An excerpt by I. Murphy Lewis
—The author has changed some names and locations to protect the Maasai
At Siana Springs, I found a moment of respite from the cares of the world. It was as if I had come to the end of, high over the vastness of Kenya, and was only to look back, reflect, wonder. Unlike Samburu, I took my meals by myself at a table prepared for me. I preferred to read, write. I liked the no-nonsense of it, no small talk. I have heard the whispers about me since my arrival in Kenya; they liken me to Karen Blixen, alone, long hair down my back, pyth helmet—perhaps it’s the strong profile. Even several Italian men said this of me on the plane. My friend, Jeffrey and I found the 1940’s helmet at a local flea market. I am honored they say this of me for I respect her relationship to Africa, to the Kikuyu, her fight to protect their land.
In my aloneness, I have had the time to ponder the description of the Sacred Forest that the owner of African Expeditions’ had shared, “its quiet, Murphy, peaceful, utter darkness at night. You will be escorted everywhere by Maasai warriors carrying spears to protect you from elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard.”
Is this the beginning, the preparation for the silence of the forest? There is a part of me, which panics with the thought. Can I be alone, hear the stillness as I did as a child? Could I not stand it any longer? Is this why I ran away from it, to get lost in the vast crowds of New York City? Could I no longer stand the aloneness, the purity of sound, hear my childhood pain? Would I feel as comfortable here, as I had wandering in the woods of the Midwest, some odd twenty-nine years ago? Why am I here?
Each afternoon I sit in the sun, read, write, surrounded by the birds singing, and the woodpecker reminding me to listen to my own rhythm. Everywhere I walk on the grounds I am greeted by baby deer, their gentle innocence luring me to adventure, motherhood. Here, I am continually reminded of fertility. The elephant tale bracelet, I bought from the Samburu woman is to bring about birth. On safari, we came upon two lovers, a lion and a lioness at play. Another young lion leaped and chased after the vultures as though a playful kitten.
I have had the delightful experience of evening game drives, the coming upon eyes in the night, discovering a genet cat for the first time. Later, outside my tent, I soak up the rays from the moon and the stars.
A young Maasai and an elderly Kikuyu take me on a five-hour hike to observe plants, animals, flowers. They tell me stories of their people, of the animals. As if old friends, we walk up to Giraffes. A blue dragonfly bumps into my heart; a praying mantis walks cross my path. Somehow, on all my trips to Africa, I meet up with Mantis, the trickster god of the Kalahari San Bushmen. We visit a Maasai enkang, an enclosed circular area of thorn brush and dung huts. The Maasai sing to me. They invite me to join in and as I do, I weep, weep for their desire to include me, weep for the familiarity of the sound, the beauty of the rhythm, weep for the deep connection I feel, an uncanny sense of home. I even meet a man who was attacked by a Leopard and lived, face torn and hidden under his lion headdress. Another man’s head is decorated in ostrich feathers. They are strong, bold, proud.
They show me wonderful hand-made jewelry. One necklace made with porcupine quills and a large round stone, which was once an earring, I buy for Jeffrey. The other necklace, a copper circular grill, I am fascinated by, so I enquire about its the meaning.
“This circular eye is what the women wear for three to six months after childbirth, to protect them from the evil one.”
“Oh, I must have that. I need protection. At the office, I have just fired someone, who is furious with me.”
In the evening, the Maasai warriors come to dance for us in our camp. One elegantly long warrior, dressed in red, draped with colorful beads, reaches for me with his dusty hand rubbed with cow. He pulls me into the vortex of their ancient rhythm, of their pulsating chant. I, too, leap into the sky and dance round the circle of fire. Did he know then, that I would be named Girl of Laloshwa Highlands? Did he know then, his distant cousin would want me for his second wife?
A few days later, on the edge of the Wildebeest Migration, on the edge of my hopes and dreams, what I have been waiting for, comes. I am escorted, to the Laloshwa Highlands, in a Land Rover marked, African Expeditions, with the Chief’s son, Marjana, his cousin Saifi, and our Kukiyu cook, Murangi. Marjana speaks the Queen’s English, as does his cousin. I learn they are both married to Maasai wives who still live in dung huts and only speak the Maa language, their native tongue.
