When the Maasai Sing, the Wedding Starts

SHOMPOLE, Kenya—James is still fitting the Land Rovers with garlands when we hear the distant buzzing of the plane carrying the registrar from Nairobi. It is our equivalent of the string section launching into the Pachelbel “Canon.” When the plane’s shadow crosses our hill, Peter announces, “That’s the start time!”

Our off-road procession begins, following rutted tracks into the fig forest, where all the celebrants, from near and far, have converged. I am the first to enter the 150-foot canopy of wild fig trees, where I am greeted by two lines of Maasai girls in full song. Beyond them, in a wide clearing, is a row of several dozen warriors in their ceremonial best. Their usual complement of beads is augmented with colobus monkey hats, lion manes, and sundial feather headdresses. They’re also singing—a soothing, droning chant, punctuated by ecstatic shrieks. The registrar is there already, chatting with Peter and Julianna. Julianna’s experience running restaurants in New York and London has made her a flawless hostess. Even out in the bush, every detail has been considered, from the cake decorated with white beads to the makeshift bar where Melissa, Jimmy, and the rest of the group are assembled in campaign chairs. Sitting beneath a tree is the local Laibon—a sort of combination spiritual adviser/witch doctor/medicine man—who will officiate the Maasai ceremony. He sits patiently, ears stretched to his shoulders, charms ready, face streaked with white powder.

It’s still our first full day in Africa, and, as you might imagine, all this makes for an overwhelming sight. Several days of joking speculation about ring-bearing lions and cake-serving pythons is exceeded by the reality of standing here, especially when Ronni arrives with an unexpected bridal contingent of Maasai girls who have gathered around to escort her among the warriors, whose sticks are held aloft to create a tunnel. As they emerge, the collective Maasai song is at its loudest. The wedding has started.

I will admit that before we arrived, I was wary about the inescapable cultural connotations of a white couple surrounded by tribal dancers. There seemed to be a danger of some kind of “African luau,” like you might find at the big lodges in the Serengeti, where package-tour visitors are serenaded at dinner by decked-out Maasais.

This, I can see, is not that.

For starters, Royal African is an especially thoughtful safari outfit. There are very few guide companies in East Africa whose explicit mission is to avoid the beaten touristic path. As opposed to the typical four-day lodge stay, Peter likes his guests to take two weeks or more, most of which is spent under canvas, in the field. “We want visitors to come as close to what it was like before there were visitors,” Peter told me when we first arrived. (During our entire trip, I’ll later realize, we will never see another tourist.) “And we try to give a cultural immersion by bringing visitors in contact with people,” he said. “Like this particular group of Maasai,” Peter indicated, “who live basically the way they always have.”

It is one thing to have an abstract awareness that traditional tribal societies exist in the world and quite another to get a direct sense of what this really means. Most Maasai—and to a greater extent, the Samburu, their northern cousins—still practice decorative scarring, cut and elongate their ears, ceremonially remove teeth, and undergo circumcision when becoming adults, which for the Maasai is early teenage years. Theirs is a polygamous tribal culture, bound by kinship, where rites of passage are the central experiences of life. The chief introduces us to the Laibon, who explains, via translation, just how important the marriage ceremony is to the Maasai. And that’s why, we learn, some of our guests walked as far as six miles to get here.

The warriors are such eager groomsmen, in fact, that it’s hard to keep order long enough to complete the legal ceremony. With the marriage certificates signed (our premarital status: “bachelor” and “spinster”), the time has come to propitiate the spirit realm.

The charming sobriety of the registrar gives way to the raucous Maasai ceremony, which begins with a series of hemispherically choreographed singing dances. We stand at the center, surrounded by jumping warriors. At times, the girls gather around Ronni. At other moments, several warriors hold my hand, a sign of platonic affection among Maasai. (One particular warrior holds my hand for so long that in many pictures, I’ll later discover, it looks as if we’re the ones getting married.)

