Joseph and I drive up and down the dusty boardwalk that is Mbirikani, an ugly village for anyone with a Western mindset, but curiously colorful and compelling at the same time.
We stop for lunch at what amounts to a tea room. Sides of beef hang unrefrigerated in the front window; several mzee slouch watchfully in plastic chairs at uneven wooden tables (in fact, there only seem to be old men haunting the place); a makeshift kitchen in the back, really an open room next to laundry hanging on the line, serves only chai and chapatti, our lunch.
In Ireland, where I lived for the past six years, this shabby hideaway would constitute (in more posh terms) the pub scene sans pints of Guinness and smoky whiskeys, rugby cheer, leather booths and smokers lingering wistfully in the alleyways. But I am not quite ready for Mbirikani’s real drinking establishments, even though we’re about to visit one in search of Saine Pune.
Several of the Maasai mamas shopping at the vegetable and fruit stands tell us where the infamous lion killer is hiding. At the pub. “He is crazy, crazy,” Joseph keeps saying, shaking his head and laughing. “He loves to drink.” “Beer?” “Oh, no, Saine Pune is a warrior, he goes for hard spirits.” More laughing. I’m thinking, this guy has got to be part Irish.
From behind a corner spills Saine Pune, struck blind by sunlight. The doorway to the fine establishment from which he pours is a shower curtain. That's right. “Crazy, crazy,” mutters Joseph again. An old mama from the tribe, dressed to the nines in a traditional red, black and blue shuka and bedecked with beaded jewelry, pulls the object of our desire towards our Land Rover. He is thrilled to see Joseph, a boyhood friend.
Color me stunned. For Saine Pune (his lion fame-game name) is quite an unassuming presence – lean, drunken, shaggy, virtually toothless and sporting black hair like bean sprouts. (I am reminded of the famous ‘70s-in-America chia pet.) As we drive off, dust devils decorate the red earth. Saine Pune, launched from the back seat between the two us and reeking of hooch, embarks on a string of rapid prayer, or at least that’s what I think is happening. “Are you praying?” I ask. “No, it is our way of traditional greeting.” As I listen to the pacing and exchange, I notice that what appear to be questions are long, while the answers are short “Ehe”s, “Oh”s and “Unh”s, lending a beautiful sing song to their conversation in Maa.
On the way to a nearby cluster of cow dung, mud and straw huts called bomas, our captive begins to argue mightily with me and Joseph about his fee for talking about savage hunting days. He wants Ksh 1,000, not the usual Ksh 500. Joseph corrals me back into the car and as we begin to drive away, Saine Pune capitulates with great apology. The three of us then retire to sit on short-legged stools under a wait-a-minute tree (so called because of double-edged thorns that catch your clothing coming and going).
Outlaw. Superstar. Outrage. Saine Pune is called many things, but he is regarded highly enough in warrior circles to have inspired celebratory songs in his name. This slim, goofy man has killed 13 lions in the past few years. And despite the moves the Maasai have made towards the preservation of big cats in this reserve, Saine Pune continues to be worshipped by many within the tribe, especially the young girls who are smitten by his singular bravery in hunting lions.
Most recently, when two 14-month-old orphaned cubs killed a donkey at a neighboring manyatta, this master of his own universe speared one brother in the haunch and assumed he was dead. (Recent investigations by the organization Living with Lions have indicated that the pair survived Saine Pune’s assault.) While the infamous warrior was arrested by lion guardians of the MPT that same day, he led them astray in the grass plains of Kilimanjaro, and neither cub was sighted for about a month.
While interviewing him, I am duly captured by Saine Pune’s feet. They are as gnarled as tree roots, misshapen toes curling in upon one another, crumpled and twining. It’s no wonder that his tracks have become as distinctive as those of the lions he hunts. When I ask Saine Pune about his passion for these precious and vanishing creatures, he replies: “My father was a great hunter. Nine lions he killed. But I have become an even greater warrior. Very strong.” And his arms come up curled like a pin up for weightlifting, fists in the air.
Most of this day with Joseph has been a heedful of wow. And it’s why I moved to Kenya in the first place. Just as I want my son Tiger to have an excellent childhood, I also want to continue leading an exciting life that's rewarding in every way. (Besides, it’s never too late for a second childhood!) But this subject matter of the Maasai vs. lions vs. conservation is so vast and overwhelming; many times I hardly know where to begin.
But certainly the day’s ending is clear. Joseph and I with Chief Kayok in the back, eager to recharge his mobile phone at our camp, barrel down the dusty adobe-colored dirt roads. Singing along with Fleetwood Mac’s Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow and Tusk, we expertly skirt herds of Grant’s gazelles, their tails tucked underneath their bottoms which means they sense no true danger nearby. (These antelope are distinguishable from others because “Grant’s wear pants” -- their hind end and back legs are splashed with white for a trouser-like effect.)
The sun is rapidly closing up shop as we head back to the Chyulu Hills. And awaiting me at Elena’s is a true luxury after a long, dusty day: a warm bucket shower. Two gals from the Living with Lions , a researcher and a scientist, are coming over for dinner, a miracle concoction in this neck of the woods. John, the cook, is trying to do a vegetarian fritatta over a gas canister!
For this night at least, I am home and happy.
TO BE CONTINUED…