As yet, I was unaware my mission would soon be thwarted. I did not know the Maasai stories I had come to collect in my journal would be moved to the back burner. I did not know, in meeting the tribe of the Laloshwa Highlands, I would shape shift much as the Kalahari Bushmen do, as they dance around their fires at night into mantis, lion, ostrich. That I, too, would shapeshift. But not into an animal, into my full Self. I would metamorph into Murph.
When we arrive at Marjana’s village, the children surround me giggling and touching my pale white skin, as though, I am not quite real. As well, the women are fascinated with the length of my hair, which is only 5 inches below the shoulders. “Have you been growing this all your life?” Again, they must touch this curly red hair. “And the color? Like our young warriors, painted with the ochre stain from a crumbled rock.”
We drive five miles away to our own camp in the Sacred Forest. Here, Marjana’s father, the Chief, has granted two American men the right to lease their land. They have built an open-air lodge, with attached kitchen, and one wood framed tent with thatched roof, with toilet and shower. Here, with handshake from Sarototi, the brother of Saifi, I am greeted, and I also receive a warm welcome from Motoguisimili and Lekishoni. They have carefully prepared the camp for our arrival. Thankfully I can slip into the grass roof tent for a hot bucket shower and a nap.
The first few days are spent hiking. We follow the spoor of the buffalo, and come upon them. They are huge, ferocious. The Warriors challenge them with spears. As if something registers in the DNA, the buffalo turn and run from us. In the late afternoon, we drive back to the village to record stories told by the elders—first the men, and then, the women. Saifi and Sarototi’s father, Baba Hasa shares this tale:
Long ago, when Rhinoceros were as thick as Wildebeests, I walked into the woods with a group of elders. We were in search of herbs to cure one of the Laibon’s (shaman’s) fatally ill patients. In the forest, a Rhino, down wind from us, caught our scent and irritatingly snorted. Some of us, stood firm with spears in hand, ready for this attack. The not-so-brave ran into the nearby trees. As the Rhino charged, I threw my spear, which proceeded to bounce off his body. He charged, knocking me down, piercing my belly with his horn. The Rhino hurried onward, while I was left flattened, unable to move. The other warriors administered herbs, sewed my wound and carried me home. As they did, they created a song of praise for my bravery. Now, I wear a permanent badge, a scar on my hip—a declaration of this undaunted courage.
At mealtimes, I sit across from my guide, Marjana. As we eat at the large table, we talk, sharing stories. He inquires, “Why have you come?”
I tell him why I have ventured into the highlands: “I am following the advice of an intuitive, to repair a past-life with the Maasai.” By this statement, he is fascinated. The following day, Marjana drives to a nearby village to find a spare part for the truck. So, I take the usual morning hike with Motoguisimili, Sarototi and Saifi. Their favorite walk is to the water hole to observe elephants and buffalo. The Maasai surround me, protecting me in the front and from behind, with their spears. They warn me of how to handle a possible lone buffalo or elephant attack. Because of this, on each walk, my heart races and my breath, short, nervous, alert, aware.
On these hikes, something happens, an understanding begins to develop between Sarototi and myself. Created without formal language, for we do not speak the same. More innate, forming on a deeper, spiritual plane, beyond space and time, building on trust toward one another and on our respect and love of animals, birds, and plants. We do not need an interpreter. Instead, we spend time observing the signs of nature, letting them reveal our course, the lessons of the day. We walk and read the path as we move. We not only read the signs to understand where the animals are leading, but we watch for meaning from the universe. Truly, we form a connection out of this world.
When we return from our walk, I discover, Marjana has not come back. Murungi has set one place for me, alone, at the large table. I am upset. Rarely would I speak of such a thing. Yet, I can no longer bear to be alone for I am becoming accustomed to being a part of a community. I chase after him, “No, I cannot eat by myself. I want to eat with you and the Maasai.”
He grumbles, “Marjana will be angry! And besides, there is not enough food to go around.”
“Then bring their food and mine.”