The ritual centerpiece of the Maasai ceremony begins when the Laibon approaches, waving his fertility horn. He seats us in the dirt and dusts fine powder on our hands and faces. Ronni cradles the horn like a child. “I hope this thing isn’t quite as powerful as he thinks it is,” she murmurs. There are incantations. The warriors lean in and sing along. We follow. I don’t speak Maa, but it occurs to me that our other option would have been a Jewish wedding, and I don’t understand Hebrew, either. The proceedings are strangely intimate. The Laibon has prepared two amulets whose protective charms are activated when he spits on them and ties them around our necks. (Spitting is a sign of esteem, I’ve been advised.) “You must kiss it each night and morning,” he instructs. The sacraments remain mostly mysterious, other than representing a sense of tradition: This is how the Maasai have always joined two people for life. Melissa, Georgia, Peter, and Julianna throw rose petals. At this point, I think I might technically be obliged to deliver something like 25 healthy, unblemished heads of cattle to Ronni’s father.

After the saliva and ancient magic come a few familiar nuptial accoutrements: champagne, cutting the cake, a bouquet toss (when the Maasai girl who catches the flowers discovers the symbolism via translation from the chief, she instantly drops them), and a “Just Married” jaunt in the Land Rover.

James takes us to a hilltop where more champagne awaits. “So, now you are like the dik-dik,” James says as we arrive. On cue, a pair of dik-diks appears. “You see? They wish you well.”

In the distance, the low sun illuminates the Shompole volcano, which gives the entire area its name. It is our wedding day, and emotions run high, but it’s hard not to consider the meaning of what we are looking at. This is where Homo sapiens emerged. It is the same sunset our ancestors saw, walking through this very valley. To the north is Lake Turkana, where the first words were spoken. To the south is Laetoli, where, in 1978, Mary Leakey’s team was tossing around elephant turds when they stumbled across two sets of momentous footprints: bipedal, tandem, two early hominids together; 3.6 million years earlier, volcanoes had erupted into a rainstorm, and the wet ash had preserved those footprints as the first evidence of human family. One of those volcanoes was Shompole.

Feeling sufficiently cosmic, we watch night fall. With the last purple of dusk, Ronni spots something moving on the opposite hill. James squints and observes, stumped. Finally, he declares: a black leopard! He cannot believe our good fortune. James stares, as if he’s never seen one before. It turns out he hasn’t. The black leopard may be Africa’s rarest predator. Certainly the rarest felid. The leopard stalks something through the tall grass. James declares it to be a blessing. To see such a thing on your wedding day is very auspicious, James says. Very auspicious. You are very lucky together.

I don’t feel quite so lucky later that night when I wake up in a cold sweat, my heart racing. I throw off the covers. Malaria? We’ve only just arrived in Africa. Or maybe the ancestors are angry. In a feverish hypnopompic delirium, I blame the supernatural. What if the black leopard is, in fact, inauspicious? No, it must be the amulet. Did I forget to kiss it? No, I did kiss it. Then it must be filled with the wrong powder. A curse powder! Beyond the bed, it’s pitch black. My heart’s still racing. Half-bewildered, I try to pull off the amulet. It’s tight. The magic is too strong. “What are you talking about?” Ronni mutters when I wake her up. “The ancestors like you just fine.”

I don’t remember drifting back to sleep, but I wake up again just before daylight. The fever is gone. The forest is coming alive with the next reassuring day. There’s nothing like the relief of realizing you are not cursed. I look over at Ronni, who is still sleeping. I reach to my neck. The amulet is there. I’m glad, because now, still half-awake, I decide that my nocturnal episode was some kind of witchcraft challenge: I was being tested to see whether I’d take off the amulet. And I passed. My brush with the spirit world is making me feel quite accomplished, until breakfast, when I learn it was probably just the malaria tablets. “Malarone can do a number on you,” Peter says. “But there’s no malaria around here, so you don’t need it. Throw those away, but keep your necklaces on, and you two will have the Maa spirits on your side forever.”