The Maasai bear the weight of being one of the original noble savage dream tribals that the British and the Germans salivated over (in India, the Sikhs play the role of the exotic, animal protein-loving warriors, whose aggression got recruited into the Crown’s loyal service). The Maasai are such a standard-bearing cipher for all that ‘modernity’ regards as unadulterated, wild masculinity that a recurrent news story in Northern Euro/Brit tabloids is one where some random white European woman visits East Africa, meets the fabulousness that is the Maasai/Samburu warrior, and takes him back to her cold homeland. Then, there’s the inevitable photo of him bagging groceries at the local Aldi or Tesco (and his whole masculine juju is gone). But here’s something different: the British newspaper The Telegraph, and US magazine The Atlantic (online) are running photographic galleries of strapping “Maasai Warriors” in full beads-and-braids regalia playing cricket. The Maasai Cricket Warriors have been training in the port city of Mombasa, at the Legends Cricket Nursery. They are hoping to travel to South Africa to take part in the Last Man Stands World Championships (what a name), and are raising funds to make the trip.
And why are the Maasai playing cricket? From these media we learn that this group of “young Maasai warriors” from the Laikipia region formed a cricket team with the hope of promoting “healthy living,” and spreading “awareness about HIV/AIDS and women’s issues.” Ultimately, they want to “become role models in their community and ambassadors for both the Maasai and Kenya.” We don’t learn why the group chose cricket, or how they were initially trained about the basics of the game. However, we learn that Meshami, who was born in “a remote village in the Rift Valley area,” and “the youngest in a family of nine children” was unable to attend school, but that “he helped his family tend their herds of goats and sheep.” He tells his sponsoring public that he “mastered the art of throwing a spear at a very early age and I also became good at throwing stones long distances. The aim of the spear was never to harm or hurt any wildlife, but rather as a protection if ever I had found myself in a one-on-one situation having to fight for my own life.”
Clearly, it’s all good stuff here: this is a group of young men doing some stand-up work to elevate their communities. Instead of remaining helpless and backward, the men are motivated, responsible, self-actualising. How refreshingly modern! Besides, the photographs are beautiful, well-conceptualised jewels.
But these young men still carry that old weight: being Maasai means that they must carry on playing the picturesque warrior. That also means being stuck on replay: highland-fit, ochre-smeared, spear-carrying, and looking good next to large herds of cows, while BBC nature-show commentators tell us all about how bovines are the Maasai’s cash, even though they cause ecological damage.
We never get told that the characteristic red tartan-patterned blankets so ubiquitously associated with the Maasai were actually given to them (to hide their nakedness) by Brit/Scottish missionaries.