whole thing to be over. Onyako sensed my anxiety.
“Can I let go?” I asked.
“A little longer,” replied Onyako. A little while longer passed.
“Don’t you think he’s dead by now?” I asked.
“He should be. Let go of his mouth.” I released my grip and the sheep took a huge breath and kicked. Onyako grabbed the legs tightly again and put his weight on him.
“Grab the mouth and hold on.” I did. For at least another 5 minutes or more. It seemed forever. As the end of the time approached, another warrior took out his simi and opened the sheep from his neck to the pubic bone. He peeled back the skin and cut the large blood vessels in the neck. Blood began to pool between the skin and the muscle. Then he reached into the belly with one hand and a knife in the other. He was searching for something. He found it and cut. He then withdrew a small one inch diameter round piece of pink meat. Later I was told it was a kidney. He pushed it into my mouth. “Chew,” and he smiled.
“It is an honor,” said Onyako. I did but everything inside me said, “don’t do it.” There was a physical revolution going on and I didn’t feel like I had control over it. Then the generous warrior who gave me the kidney took a cup, filled it with blood in the pouch created when he pulled the skin of the sheep off the muscle. He put that to my lips and said, “drink.” Once again, I did. However the erupting revolution in side my body was ready to spew itself over everything in sight. I was in a panic state.
One of my few photos of young Onyako. He's the tall one on the left. The warrior in the middle who can't keep his hands out of Mary Lung'aho's hair is the same warrior who fed my raw kidney and fresh blood. I thanked him with a wrestling match.
I never forgot my few weeks with the Maasai of Oltepesi. In fact, it was a seminal moment of my life. Not only did I have the invigorating and inspiring experience of living with the Maasai and making some friends, it was the moment that led to my decision to leave teaching (which I had only been doing for 3 months) and study medicine. That wouldn’t happen for 5 years, but it was a path I knew I should follow.
I took many photos during my stay at Oltepesi and I had the hope that someday I would be able to return there to show the photos. I just didn’t know that I wouldn’t get a chance for 40 years and it was almost to a day that I found the village.
It wasn’t easy because Kajiado isn’t just a District Commissioner’s office anymore. Besides I didn’t remember any of the names of the people I mentioned earlier in the story, except for the young girl, whom I remembered as “Dia.” People would ask me: “Who is she?” I would tell them. “She’s Dia. I tried to buy her one day with a bag of sugar.” Of course, that is a total fiction and I just said it to throw a little spice into the story.
When we went to Kajiado on the kickabout venture in search of Oltepesi I asked many peoplel about the roads that lead from Kajiado and to where they go. It was clear that there was no longer a road that went to the village where I once worked. I was disappointed. It looked like we wouldn’t be able to find my old friends. However, we got lucky. I heard that there was a Somali tea shop owner who knew everything and everyone. I gave him the description of my crude recollections. “Is there a manyatta to the west where there is a chief Joseph?” I used the name “Joseph” but it was whim. I had a vague recollection of that name. However, it wasn’t the chief’s name. His name was Jonathan.
“There are many manyattas,” he said, “and I don’t know any chief named Joseph.”
“Well, I know that I went to the west, but I don’t really remember anything else.”
“The road from Kajiado goes north back to Ngong,” he said. “There is no road from Kajiado which goes west towards Mile 46.”
“Mile 46,” I asked, “what is that?”
“It’s the only village to the west.”
“That name rings a bell,” I said. “How do I get there?”
“Not from Kajiado. You have to drive on the Namanga road towards Tanzania 9 kilometers. There’s a road there.”
“Thanks.” We returned to the main road and headed south. About 9 kilometers down the road I found an unmarked road next to a cement factory. I stopped a man driving out of the factory in a lorry. “Where is Mile 46?” I asked.
“Down there.” The man pointed to a track that led west beyond the factory. I figured it was worth a chance.
The road to Mile 46 is not in good shape. Much of it was muddied with deep tracks left by lorries. We were surprised to find evidence of so much activity. Indeed things had changed in forty years. There were a number of manyattas along the road and we discovered that there was a mine about 25 kilometers down the road which accounted for the activity. At the mining town we found two guys on a motorcycle. “Do you know where Mile 46 is?” I asked.
“Follow us. That’s where we’re going.” So we did. I continued to feel uncomfortable about putting the car at risk. The road was treacherously bad and we passed many opportunities that could get us stuck in deep mud and many rocks that could ruin the underside of the vehicle. However, the general pathway was reminiscent of the original journey. I just couldn’t remember why. Then we hit an escarpment. It was a sharp drop and the road was all washed rock and no dirt. It looked like a creek bed as it probably is during heavy rains. It was an uneven, bumpy and anxiety provoking trip down the escarpment and I wasn’t getting any more certain that I had made the right decision. Then about one km later, after we had hit flatter ground, i saw a track going to the left. I stopped the car and the guys on the motorcycle stopped too and came to the car window. “Mile 46 is ahead,” he said.