He did. And every one of us, gathered around the table together. At first, it was a bit uncomfortable. The Maasai males are not accustomed to eat with women, nor around a table, nor eating with utensils. However, this act begins a tradition between the Maasai and me. Instead of depleting our food source, it created leftovers. We share our plenty with the few Maasai grazing their cattle near our camp. At the end of my stay, we even have enough to leave behind for the village.
I kept thinking of Jesus, breaking the five loaves and the two fish, and blessing it. “They ate and we’re satisfied. And they picked up twelve full baskets of the broken pieces, and also of the fish. And there were five thousand men who ate the loaves.” Mark 6:41–44.
Around this luncheon table, our first real discussion commences. Saifi becomes the interpreter. By the time, the evening meal comes, we feel more comfortable together. Just as Marjana, they want to know why I have come. And so, I tell them, of my visit with the intuitive, Mariah Martin, challenging me to return to the Maasai to heal our relationship. As I speak, there is complete silence. They are spellbound, that I, this American woman, would be sent to them “by an American woman laibon,” a shaman. So Sarototi’s’s reply comes unexpectedly, “There is one problem with your story, we do not believe in past lives.”
“I was raised a Christian. We, too, were taught not to believe in reincarnation either. Yet, the intuitive’s tale of my past, challenging this return, intrigued me, as well circumstances and dreams, led me to believe, it was worth following.”
“You say it was a long, long time ago?”
“Yes, about ten generations ago.”
They spoke quietly among themselves about their oral history, then, responded, “It’s true. At the time, within our history, there was a drought. And because you were foreign, we would have killed you, for we had no extra food.”
Again, the stillness circled round about us. I feel stunned, by the truth of this statement. Yet, it rings so clear to each of us, our relationship could not help but change immediately. Whether they fully understood my want to heal a past I knew little of, they honored my path. They respected this spiritual journey, the commitment I had made to recover our relationship. In fact, they historically identified with it, trusting my decision to pursue Mariah’s challenge.
“You have come to the right place, Murphy.” Sarototi continues. “The highlands are sacred, because a well-known seer lives below. People come from all around to learn and to gain insight into their lives from him. He takes them into the forest to gather different barks and herbs. These medicines are ground to a fine powder, to be ingested or applied for the healing of the mind and the body. There is an ancient tale about these woods:
“Years ago, our people were plagued by a drought across the land. They fled to the forest to find food, water, and protection. One day, the children set off to collect newfound berries. A young girl became separated from her companions. The children searched for her. The parents looked for her as well, to no avail.”
I became intrigued by this tale. Perhaps, I imagined, I am that child. Isn’t it true, I lost my way in childhood? Could this story embody the lost child in all of us, and the Maasai’s eternal search for this child—the importance of our childlike spirit? Didn’t they lose their own child in the crisis of the drought, as I had lost mine through my personal crises?
I began to wonder, where is my child now? In my encounter with the intuitive, Mariah, she had observed my child shivering in the corner of a cold, dark basement. And that, at times I would run to the top of the stairs and feel connected to God and then, run back to only cower in the corner. I had made a commitment to continue to work with Celia, the curandera, to heal my childhood fears. In a session before I flew to Kenya, I found “Little Irene,” sitting on a plush bed, listening to me, as I read her stories. She was no longer afraid of me, of life, she had begun to trust me more and I had begun to listen to her.
Ironic, that the next day I was invited to the circumcision of two girls. On our drive, Marjana and I discussed the reason for this brutal rite of passage and of course, the controversy even among the Maasai of this act. “All our teachings and rites of passage for the children is to build three important traits in our people; bravery or courage, perseverance and patience.”
“Really? But, why?”
“Murphy, if they cannot pass the tests, they cannot endure the challengers set before them to live in this harsh country.”
We arrive too late to observe the actual ceremony, yet, in time for the festivities held at the engang of a distant relative, Bono, and his family. Everyone is gathered in large groups, stepping to the same beat, necks extended as they chant. Their dark bodies are painted with red ochre or white chalk, swathed with colorful, clean clothes. I am mystified.
Marjana spoke with the elder for permission to photograph the celebration. I am extended a warm handshake and asked for a fair fee. So, I set up my dat player on the hillside to collect their songs. I station my video camera and begin to take still shots. The children are intrigued as they observe themselves and others on the video camera. However, the warriors are furious, at my intrusion into their party. One painted young man tries to slap my camera out of my hand. He curses at me in Maa. I ignore him and continue. Another warrior, who speaks English, shouts, “He doesn’t like it!”
