Active Cultures: ways of the warrior | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Active Cultures: ways of the warrior 

When Maasai warrior Ole Tome Nemarrau first came to the United States from Kenya in 1993, it was the first time he'd seen snow, skyscrapers, or television.

Also new to him were cemeteries. "I was shocked by the idea that you would put your dead in a box and bury it inside the ground. We put the dead outside the village and a lion or hyena eats them."

Nemarrau is one of two Maasai warriors touring the U.S. to help educate others about their culture; most of their work involves speaking to school assemblies. The Maasai are one of the last remaining traditional tribes in Africa, with an age-old history threatened by tourism and development.

It's a nomadic society with an oral tradition; there are no written words, days of the week, calendars, or clocks. "In Western society you have watches," he says. "In our society, the sun comes up and you go through the day. The sun goes down and it's night. You're not worried about time." According to Nemarrau there aren't many worries at all. "I was so amazed when I came here that people kill themselves. Why would a person jump off a bridge to kill himself? They say it's because of stress. In Maasai culture, if you're poor and you don't have many cows, we'll give you some cows, as a community. And no one is shut out; everyone's kids play together."

Nemarrau is the first-born son of a village chief with three wives; he has 20 brothers and sisters. He learned English during his three years as the head of guest relations at Keekorok Lodge in the Maasai Mara. During his visits to the U.S. he's spoken to school assemblies in Rochester, New York; Detroit; Portland, Oregon; and Chicago. Most recently he spoke to children at Chute Middle School in Evanston.

For his presentations, Nemarrau wears a braided red wig (the color scares lions and attracts women) and traditional red robes covered with beads and small metal pendants. He talks about Maasai culture, often inviting children to touch his left earlobe, which was stretched as a rite of passage and dangles down several inches. Another rite of passage is killing a lion. Nemarrau killed his first when he was 14 and had fallen asleep while tending his father's cattle. "I woke up and saw two lions eating a cow. I was really afraid, but I was supposed to protect the cows, and I had let my parents down....I threw a spear at the lion and went back to the village crying." Returning to the site later with his father, he discovered that the spear had reached its mark and the lion was dead.

Nemarrau's cultural exchanges work two ways: during his three stays in the U.S. he's had firsthand experience with bank overdrafts, contracts, unscrupulous agents, and a fundamentalist Christian. More recently, he was wearing his traditional clothes and dancing at a reggae club when a friend told Nemarrau's dancing partner that she was dancing with a Maasai. "I'm sorry, I don't believe in God," she replied.

When he brought a radio back to Kenya after a stay in Michigan, his compatriots insisted there was a man inside who was doing the talking. Nemarrau had to break it open to show them there wasn't. "I tell them that we're much better living the way we have been. Focus and tradition is very important in our society.

"Kenya is a very popular destination for the tourist industry," he adds. "So many people come here to see the wildlife. I would like to encourage travel agencies to explain about the Maasai people. If tourists come to a Maasai village and give a child candy or a cigarette, that's very bad. We'd like it to stay the way it has been for 4,000 years."

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