“Yes, I know, but I think I’m supposed to turn south at this point. It seems like the area where I used to work.”
So we parted and our new friend, Raphael, said, "Don't worry. If you don't find them come to Mile 46 and spend the night with me." I love Africa.
So we parted and our new friend, Raphael, said, "Don't worry. If you don't find them come to Mile 46 and spend the night with me." I love Africa.
So, Maria and I turned south down a muddy track that was poorly defined with areas denuded of normal track marks by recent rains and other areas where the road no longer existed because water flow down adjacent water paths had created small gullies that took sections of the road with it. About 10 km down these tracks we finally found a small village. I entered with the vehicle and parked. People gathered quickly and I began to ask questions.
“What is the name of the village?”
“Oltepesi,” multiple people responded. I didn’t recall that this was the name of the manyatta.
“Who is the chief?” I asked.
“Chief Joseph,” was the response. “Chief Joseph!” I felt jubilant. I had remembered his name.
“He must be very old. Is he still a bit fat?” I asked.
“No. The chief is very young and thin. You might be talking about about his father, Chief Jonathan? He died recently. He was very old and very fat.” That was an interesting coincidence. I remembered the name of a chief who wasn’t even born at the time of my visit. It was just a crazy guess. I was starting to think it was all too vague a memory and maybe this wasn’t a good idea.
“Is Chief Joseph tall, thin and very black?” I asked, giving them the description of Benjamin Maora, the chief’s son who killed the guinea fowl.
“No. Joseph is not tall. He’s pretty black though, but he does have an older brother named Benjamin. He’s very tall and very black. He’s the old chief’s first son.” Elation. This was a description that fit my memory. I opened up my powerbook and began to show photos from the past. The bright light made it difficult to see but when a few of the villages saw the picture of the chief’s son they stopped me.
“That’s him,” they said. They were laughing because it was a picture of Benjamin 40 years ago. “Now he’s an old man. He has a big family.”
“What about her?” I asked pointing to the girl I called “Dia.” Many of the villages looked and looked. They had no idea. Either something happened to her or her childhood photo bore no resemblance. “Where is Benjamin?” I asked.
“He lives about 15 km towards Toroset,” and the man pointed to the south.
“How will I find him?” At that question a man with severe fluorosis stepped forward and spoke in English. The fluorosis told me he was Kikuyu or Kamba because those tribes live in regions of excessive environmental flouride. Later he confirmed that he came from Machakos, the largest city in Kamba country.
“I’ll help you,” he stated. “I’m the local pastor.” At that he asked for his assistant to bring his motorcycle. The pastor and his assistant hopped on the bike and headed out. We followed. The pastor led us right to Benjamin’s Maora home. He couldn’t stay though and had to return to Oltepesi. There was a marriage ceremony about to happen.
Benjamin Maora is 63 years old and the first son of Jonathan Maora. He’s now married, has many sons, daughters and grandchildren. His wife’s first name is Agnes. His first son is Martin. He no longer lives inside a Maasai manyatta and has built himself a western style house, though there is no electricity. He has a car, too. I’m not too surprised at either developments. Benjamin, as the chief’s son, broke tradition as a youth. He didn’t have his ears cut nor did he live the traditional path of the warriors. Instead he was one of the first Maasai of the area of be educated. The family was quite wealthy because they owned a lot of cattle and had access to limitless amounts of pasture land. His pockets, like those elders I used to watch play Bao, are surely full of shillings. When I met him, he didn’t remember me. Forty years is a long time. Our relationship was short-lived and we never again talked. Besides back then I had a beard and, in addition to that, one white man looks like most white men to black Africans, especially those who rarely see white faces. I reminded him that he shot a guinea fowl for me when we ran out of food. He didn’t remember that, but when I reminded him about eating tuna fish from a can he remembered. “I still don’t eat fish,” laughed Benjamin. When I showed Benjamin the photos his face lit up. Everything came back. “I have that one,” he said pointing to a picture of himself when he was a young man with his friends. I forgot that I mailed him a copy. I must have sent it in the 70s while I still lived in Kenya. There were more than a few pictures of his father, too. “The old man died last December,” he said. The term old man, or mzee, is a sign of respect.
Me and Benjamin Maora
“I’m sorry to hear that. I wish I could have seen him one more time. What about this girl?” pointing to “Dia.” He looked and he looked. There was no strong recollection. He said finally that he thought she was a girl from Magadi and gave me a totally different name.
“I’m not sure. She may have died.”
“And what about him,” pointing to my friend who gave me a spear, taught me how to use it, and slaughtered a sheep with me.