“Yes, I know, but I have paid for this opportunity. I have received permission from Bono.”
Marjana sees this, taking me immediately to the elder in charge. Bono is offended. He calls the warrior to his side, “This is my party for my granddaughter. This woman is my guest. If you are not pleased with my decision, you must leave.”
Respect for their elders is held high in their community. The warrior concedes.
That night, I dream I am standing with friends at a bar in a New York City restaurant. My pants keep falling down and I lose a shoe.
At the breakfast table the next morning, they tell Sarototi about my experience with the warrior. He is amused.
Later in the conversation, I share my dream. They laugh with pleasure. And he replies, “Perhaps, your dream is how you felt at the circumcision.”
“Yes, in fact, I was obviously quite out of place. Indeed, I didn’t fit.”
“Is there a laibon in your family, Murphy? You seem to be a bit of a seer, yourself.”
I am stunned by Sarototi’s question and comment. “I’m not sure. I know my great grandmother was a midwife. Yet, didn’t the psychic say my brother and I were shamans in another life?”
A trust had begun to build between the Masaai and me. They began to openly share their way of life. They explained to me that Sarototi is not their official laibon, due to his birth, and yet, they trust him. In Maasailand, the laibon or shaman or witch doctor is officially recognized if he is descendant of the male blood line of the Sentai family. The young male becomes an apprentice of the head shaman. Sarototi’s Sentai blood, comes to him through his mother. He has been trained and travels from village to village with a group of shamans to heal those in need. His friends listen to him carefully. They know he seeks the truth and has proved his wisdom over and over.
The Laibon unrolls the skin of a leopard or animal and spreads it on the ground. Then, he utters words of requests into the calabash or gourd full of stones. He shakes it from side to side. Suddenly, with the flick of the wrist, he tips the contents of the calabash on to the leopard-skin. He studies the position of the fallen stones. He counts them, adding and subtracting and moving the stones in order to decipher the truth.
Unlike the “official” laibon, Sarototi houses his stones in a large plastic coke bottle sitting on a gunny sack. In a way, it makes me trust him more. Daily, he mumbles quietly into the bottle and rolls the stones onto the sack. He reads them sharing with us what he believes will happen to us as we take our hike. He asks for wisdom of which trail to take.
Sarototi is a great storyteller. He shares the story of how he received his scar across his thigh from a lion:
Sarototi was not much older than fifteen. For several months, he and a group of warriors lived in a cave, and ate the bull and ox given to them by their fathers, mixed with herbs from a particular tree. The herbs make the young men, wild. The mix of the meat and herbs builds their confidence and strength. It prepares them to face the powerful lion. They hike below the escarpment to the Loita Plains. There, they track lions, singing songs of others who have gone before them, encouraging one another. “Lenguto fought the lion, so can we. The lion bit him, yet, he’s alive. Anyone can die, man dies from disease. It is not a big deal to be bit by a lion, so be it.”
In a long line, they spread out from the bush to the plain, the brave to the weak. They made noise to stir the lion out of hiding. If a lion appears close to a warrior, he knows he cannot stab him. Yet, if the lion chases after a warrior, his friend can spear the cat to his death. These are the rules of their sport.
On this particular morning, a lion rises up, out of the river bed. They surround him. The lion is trapped in the middle. The circle of warriors closes in. The lion roars. The lead warrior cries out a warning, “Now, it is time for bravery. Do not throw your spear, nor your club.”
The lion charges at each man, testing the circle for its weakness. He senses fear. Again, he leaps and roars. The warriors move closer. The senior warrior whistles and yells, “Come forward, tight!”
Some warrior step forward, but the two that are weak, hesitate. The lion notices and he penetrates the wall with full strength, leaping into the air, paws wide open. His claws strike the leg of Sarototi, who stands next to the weak link. The power of the lion knocks him down and leaves him with a big gash, deep cut. In turn, the lion grabs the two weak ones with his paws and throws them backwards over his head. They land high in an umbrella tree, stuck to the thorns.
