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How to Spear a Lion

The Masai Mara is too hot during the day to make a game drive. All of the big animals have already fed and now retreated to the shade until dusk.

At my camp’s reception tent I sprawl amidst colorful pillows drinking a cold bottle of Elephant beer while zoning out on my electric guitar. I have brought a travel-size guitar, which is amplified through a portable walkman-like effects box and enjoyed through headphones. As the lone patron lounging under the oversized tent, this scene garners the curious enthusiasm of the several Masai warriors whom are waiting to greet the next SUV of arriving tourists.

A Masai warrior, Mbeke, who I met the day before invites me on a nature walk through the surrounding bush. He hands me a traditional bright red- and pink-checkered blanked to shield my head and arms from the engulfing sun. I haphazardly drape it around myself and sling my guitar over a shoulder. He fetches his spear and we both begin our stroll.

Only meters from the tent he leads us onto a narrow path through the thicket, clearing the overgrown thistle and thorns with a stick he tears from the underbrush. He stops at one shrub and plucks off several leaves which are edible. I try one but it doesn’t taste like much. Farther along Mbeke shows me a surprisingly velvety leaf that he chuckles is used for toilet paper.

A few minutes later we again pause and Mbeke yanks loose a small branch. He skillfully whittles at one end with the large tip of his spear, which appears ineffective for cutting the much narrower stick. But within moments he transforms one side into a bouquet of fine shreds. Mbeke repeats this process with a second branch and hands the undisclosed finished product to me. He then opens his mouth, displaying a naturally manicured set of white teeth, and in controlled semi circles glides the freshly torn end of the branch around them: a Masai toothbrush. We saunter onwards twisting our makeshift dental tools between our teeth, myself mimicking Mbeke’s nonchalance as if it, too, were something I have done all my life.

then inquire about his spear, which he says was handed down to him by his father and from his father’s father before that. He explains how a boy becomes a warrior when he is of age and then a cattle herder or a farmer after he is too old. I ask his age but he doesn’t know. He says the Masai don’t count time the way we do. Hearing this makes me recollect a case study I read about the Masai tribe in an introductory anthropology class in college. He looks 17 or so.

When we come to a clearing I want to know if the spear is hard to throw. He slows and steadies its weight, which seems as solid as Mbeke himself. It looks too heavy to be effective for throwing, but with his arm and elbow extended at an obtuse angle to his ear he then propels its mass about 15 feet in front of us. The spear briefly sails just above the bushes before collapsing with a thud and sticking into a soft patch of grass. Mbeke asks me to try and I graciously accept.

I balance my guitar upright against a thick shrub and he hands me the spear. It is even heavier than it looks, and it is hard to find the balance between the metallic head and wooden shaft. The butt gets tangled in my unravelled blanket, so when I chuck the spear it just drops a few feet ahead and skids across the sun-baked dirt. More determined than embarrassed, I collect the weapon for a second attempt as Mbeke gesticulates some pointers in the air. With the Masai cloth now properly tucked out of interference, I aim for a closer target, and my second try results in the spear’s briefly careening before feebly sticking into soft ground. We acknowledge the result and carry on.

I ask about safety in the Mara from animals, and Mbeke explains there are occasional hippo and lion attacks. Not expecting that he had fallen victim, I discontinue my gait in disbelief when he says he had once used this very spear to kill a lioness. With all my attention now quizzically focused on him, I am eager to hear the tale.

One evening Mbeke was returning to his village when he was abruptly stopped in his tracks by a lioness. She was en route to her cubs which he surmised to be nearby because she began threateningly growling and circling, refusing to let him pass. Forced to defend his position, he held out his spear keeping her at bay. This dance transpired for ten minutes while Mbeke’s attempts to quell her anger by shouting and kicking up dirt proved futile. Fortunately for Mbeke, the ruckus caught the attention of a cattle herder across the narrow Mara River banks. And the farmer’s arrival distracted the lioness just long enough for Mbeke to pick up a rock and hurl it at her, which connected solidly against her head. With the predator now disarmed, this proved opportune for Mbeke’s warrior instincts to kick in. He lunged with his spear, plunging the weighty point into her unguarded shoulder. And then again into her side. Badly wounded, the lioness collapsed. Mbeke rushed behind her and with a dagger he deftly slit her throat.

Mbeke relays the account with animated expressions and exaggerated gestures, like when he pulls a clenched fist across his neck and widens his eyes at the part about cutting the lioness with the knife. He sometimes pauses unsurely and thinks what to say next. Some of the details seem hammed up if even implausible. But it is hard to tell. We now shade ourselves under a large tree surrounded by cattle, and I half-interestedly inquire as to what happened to the lioness, to which he says he removed her furs and saved them as a token of his prowess and for good fortune. Even if he is making the whole thing up, even if it is all just a canned ruse reserved to indulge doughy eyed tourists, it is still the perfect Masai Mara story.

Years later I will hap upon a brittle toothbrush once fashioned from a stick that was torn from a bush somewhere far away in the Kenyan savannah. It will be in the back of a draw or stored in a closet, a peculiar souvenir I might think, and not quite ready to be discarded.