There's this feeling in America that we've lost something, but what? Paradise? The last best hope? The frontier? The New Jerusalem? And when? The industrial rervolution? Vietnam? And how? And why?
Yes, yes, yes, nods Tepilit Ole Saitoti. He is a Maasai who has watched change gnaw at his culture too, in the savannas of East Africa; and who at 30 is the first of his 400-500,000 tribesmen to have a university education. So he can sympathize. "You have the feeling that something went off, within," he says, over a restaurant cup of tea, speaking in his fluty, breathy Maasai accent, as if he isn't speaking the words as much as balancing them on this tongue.
He suspects it has something to do with making machines our environment, but "it's only a private thought," he says.
His own environment was adamantly, stunningly different, when he grew up: the Rift Valley, in East Africa, as he describes it in his splendid picture book "Maasai." (Published by Harry Abrams, 240 color photographs by Carol Beckwith.)
"Distant mountains, with names that ring with magic -- Kilimanjaro, Kenya, Meru, Lengai -- stand like sentinels, defining the region; an intense equatorial light shines everywhere. The air is fragrant with leleshwa leaves; the plain teems with herds of grazing zebras, antelope and wildebeestes; the scrubby forest echoes with the crash of elephants . . . "
Something gone off, within: Saitoti, as a Maasai, should feel it even more strongly as progress devours the Maasai grazing range with fences and factories and laws, and there are no more days like the days when, as Peter Matthessen wrote in "The Tree Where Man Was Born," "stately files of Maasai raiders in black ostrich plumes and lions' headdresses, spear points gleaming, crossed the plains without a sideways glance."
But Saitoti doesn't feel it. Or unlike Americans, he knows exactly what it is that's being lost, and how and why.
Just now, in blue blazer, with a master's degree in natural resources from the University of Michigan, and a creative writing degree from Emerson College, Saitoti sips his tea and says: "It was intelligence that saved the Maasai. We knew the British were stronger. There was no way we could beat them in an open field. A spear against a gun! tMy God! So we stayed away from them, and they stayed away from us. This was back when they would call us noble savages," he says, laughing.
They recognized the Maasai pride, he says, "and so they only sent in supervisors who were very high-level, well-educated. But we would brainwash them, they would become Maasai, and their bosses would start to say: 'You are very lenient with the Maasai.' Some Maasai would say they did not know we were not independent. When independence came they said: 'Was there a time when we were not independent?'"
And he laughs, and reaches out to touch the knee of the listener, and his face opens up with a you-know-that-I-know-that-you-know camaraderie, his eyes slanted just a bit (he is proud to point out) in the Maasai way, and the front two of his lower teeth removed, Maasai fashion.
This is not to say that he isn't bitter about the coming of the British, and progress early in this century: "They knew the good grazing land, my God, they took it all from the slopes of Mt. Kenya to the Riftt Valley," he says, and laughs again.
The Maasai, of course, in their ancient migration from North Africa, bringing with them influences of both Romans and Egyptians, Saitoti says, and herding the cattle without which they are not Maasai, had shoved somebody else off that good grazing land. Wasn't that somebody else bitter, too?
"I wasn't around then," Saitoti says. "And it was a fair situation -- people fighting with the same spears, not a spear against a gun. So it was pure organization that won it for the Maasai."
Organization. Intelligence. May the smartest man win.
But it was ferocity that got them their reputation.
In 1860, a German missionary named Dr. Ludwig Krapf wrote of the Maasai: "They are dreaded as warriors, laying all waste with fire and sword, so that the weaker tribes do not venture to resist them."
In 1885, a Britisher named Joseph Thomson wrote of "the country of the Maasai -- the warriors, the aristocrats, the lion killers, the herdsmen, the drinkers of blood and milk, and the carriers of tall spears. With profound astonishment I watched this son of the desert as he stood before me speaking with a natural fluency and grace, a certain sense of the gravity and importance of his position and a dignity of attitude beyond all praise."
Still, says Saitoti, who worries that the governments of Kenya and Tanzania will try to force change on them too fast, the irony being that the Maasai have sent their first son, Saitoti, to the university this late in the 20th century because they were long considered intractable, too proud -- or too intelligent -- to be educated out of their ways.
Even with him, it came as an accident: He became a ranger and guide in the Tanzanian National Park Service, which led to the National Geographic picking him to star in a film called "Man of the Serengeti." He toured America to publicize the film, and ended up studying in Boston.
Intelligent, proud: "In Maasailand, a person will be starving, but pride will still come out. They accept defeat with grace. They say, if it rains, it will rain. If it doesn't . . . . It's not a pretentious pride. Here, there's a lot of acting," Saitoti says, and, a great mimic, he bulks up his shoulders and frowns across the table with a hard-guy-swagger."The Maasai is very calm, but you look at him and you can see, you wouldn't mess around with that guy. They are confident. We don't say thank you if someone gives us food, because we know someone should share his food with us. A Maasai girl, if you compliment her, she doesn't say thank you, because she knows she's beautiful. We say we are the chosen people."
And, as Saitoti writes in "Maasai": "A cattle people who believe that all the cattle on earth belong to them, they still occasionally go on cattleds raids to retrieve herds from other tribes, which they believe must have been taken from them long ago."
The cattle raiding always sat ill with the colonial authorities, but how can you argue with people who believe they deserve all the cattle on earth, and are chosen?
But then how can you argue with mechanized agriculture and machine guns and satellite communication and penicillin?
"If the Maasai were a culture not going to change, I could say that my brothers were luckier than I," he says. "They have their wives and their cattle. I was a warrior and now I'm a junior elder, but I'm still not settled. They say to me: "Why do you have to go so far away to do these things?" For living life for life's sake, my God, those guys . . . "
And you can feel him feeling, for the millionth time, what he has lost.
"But since Maasailand has to change, I am glad that I can help them change. They are being forced to change so fast. Anybody can adapt if change is slow enough."
No doubt it helps to have the certainty that you are chosen, that you deserve all of cattle or whatever in the world, a certainty once shared by a lot of Americans who know that something went wrong. The Maasai lost land, we lost certainty.
Saitoti wants to fly back to Africa, again, and move from Tanzania to Kenya and back again, migrating with his family's herds, looking for the green grass, but he wants to write another book, too, more autobiographical, he says, "to see whether or not I am a real man of letters."
But now, there's selling of books to be done, more time to be spent in America.
"My God," he says, laughing again. "I'm living in Los Angeles."