Benjamin Maora (center in white), his wife, Agnes, to the right of Maria, with family and a few friends just before we departed
“Tonight, you can stay at the Kudu lodge,” said Benjamin. “It’s just at the top of the escarpment.” I remembered seeing it as we drove down the rocky road that looked more like a creek bed. Benjamin asked his first son, Martin, to show us to Onyako’s house. Martin is, like his father, very tall. I couldn’t help but remark to Benjamin when he told me his age, his son’s name and introduced me to his wife, that I was the same age, my first son is called Martin (Kimtai), and my wife and mother of Kimtai was also called Agnes. The coincidence brought a smile to Benjamin and Agnes. Martin squeezed into Kiharambee!. Maria had to sit in the middle on top of the lock box. As we were about to leave, Benjamin gave me a rungu, a traditional Maasai fighting club. It's a very nice one and I accepted it with much humility. I thanked him and we left for Onyako’s manyatta.
Onyako and me (holding a rungu given to me by Benjamin Maora)
“Onyako, I’m Tom Simpson. A long time ago you gave me your spear. I came to Oltepesi to vaccinate for smallpox. Do you remember me?”
“I don’t think I do.”
We walked together towards the manyatta. As we walked I tried to help Onyako remember.
“There were many of us. We stayed in a tent outside the manyatta.”
“I remember that.”
When we got to the car I pulled out the powerbook and began to show Onyako my photos. I showed him pictures of myself. Then I showed him pictures of himself and his friends. He began to remember. I showed him a picture of “Dia.”
“That’s Ndia,” correcting me. “I remember her.”
“Where was she from?”
“From here. From Oltepesi.”
“What happened to her?
“In 1976 she died in childbirth.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
Onyako’s wife came to introduce herself. They introduced all the children who were there as well as the grandchildren. There were many. Onyako’s manyatta was big, with many huts.
“I used to have many cattle. Almost all of them died in the drought. Only 8 survived. We have a lot of goats now.”
When I told him that my experience at Oltepesi inspired me to go into medicine, he told me he had a serious medical problem with his stomach. It was so bad he had to have surgery. Martin, Benjamin’s son, said that Onyako was told he had ulcers. We talked a while about that. He said he still had pain once in a while. I gave him some anti-acid pills and told him to try one if he has stomach pain. If it worked, then maybe he still needs treatment. I wrote the name of the medicine down and all my contact information. I told him he could write me anytime and I would help.
It was getting dark and I asked him if we could take a few photos. He agreed.
He asked if we could stay for tea, but it was too late. The sun had set and I didn’t like driving at night, especially in the bush, and especially in muddy roads. Our experience in Marasabit, which I wrote about in a blog called “Do I Miss TV?” had a residual impact that I won’t ever forget.
We left Onyako’s manyatta and went to the Kudu lodge for the night. It wasn’t much of a lodge. The Maasai had created it as a community project to raise money for the community. It was a moonless night and there were no lights except for the car. It took a while for someone to appear. That person showed us a cabin that was a little bit bigger than the bed inside and was quite hot. We opted to stay in our tent that night, which was a lot cooler, and a good deal more comfortable.
Our Campsite at Kudu Lodge
The next morning a man from Oltepesi showed up. He was the brother of Onyako’s wife. I told him that I thought I recognized him from a photo when he was a child. He was one of the children who used to hang around the tent. I showed him the photos and we found a photo of him when he was 7 years old. Now he was a grandfather, with multiple children and a few grandchildren at the age of 47. He had been educated through high school and all his children went to school through high school as well. He recognized the photo of Ndia, too, and confirmed Onyako’s story about her death in childbirth. We exchanged contact information and made promises to stay in touch.
The brother-in-law of Onyako as a 7 year old boy with the rungu (club) just behind the sufuria (cooking pot).
Onyako's brother-in-law at Kudu Lodge at 47 years old. He came to visit me the day after I visited Onyako's manyatta
Something magical happened to me during my brief stay in Oltepesi in 1970 that affected me for the remainder of my life. Professionally, the experience seeded the thought of entering medicine. On a personal level, the impact was deep and profound. It was not unlike meeting my future wife, whom I would meet 7 months later, who brought me many steps closer to the world of African tribal life and introduced different ways of thinking that I found fresh, invigorating and timeless. The impact on me could never be understood by the Maasai I met because my visit was so brief and I am one of many white people who have come and gone over the years. They see us with a sameness that could never represent who we are, and they rarely see us again. We usually come with some well intentioned plan or purpose and I know that what we do, as individuals, is appreciated by them. However, I benefited, too from the visit, and I wanted them to know that. My visit was a way of showing that appreciation. I think Benjamin and Onyako understood that message even though my moments with them were so brief.
I’m sure that some of those we help may even understand that the impact of a visit can be substantial. I didn’t realize, myself, how significant my visit was in terms of the smallpox vaccination project. The WHO’s plan to eradicate smallpox was in its final stages those days but I was not aware of that. The last cases of smallpox were in East Africa and the very last case occurred 7 years later only a few hundred kilometers from Oltepesi. I had just entered medical school at the University of California, San Francisco. The news wasn’t announced until a few more years had passed and the WHO was confident there would be no more cases. The announcement stirred old memories and brought a sense of personal pride to my participation in the program. It also reminded me why volunteer projects, no matter how small, can add up to have a significant impact.