/ 11 May 2004

The ghost that haunts the Maasai

‘Since Julie was killed, no one has come to ask us how we feel about it. You are the first, thank you. This terrible thing happened here, in our land. But no one cares how we feel. This thing is like a heavy stone inside me; it is hurting us very much …”

These are the words of Sairowuai, Maasai chief of Empwuai enkang (village), a few kilometres from where British tourist Julie Ward’s mutilated, charred remains were found on September 13 1988, deep inside Kenya’s Masai Mara game reserve.

The news of the murder of the adventurous 28-year-old blonde in one of the world’s most famous animal parks reverberated around the world. To this day, the incident has an effect on tourism in Kenya: the year before the killing two million people visited the reserve; now it attracts a mere 200 000 tourists yearly.

And while Ward’s father, John, fights a lonely battle — now 16 years in the running — to expose his daughter’s killer, little attention is paid to the effect that the murder continues to have on the Maasai people themselves.

“Since this incident, all the tourists talk about is Julie. They look at us with suspicion, as if we are devils. They think we are responsible [for the killing],” said Mike Lesinko, a young Maasai moran (warrior) who described himself as chief Sairowuai’s “helping-hand man”.

“Before this murder, many wazungu [white people] used to come here. We made money; we bought plenty of cattle, because the tourists would pay to see our villages and to watch us dance. Now — nothing. It is bad,” reflected Olepanwanik, the chief of an as-yet unnamed village on Kenya’s border with Tanzania.

At first the Kenyan authorities insisted a desperate, fearful Ward had committed suicide after her vehicle became stuck in an isolated gully. Then they said she’d been attacked by wild animals and her remains struck by lightning. A later inquest did record a finding of “unlawful death” … but despite this — and two further criminal trials — the killer or killers have yet to be identified.

And like John Ward, the Maasai desire closure.

“Julie’s ghost is walking here, among us, bringing bad fortune to us Maasai people. Our cattle, they get sick and the grazing is bad. It is because of the bad luck brought to this place by the murder of the English girl,” Sairowuai told the Mail & Guardian.

“We want the murderers to be found and punished, so that Julie’s ghost will stop its walk here. Then things will improve for the Maasai.”

The chiefs, who live near the Sand river, where Wards’s remains were found, are contrasting characters: Olepanwanik appears evasive and suspicious — initially denying that anyone had ever been killed in the Masai Mara and declining to be photographed — whereas Sairowuai is frank and warm.

But both speak of being “tired” of the speculation surrounding the Ward murder. This has always included the possibility that Maasai tribesmen brutally raped and stabbed the tourist to death, before dismembering her body and setting it on fire.

Ward had been in the reserve to photograph the annual migration of 1,5-million wildebeest from the dry plains of the Serengeti into the rich, grazing lands of the Masai Mara.

Only the Serengeti in neighbouring Tanzania rivals the Kenyan reserve in terms of game viewing: the Big Five and numerous species of antelope roam undulating grasslands, nurtured by the stained waters of the crocodile-infested Mara river. Part of the reserve’s attraction is its remoteness; it is harsh, sparsely populated terrain where movement — even in sturdy 4x4s — is challenging. But it’s also the heart of Maasailand, home to the often astonishingly tall and slender Maasai who dress in striking red cloth (“to scare the simba, the lion”, said Lesinko), brilliant metal jewellery and beads of a rainbow hue.

The Maasai are famous for their haughty regard of themselves as infinitely superior to all other peoples. And to them, cattle are everything: a man is measured in terms of the amount of beasts he owns; he may marry only if he owns a significant amount of cattle; only through the exchange of animals can the Maasai clans be perpetuated.

“A man with no cattle is not a man. We Maasai, we believe that God put all the cattle on this earth for us,” said Nixon ole Merku, another moran.

For these proud people, the thought that those responsible for Ward’s murder once lived — or are indeed still living — among them, is anathema.

“Even if it is one of us who did this killing … we must know … so that the pain can end. We Maasai do not like to kill others, it is a sin in the eyes of God …” said Noretet Rairi, an elderly Maasai woman hard at work smearing fresh dung on the walls of a cattle kraal.

Some, like Titinai Tira, vividly recalled the day that Ward’s murder was discovered. “… there were many policemen. But no one asked us anything.

“But we do not remember that girl, because all white people, they look the same. Except that the white girls, they have long hair, and the white men, they have short hair.”

Sairowuai, too, remembered: “On that day, I was a young man down by the river with my cattle. My friend came to tell me a very bad thing, that they had found the girl that was missing — in pieces, dead … I was so sad. I knew it meant the big trouble for my people.”

After this news, said Sairowuai, all the chiefs and elders “came together and discussed it, for the long time. Then the chiefs went back to the villages and questioned all the men. Everyone denied they had harmed this girl. We still believe it was not a Maasai who killed Julie.”

The Maasai remain adamant that someone “from the outside” murdered the young woman. “Many people from Nairobi come here, bringing the tourists. Maybe it was one of them who did this thing,” said Mary Pesi.

Olepanwanik insisted that “Maasai are friends to the white man … Everyone speaks bad things about the Maasai, but no one knows how we help the white people. At the same time as the English girl was killed, we helped lots of whites.

“Like when we came across two white men in a car, who were stuck and had been without food for many days. We kept them safe and brought them to the village and gave them milk and food. We saved their lives!”

Both Olepanwanik and Sarowuai constantly repeated that those guilty of killing Ward should be unmasked.

But, said Sarowuai: “It is the culture of the Maasai that when a Maasai kills another person, the murderer must not be handed over to the police to be locked up; that killer must pay a certain amount of cows to the family of the murdered person, as compensation for the loss of human life. This is the way we settle things.”

But John Ward won’t settle for cattle. He wants his daughter’s killers punished … imprisoned, for a very long time.

“Yes, I understand the father’s feelings,” muttered Olepanwanik. “But if it is a Maasai who killed Julie, I would not like that person to be locked up. He must be punished, yes, but locking up in a jail is useless.”

As the killing of Ward hangs over them, the world is changing around the Maasai. Their culture is dying. All the signs are there.

Just as the wildebeest migrate in search of the greener pastures of the Mara, so too are increasing numbers of morans abandoning their cattle and grasslands in favour of jobs as askaris (security guards) in Nairobi. Those that are left no longer forge their own spears (“we buy the spear points from a factory in Nairobi,” said Ole Merku).

The Maasai staple diet is no longer the mixture of curdled milk and cow blood that shocked the first Europeans to arrive in Kenya. Now, they mainly eat ugali (maize porridge). Some have even become that which they once abhorred: farmers of food crops.

Yet a few remain defiant, resistant to change — however sweeping.

Saimone Kool grimaced as she said: “Why you talk of Julie? She is gone. But we are not.”

“No [not] yet,” whispered Lesinko.