Then, the lion turns, leaps and grabs another warrior, and as he does, two warriors spear him in the back, at the spinal cord. The first pierce, earns the warrior the mane. The second stab earns the tail. The lion dies with his grasp so tight, so strong around the warrior, they must peel off the cat’s limbs.
Then, as intelligent as they fought, the warriors are in the ways of healing. They cut down the umbrella tree to bring their weak friends to the earth. One man kills a wildebeest. From the hairs of his tail, they sew the wounds of Sarototi, and the two men thrown headlong into the tree. In the bush, they gather healing herbs to pour into the gashes. To kill, is also, to know how to heal.
With their red plain shukas, they carry the wounded. They now walk in a long line toward their village. The new leader wears his prize possession, part of the kill, the mane, around his head. The second warrior, holds high, the tail from the tip of his spear.
Now, they sing full out, about the bravery of the men who have led them, of the men wounded, but, alive. It is a triumphant moment for the young warriors’ lives. They will never forget it, they and their women, will sing of this around the celebration fire tonight. They will sing of this great feat until their dying day.
One afternoon, the Maasai and I gather round the truck’s radio for a message from my brother, who lives in Kansas. He has e-mailed Africa Expeditions. David shares his message to us from Nairobi. I am informed my nephew has won his first football game, but has hurt his knee. They say he’ll play on Friday. All of us laugh at how strange this sounds far away in Africa, in the Sacred Highlands, strange how news has traveled from afar and has reached us, all the way from the middle of America. And I realize how I ironic it is, that our boys in America have their sport, too, what builds them into warriors. But, I know these rituals are not deep enough, spirited enough to reach their souls. I see depth in these people, but, not in me, or in my fellow Americans.
Sarototi offers his services as a laibon. I ask him, “Why am I here?”
He speaks into the calabash, rolls the stones and sits quietly. He finally replies, “You will be very blessed on this trip and will be given an opportunity to start your own business.”
“Will I find a husband?”
He rolls the stones many times. Finally, he lifts his head to peer into my eyes, “You are not very serious about this, and will not marry for quite some time.”
I felt slapped in the face with the truth. How did he know what was in my heart? How did he know, I am afraid of a relationship, afraid of its commitment, that I will lose myself, lose my capacity to travel, write, succeed. Most of all, fear intimacy, letting someone come close. And if I do get close, what if I destroy another relationship, divorce again?
For the third time this week, I accidently sit down in the midst of red ants. The Maasai surround me and help me gently scrap them off.
I finally asked Sarototi, “What is this about, why do they keep crawling on me, biting me? Are they a sign of anger, a kind of curse from this woman I fired from our office?”
Sarototi rolls the stones and replies, “No, they are not about her. But, they have been sent to you as a message. You must take these words back to your people: Like the ants, they must learn to work together. They must no longer work only for themselves.”
I am stunned, but take heed. I try to observe them, to understand what it means to live in a community of many families – sharing, striving for the same purpose. I am ill-trained in this.
One day, Sarototi takes me on a walk behind the camp. He shows me his garden of newly planted trees. We walk along the stream, and then climb high, looking down at the stream, at my make-shift home.
On the last morning, Sarototi, Saifi, Lekishoni and I leave early to take a walk to a different waterhole. They want me to see the place where Sarototi and Saifi’s father killed a leopard. We stand at the place, by the side of the pond. Three geese fly around and over our heads, until finally, they find a safe place to land.
The Native Americans consider the number three to represent magic. The geese beckon one to recall childhood stories. Everything seems magical in Africa. Everything has meaning. Saotiti and I catch each other’s eye as the geese land. We smile. I cannot imagine having a heritage like theirs, where bravery before a leopard and the simple flight of a goose, are sacred. Acts of this sort, are not recognized in our material world. We are recognized for our large home, our expensive cars, our beautiful bodies.
