Maasai on a Plane

Here’s a piece of seemingly random advice: Don’t take a Maasai Warrior on his first plane ride. Many of you are, no doubt, currently weighing the pros and cons of just such an endeavor or something vaguely similar. I had to learn this particular lesson the hard way — by actually taking my Maasai friend David on a flight from Nairobi to Kisumu.

Why did I do it in the first place? I wanted to spend some time with him while I was on an all-too-brief trip to Kenya and the only option was to have him come with me on part of my journey. I also thought he might enjoy seeing his country — and Maasai Land, in particular— from the air.

I had it all planned and ticketed. We’d fly together from Nairobi to Kisumu, where I would leave the airport and head to the school where I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the late ’80s. David would remain at the airport and take the next return flight to Nairobi. From there, he’d bus back to his village in Southern Kenya. Hakuna matata.

But here’s how it actually went:

I met David at the domestic departures area for Kenya Airways at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA). As is typical of Maasai, he was dressed in blankets and beads. Maasai do not alter their clothing or their food preferences — primarily cow’s meat and blood — under any circumstances. They are community-minded herdsman known to be among the fiercest warriors in Africa. Many years ago, the rite of passage from boyhood to Maasai man was to kill a lion with your bare hands. That tradition is perhaps the only one that has been eliminated from their practice. And for good reason.

Our first step at JKIA was to navigate security. David was instructed to remove all his beaded necklaces and bracelets. The process took at least 10 minutes and he was somewhat unnerved by the requirement. I had told him in advance not to bring a spear or a knife. But he did bring his wooden club. I was asked by security to return to the check-in area to have the club placed in cargo. I complied.

Ten more minutes were needed for David to put all his beads back on, after which time we made our way to the gate area. But, due to heightened security in Kenya, we had to repeat the security process yet again. By this time, David was feeling confused and vulnerable. I only know this because one of the security people said, “Your Maasai is nervous.”

“He’s not MY Maasai,” I said indignantly. “And he’s NOT nervous about anything.”

David removed all his beadwork again and we got through without setting off any alarms. Clearly, though, alarms were starting going off in David’s head.

At the gate, David enjoyed a bottle of water and a banana — and called a friend to share his side of the story — while we waited for boarding. A number of tourists asked to have their picture taken with David. He indulged them and gave them his bravest expression.

When we were invited to board the aircraft, David snuggled up to me, as a child does when sensing danger, and confessed, “I am scared.”

I noticed that his beads were shaking, which meant that he was. I felt sick to stomach about my stupid plan, and I told David that he didn’t have to go. He said he wanted to go, anyway. I still felt sick.

I am not the most serene frequent flyer myself, although I have gotten better with time. By this point, I’m thinking that if a Maasai Warrior is scared, then maybe I should be too. But my job was to take care of him. I had to assume the role of Airplane Warrior. So I did.

“Come on, it will be fun! I promise!” I lied.

When David saw the inside of the plane, he relaxed a bit. He seemed to like the chairs and cozy interior. I instructed him to fasten his seat belt and prepare for takeoff at which time the plane would go really fast on the ground and then go up into the sky. He squished up his face at the idea.

I said a short silent prayer: “Dear God, please keep this Maasai safe from my hair-brained idea.”

Once airborne, David stared out the window for a long time.

“Is that the water?” he asked me about the sky around us.

“No, David, it’s the air. See the clouds there below us?”

He shook his head in disbelief. I did, too.

When the clouds cleared, David was treated to a birdseye view of his beloved homeland. He smiled. Me, too.

Neither of us was smiling 30-minutes later as we descended through bumps and wind into Kisumu. When we came to a halt, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. I had gotten the Maasai to Kisumu. Now, I just had to get him back to Nairobi again.

“David, now we will get off this plane. You will wait at the airport and take the next airplane back to Nairobi.”

“No,” he said.

“No, what?” I said.

“I will take the bus home from here. I will not ride the airplane without you.”

I delivered David to the main bus station in Kisumu, where we found a vehicle headed in the direction of Narok. About seven hours later, I received a text message that David was back in his village near the Maasai Mara Game Reserve. I breathed my second huge sigh of relief for the day.

Learn from my experience, dear readers. Perhaps more than this lesson of NOT taking a Maasai Warrior on his first flight. I can’t tell you what the takeaway is exactly. But I have a feeling it’s very important.


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