Bouncing along in the jeep with red dust flying into my eyes, nose and mouth, I smiled. Africa was just as I’d imagined – beautifully wild and totally different to my cossetted life at home in the UK.
I was 21 and I’d been writing my dissertation for a Master of Arts in literature a few months earlier when I decided I needed an adventure.
I wanted a challenge. So here I was, heading across Kenya to a tiny village at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro. I’d volunteered to teach English to children with disabilities and after working in Nairobi, I’d been asked to help a severely autistic boy from the Masai tribe.
“Nearly there,” the driver said, heading off the track road.
Article continues below
I was nervous. Nairobi had been a shock. Now what was I letting myself in for?
Finally we arrived at a tiny village. I’d been told to follow local customs – to keep my head down and avoid eye contact when I approached the tribe’s chief. My arms had to be covered and I had to drink the blood of a cow or goat that would be slaughtered in my honour.
Everyone stared as I walked through the village’s ten mud huts. The Masai women were all slim and tall, with long legs and colourful jewellery.
I stumbled over the greeting I’d learnt phonetically and was relieved when the chief said, “Welcome to our village,” in perfect English. I pretended to sip the traditional animal blood I was handed. The villagers stared at me. They had never seen a white woman before.
That night I slept in an old couple’s mud hut on a bed made of thick dried animal skins.
It was so cold I had to wear all my clothes but I didn’t mind. I felt alive here among these regal-looking people with their shaved heads and brightly coloured clothes and jewellery.
The next day I met Mumve, who was seven and shunned by most of the villagers. In much of Africa, autistic children are considered unlucky. When I woke up, I washed with a baby wipe, as there are dangerous bacteria in the water and cleaned my teeth using boiled water.
Luckily, I’d already cropped my hair and didn’t bother with my usual make-up routine. I looked like a boy.
Breakfast was a filling bowl of maize. Then it was time to meet Mumve. He wouldn’t look at me. He threw his food at me at lunchtime. He’s testing me, I realised and ignored his bad behaviour. But I couldn’t get through to him. After a fortnight, I decided to give him a music lesson. Singing and dancing to music is a good way of reaching autistic children who are locked in their own world.
“Clap your hands,” I told Mumve but he didn’t respond. I danced but he refused to move. Then I realised he couldn’t hear me or the music. I stood behind him, so he couldn’t see me and made a loud noise. He didn’t even flinch. Mumve wasn’t autistic, he was deaf.
“I know you can’t hear,” I said, motioning with my hands. He smiled, relieved that someone finally understood. Now I could tell everyone he wasn’t unlucky and hopefully he’d be accepted in the community.
That afternoon something equally exciting happened. The chief’s brother Meitikini came home. He’d been away when I arrived taking part in an important Masai ritual. In order to be recognised as a man, he’d had to leave the village and kill a lion to prove his strength.
Meitikini was striking but he was also clever even though, like all Masai, he’d never been to school. “Tell me about your country,” he asked as everyone stared.
Meitikini was 20, a year younger than me. He wasn’t married but I presumed he’d already been promised to at least one woman. Most Masai men have two wives.
He was mesmerising. Pure, gentle and honest. After an hour of talking to him I knew I was in love. We’d go for walks together and Meitikini talked about the surrounding wildlife, plants, the village way of life. He said he felt happy when he saw me. I laughed, knowing I felt the same way. But I felt there was no point in telling him.
When I wasn’t with Meitikini, I’d rush to see Mumve, who was like a different child now. He’d hug me and smile.
I never wanted to leave but then civil war broke out in Nairobi. The company I volunteered for sent a driver to pick me up. “It’s much too dangerous to stay,” they insisted.
Meitikini looked as upset as I felt. “I will see you again,” he whispered. The chief called me aside as I was leaving. “I feel that something happened between you and my brother,” he said. “I will give him permission to marry you.” I was excited, but I had to go.
I just had time to wave goodbye to Mumve and Meitikini – the two people who’d had the most impact on my life.
As I flew home, I knew I’d changed. Happiness didn’t come from material possessions. Designer handbags, clothes and fancy houses don’t nurture your soul. Only people do that. I realised everything most Westerners find important is shallow and unnecessary.
Back home, I wrote letters to Meitikini but I don’t know if he’s received them. Masai tribes are nomadic and follow the water. He could be anywhere – even married. But I don’t regret meeting him. The whole experience taught me how important it is for us to love and to be free.
I’m 25 now and working with autistic children. I hope to study different cultures and travel back to Africa to find Meitikini and live with the Masai. Until then I’m resolutely single. Who can compare to Meitikini? It’s hard to impress me after the last man I fell in love with killed a lion.
The life and traditions of the masai
- “The Masai live close to nature. They inhabit mud huts, have no school, and no lights. Beds are made of thick, dried skins that are raised off the floor to stop snakes from slithering in. They cook on a wood fire, which they start by rubbing sticks together. The entire village eats together after the men hunt for the food.
- “Everyone eats lots of meat, beans, avocado and fruit. There’s no rice. The society is patriarchal – usually the chief, sometimes joined by elders, decides everything for the group. Disputes are settled with cattle payments.
- “Cattle is symbolic of riches – the more a man has, and the more children he has, the richer he is.
- “The Masai are known for their intricate jewellery, which all have a meaning. I wore a huge round necklace with one red and one white stone to show I was not married and a little bracelet to indicate I didn’t have any children.
- “Children aren’t properly recognised until they are three moons old because of the high infant mortality rate. There’s no ceremony to mark death. Bodies are left out for animals to eat. If they’re rejected by scavengers, it brings family shame. Burials are only used for great chiefs as the tribe believe burials are bad for the soil.”