One of the reasons Richard Crompton's Hour of the Red God is so appealing is that he delivers different, fresh characters who have a strong sense of (and often struggle with) their cultural identity. The star of the book, Detective Mollel, was born into and raised within the Maasai tribe, one of Africa's semi-nomadic, cattle-herding groups.
The Maasai people speak Maa, with many also speaking one or both of Kenya's official languages, English and Swahili. They reside in the southern portion of Kenya and flow into Tanzania along the Great Rift Valley. It is estimated that over 800,000 people belong to the tribe, however, according to the Maasai Association, " Maasai see the national census as government meddling and often miscount their numbers to census takers."
Traditional Maasai houses (enkaji) are built (and rebuilt when the group moves to a new location) by the women from mud, grasses, timber, cow dung (which helps to waterproof), ash and urine. A typical enkaji measures approximately 9 x 15 feet and is less than 5 feet high. Inside these small spaces the people sleep, cook, eat and store their belongings. The enkaji are built within a circular fenced area known as a kraal (a Dutch word with the same root as corral), into which the animals are rounded up at night to protect them from predators, with some of the smaller animals often sharing space inside the enkaji for added protection.
The Maasai tribe is patriarchal, and social structure is often based on age group. It also has many rites of passage. Traditionally, both girls and boys go through a series of ceremonies and practices before puberty, such as earlobe stretching one of the Maasai's most identifiable physical traits. Detective Mollel describes:
Long and looped, the flesh stretched since childhood to fall below his jaw line, the i-maroro are a mark of pride and warriorhood within Maasai circles, but an object of ridicule and prejudice elsewhere. He knows many Maasai who have had the loops removed, but somehow the stumps sing of regret to him, and their ears seem just as conspicuous as his own.
Once they hit puberty, both boys and girls go through a circumcision ceremony known as e-muruata a highly controversial practice in the eyes of the western world, and often a significant reason why some Maasai (usually women) have chosen to leave the tribe. When practiced on women it is sometimes referred to as female genital mutilation (FGM), and is regarded by westerners as a brutal form of misogyny and sexual control. (A note to sensitive readers the subject of FGM is important to the story in Hour of the Red God, but is not described in gruesome detail.) Crompton explains, Men are strictly forbidden from the ceremony. But yes, teenage girls have their clitoris removed, by a female elder. It's illegal now, but it still happens, of course.
Throughout their lives, males will transition from children to warriors (morans) to elders. The author explains:
[Mollel] recalls the day he became an elder. He'd already moved from the village then, but this was before he'd rejected that life completely. He had been working in the city as a guard, his dreadlocks as fearsome as any uniform. They were long, impeccably plaited, and stained red with henna The dreadlocks were Mollel's mark of being a morana warrior. Then, when he was in his mid-twenties, word reached him that the village elders had decided he was to join their number. He felt griefgrief for his locks, grief for his youth. He felt resentment too: many morans continued into their thirties. They were, in many ways, more powerful than the elders. They could have jobs, they could live in the city. He did not want to move back to the village, to marry, to have children to herd the goats the way he had done . Still, he went.
(For more information on the many rites of passage, visit The Maasai Association website.)
Jewelry making is a major part of Maasai life as well. Beadwork, done by women, is more than just ornamental, and along with body painting and piercing, it often indicates a person's social status. Traditionally, beads were made from objects like seeds, shells, ivory, clay, or small chunks of copper or charcoal, though now glass is commonly used. According to Kakuta Ole Maimai Hamisi, the curator of the Maasai art exhibit that was featured in the Seattle Art Museum in 2001, "There are colors you cannot put together you cannot put white next to yellow, nor red next to orange Colors have meanings: red is danger, white represents milk from our livestock, blue means sky. A lot of jewelry is in circular form because we believe the universe is in a circular form."
The concept of private ownership was not a part of the Maasai belief system until the 1960s when the British and later the Kenyan governments split up land into plots, which were sold to private developers. This reduction in useable land has caused a great deal of economic stress on the tribe.
The future of the Maasai is unknown, though it is believed that as western systems of government and commerce gain popularity in Kenya, the Maasai's council of elders is losing power. In late March 2013, a major conflict between Tanzania's ministry of tourism and the Maasai started when the ministry announced that it would be displacing 30,000 Maasai so that a "Dubai-based luxury hunting and safari company" could develop. "Tanzania's ministry of tourism announced that week that it will set aside 1,500 square kilometers bordering the Serengeti national park for a 'wildlife corridor,'" however according to Daniel Ngoitiko, a Maasai political advocate, the plan poses a major threat to the group. "My people's livelihood depends on livestock totally We will die if we don't have land to graze."
This article was originally published in May 2013, and has been updated for the
April 2014 paperback release.
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