“Do not come back after I lock the door,” my mother says, warning me not to be late returning tonight. While she milks the cows, I quickly build the fire and ensure that it is ready for making ugali, an everyday meal of corn flour and water eaten in most Maasai communities in Tanzania. Once the ugali is ready, without even washing my hands, I thankfully say, “See you, Mama.” I slowly step into the scary, unknown darkness.
Before making any further movement, I quietly listen and attentively look around to see if there are any dangerous animals, like elephants or cheetahs, coming for our corn and goats. But because it is as dark as the paint that isikolio (recently circumcised Maasai warriors) use on their faces, I cannot see anything. Anxiously, I say to mom, “See you, Mama” one more time. As I sprint to the other side of the boma where my aunt’s house is located, I loudly count “1, 2, 3!” to scare away anything that might have been waiting for me. As I approach my aunt’s house, out of breath, I hastily say, “Hodi.” Before anyone responds, I push through the door and close it quickly behind me. Inside, I find my cousins sitting around a sparkling fire with their eyes wide open and ears ready for interesting and scary stories. Their readiness is a sign of their devotion to folktales. Tonight’s story is about Morani — the warriors of our society.
Inside, I find my cousins sitting around a sparkling fire with their eyes wide open and ears ready for interesting and scary stories.
My aunt begins, “Once upon a time, the warriors went to orpul, a place where Morani go temporarily to gain strength by eating meat and drinking local medicine so that they can protect the society. On their way to orpul, they met engukuu, an orangutan who tends to be nice and friendly to people in the afternoon but comes back at night and secretly counts the warriors to determine the size of his feast.”
As my aunt continues telling the story, some of us start to fall asleep. I never do because I am too busy asking questions. What happened to the warriors? Were they able to escape or did engukuu eat them all? My aunt tells me to be patient and then continues, “Each night engukuu ate one warrior, and when there was only one warrior left, engukuuwent to the forest and gathered his friends for a feast knowing that this was going to be his last warrior.”
Worried that we all might have fallen asleep, my aunt pauses to ask in a voice full of concern, “Are you all still listening? Do you want to hear what happened next?” “Yes, we do!” some of us shout, and those asleep suddenly wake up. “When engukuu came back with his friends, the last warrior had left. He returned to the village and told the warriors who had stayed behind about the engukuu. A crowd of angry Maasai warriors with spears and shields gathered, ready to go kill the engukuu.” By now the fire has gone down and is nearly extinguished. My aunt tells us to gather more firewood before she continues, but no one wants to go out in the dark alone — for fear of the engukuu — so we all go together.
Once the fire is crackling again, my aunt resumes. “When engukuu was beaten nearly to death by the warriors, he insisted, ‘Because I know I am just going to die, cut my thumb and all the warriors I have eaten will revive!’” In amazement, we all shout “Wow!” My aunt continues, “Once the warriors cut engukuu’s thumb, all the warriors that were eaten escaped from the thumb’s enclosure, one by one. Each one came out saying, ‘Huh! It is so hot in this house,’” my aunt concludes with a laugh.
It is time for us to go back to our houses. I know for sure that my mother is already asleep and has locked the door, but I could not leave before the story ended. Staying over with my aunt is not possible — Mama expects me back no matter what. Despite her warning, I must go back and wake her to get in, or else I will be in even bigger trouble, and Mama won’t let me go to my aunt’s for more stories. It is even darker than when I left my house, but I have no other option. I sprint back, but this time, having heard the story about engukuu attacking warriors who are bigger and stronger than me, I am even more scared. It is quite funny, really: after a scary, sleepless night, I still return to my aunt’s for more folktales every night.
It is quite funny, really: after a scary, sleepless night, I still return to my aunt’s for more folktales every night.
Growing up in Lendikinya village, Tanzania, I listened to traditional Maasai stories like this one every night after dinner. Folktales were told as a means to give answers to difficult questions for the younger generation. We learned that warriors endured in order to take care of their communities. In the Maasai culture, warriors were — and still are — viewed as the strongest members of the tribe. They are in charge of protection, but sadly, no one is protecting stories these days. We no longer tell and listen to these folktales. They are discouraged because our teachers insist that we study for school. Clearly, it is important for us to get an education, but I worry that ten years from now, many Maasai traditions will be forgotten. Important stories will be lost. How do we move forward without forgetting our past?
Sadly, no one is protecting stories these days. How do we move forward without forgetting our past?
Edna Kilusu is an international student from the Maasai ethnic group in Tanzania. She is currently a junior studying psychology, anthropology, and writing at Gettysburg College, Pennsylvania, USA.