In my last few moments in the Sacred Highlands. I want to make it special, meaningful, full of ceremony. I have been reading Ted Andrew’s book, Animal Speak. Due to his influence, I decide to follow some of the Native American traditions. Motoguisimile, Saototi and I returned to the high point behind the camp. We dig a hole and bury the treasures we have found on our hikes – 1 of the 4 midnight blue feathers of the Turaco, 3 little geese feathers from our morning walk, a bit of my red hair, 2 black eyed Susan’s, a yellow candlebush flower, a long purple “Bipheris” flower, several dead lady bugs and a green spider. We light the Native American sage stick I brought with me from America. Each of us take a Turacao feather fanning the healing smoke toward ourselves. We laugh with pleasure in the oddness of this shared experience, to bury the memories of my stay, as I cannot express myself in their language, no common words.
My last good bye to Sarototi, he walks me into his dung hut, to see his beautiful wife and his new baby boy, hidden in seclusion and in protection from the evil eye. And I weep, for I realize he has shared his child with me, at a time when this young Maasai is most vulnerable to danger. He trusted me. I weep, as I shook my new friend’s hand farewell. He smiled.
I am thankful for him. I am thankful for the safe trip we had over the rough trails, another adventure. I smile, when I realize he had rolled the stones and declared our safety. He was right. He was also right that we would not find gas at our first stop. He was right, when he said we would find gas just in time. We barely teetered into the gas station 95 kilometers later. But that drive, that drive over the Great Rift Valley, there could be nothing more dramatic, more breathtaking. And the last dangerous leg, on the road winding up out of the valley toward Nairobi, hanging, staring out over its vastness, is awe inspiring and worth any danger one might encounter on the narrow road.
My last few hours in Nairobi, I played tourist with Marjana. We were bound and determined to find the black rhinos in the National Park. We drove and drove until we found a family of three. Of course, as we grew near to them, the truck stalled with battery problems. We laughed nervously as Marjana climbed out of the truck to repair it. The Rhinos glared at him. We drove on to Karen Blixen or Isak Dinesen’s home, author of Out of Africa, now a museum. She is an institution here.
More importantly, I have returned to my last month in my thirteen square foot apartment. I have lived at 303 East 81st Street, Apartment 4RE, for eleven years. They have been challenging, yet hellish years. My years of poverty, struggling. I was so depressed. I would sit for hours at my desk writing in my journal and doing calligraphy with a deep down low-grade depression, I could not shake. In 1990, I fell ill and was given a three month leave of absence from Bergdorf Goodman. Dr. Bezoza said, “Your white blood cells are so low, you could catch any disease.” Candida Albicans, a yeast condition, had taken over my body. All I could do was sleep, write in my journal, sit quietly and do calligraphy. I knew it was because I had fallen in love with a married man.
The miracle was, I found my way out of the illness through a book by Laurens van der Post, A Mantis Carol. I knew through this book, I could no longer write just for myself in my journal, I must write to the world. I wanted to share the Bushmen’s tales with the children of the west. For four years, he graciously corresponded to me about my wish, as I researched and studied. In the fall of 1994, I met Sir Laurens in his apartment in Chelsea, London, signed a contract with a publisher in December, and nine months later, through Lauren’s contacts, I was on my first African adventure to the Kalahari desert to see the San people.
My first encounter with Africa in 1995 and my book contract with Libraries Unlimited, catapulted me into a new world even in my fashion career. In taking hold of my dream, and making it real, I felt empowered. I believe, it created positive energy at the office. Within a few weeks after my return, I was promoted to National Sales Director for Mary McFadden, Inc. Two years later, Ms. McFadden housed my book signing party in her atelier, and by July, I was hired as Vice President, Director of Sales for Halston International. In January of 1998, I was hired away by Badgley Mischka for the same job, but a much bigger challenge.
Just before he died, Sir Laurens read my final manuscript, but never saw its publication in form. He wrote, he was quite pleased with the results.
I would return to see the Maasai Warriors five more times. Over the course of those visits they would initiate me into a dream-shaman, a laibon. My life would never be quite the same. In fact, this encounter with them would spin me out of the world of fashion to a Masters and PhD in Mythology and Depth Psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute and forged a new life working with private clients as a psychoanalytic shaman and in the Akasha.
—excerpts from Across the Divide to the Divine: An African Initiation, by I. Murphy Lewis, which will be released in January of 2022.
Website: I. Murphy Lewis (http://www.imurphylewis.com)