Maasai warrior's long walk for tradition

It is not extraordinary for Maasai warriors to walk for months as nomads across Africa in search of grazing land. But it is bizarre to see a six-foot, regal, ebony skinned warrior gliding across Long Street in downtown Cape Town, amid quaint coffee shops, carrying his spear and kitted out in his majestic blood-red blankets.

Miyere ole Miyamdazi Selenguironeirei is not, however, in the Mother City as a tourist. He has walked through four countries in a seven-month journey from Kenya to South Africa to protest against the “oppression” of the Maasai and the Kenyan government’s indifference to their plight.

Globalisation, market imperatives and forcing Maasai children to be educated are cited as threats to their pastoral lifestyle and their culture.

Ironically, Selenguironeirei has a political science degree but has resisted “Western employment”, choosing instead to fight for the preservation of the Maasai way of life. “As Maasai we lacked nothing in the bush, our cattle mean everything. They [colonialists] take away the land, then buy our cattle at cheap prices.”

Last August he left his tribe, who roam the northern parts of Kenya, after clashes with the Kikuyu tribe over land and water. The Kikuyu — small-scale farmers — diverted water to a dam, thus preventing Maasai cattle from drinking. But the conflict dates back to Kenya’s independence in 1970. The Maasai claim that then president Jomo Kenyatta gave to the Kikuyu land that had been taken from the Maasai by the British colonialists.

“We are nomads, but have a huge land problem. Without land, you can’t have cattle. Without cattle, we cannot survive.”

Oblivious to the stares of on-lookers, Selenguironeirei lifts his legs at the knee when taking a step — a style of walking used in the jungle so as not to disturb nearby animals. “But this, too, is a jungle,” he says, pointing to the concrete city.

At a deeper level, Selenguironeirei is fighting “Western dilution” of his culture. “We are not ambitious people but war has affected us and, even though we know we have to exist with the tourist industry, we don’t benefit from it — we are used as a tourist attraction.”

His journey has taken him, dressed as a warrior with a spear, through Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. With only a gourd of blood mixed with milk to sustain him, he set out to find South Africa because “something happened in this country [under apartheid] when the world was watching it. I would not have been heard in Kenya. It is unusual to be educated and to do this, it is like being a traitor — I am scared of war.” He hopes his unconventional actions will highlight what is happening to his people and indirectly lobby his government.

He draws a crowd of spectators in a park with his unflinching conviction that as one warrior he can make a difference. “I won’t go back until I save my people. When I came across the borders, the officials let me pass because they thought I was just herding cattle or on a short journey.”

Immigration officials did not ask for a visa and passport. “I asked for asylum status and was told that Kenya is a democracy so I don’t qualify. I fail to understand the definition of democracy.” Shaking his head, he said, “I don’t know what democracy is when my tribesmen are fighting an ideological and psychological war.”

Selenguironeirei has spent the past month sleeping in parks across Cape Town. “I have met many wonderful people who give me food, but we are used to living on the land — there are many roots here.”

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