Japanese tour guide Maki Nagamatsu took a chance on Kenya twice, but it was only when she met a cute Maasai warrior that she truly fell in love with this country. By Caroline Okello
When she heard a Japanese doctor return from Kenya sing the glories of the country, her curiosity was piqued. She had to see this piece of paradise for herself. She was just 20 then, fresh out of school and working as a tour guide in Japan.
In 1989, Maki Nagamatsu set off to Kenya to experience the country for herself. She stayed for a week and mainly visited national parks. “It wasn’t much exciting, I only saw animals,” she says in her delightful Japanese accent.
Then on the last day of her visit, she met a young man, a student at the University of Nairobi. “He showed me around but at some point he tried to steal away my bags. I hit him and ran, it’s a good thing he wasn’t armed. I got a vehicle that took me back to the city centre. It was a bad experience that left a bad impact. Kenya is a beautiful country with kind and warm people, but there is also the other side, the bad side I saw in that man.” She returned to Japan and continued to work as a tour guide.
Later, her Japanese friend in Kenya asked her to return to Kenya to work as a tour guide. That was in 1997. She took up the offer as she was still intrigued by the country. “Kenya at that time was and still is so intent on following the western culture. Why can’t Kenyans appreciate their own culture? Why ‘wazungu’ culture?”
Matatus fascinated her. Such creativity, such originality. She would hop into a matatu and ride, mostly the Kawangware route where she saw the ghetto life up close. This is when she thought she was seeing the real Kenya. Then she met her first husband who worked in the matatu industry. In 1998, Maki bought her own matatu; about the same time she got married to her boyfriend who helped operate it.
They lived in Hurlingham and were happy – for a while.
“He started cheating on me,” she says. “He had many girlfriends. I cried a lot. The matatu would break down and we had to give a lot of bribes. Back then, corruption was rife. I was trying to get a work permit and they would constantly ask for ‘chai’ [slang for bribe], it was all so depressing. That was when I thought I was seeing the real Kenya – through my husband and through the corruption.”
Maki felt guilty when guiding tourists, showing them only the surface and telling them how it was a beautiful country.
Throughout the interview, she refers to tourists as “wageni”, a clear sign of her mastery of Kiswahili language and her assimilation into the country.
But one day, after a couple of months into the marriage, she woke up and decided enough was enough. She was leaving the country. She was tired of all the problems and all the lying to tourists. She sold her matatu and left for Japan with her Kenyan husband in tow.
She returned to her tour job. Her husband, with the help of her father, got a teaching job and played African music, both of which paid well. Soon, he went back to his old ways of cheating and she decided to end the marriage after just a year.
She laughs and says, “I came back to Japan because I wanted to forget about Kenya, but here was Kenya with me. It is so funny, my husband was the Kenya I wanted to forget about and I had strung him along.” After the divorce, he opted to remain in Japan.
“I hated Kenya mostly because of him, but I decided it was not fair to judge the whole country because of this one man and decided to give the country another chance.”
She came back in 2003, a visit that was to change her life because that was when she met her Maasai husband.
“I have a friend who is a writer. She is fascinated with the life of the Maasai and she mentioned a graduation ceremony of the moran which lasts one week and takes place every eight to 10 years so this was a lifetime opportunity to witness the ceremony. I was jobless then with time to kill, so I decided to join her. I was so impressed when we got to this little village in the Maasai Mara.
Previously, I had been to manyattas with tourists but did not get a chance to witness the deep tradition of the Maasai. The morans who were graduating looked so beautiful with their long hair and their tall physique. We had to persuade them to let us see them in action. This group of morans came to negotiate with us, but I only noticed one man.
“He wasn’t as tall as the rest but he was very handsome. My heart skipped a beat, literally!”
Maki laughs. “Like you would notice a cute guy and not think about it later on. What touched me though is how they were proud of their culture and had maintained their traditions. They slaughtered cows and drank the blood. I got so angry when a group of students from Nairobi who were also present at the ceremony started saying Maasai are not any different from animals. They went on and on about how lucky they were not to be born Maasai and how Maasai would never progress because of the fashion by which they lead their lives. I was so angry.”
Maki and her friend stayed at a tourist lodge determined to enjoy the rest of their visit. She took photos of the whole event, including photos of her handsome Maasai. When the ceremony ended, she went around looking for him so she could give him his pictures. She did not know his name or where he lived, but showed people his picture in an attempt to trace him. Word must have gotten to him because the next day, before they left for the city, he showed up at the tourist lodge.
It was dark and they did not have much time to talk. He introduced himself as Jackson Ole Nareiyo. Right until then, she had not looked at him as a possible love interest, just a Maasai man with good looks and a body to match.
“I spoke little Kiswahili at that time so I didn’t know what we could possibly talk about. I couldn’t ask him which movies he liked or which books he had read because he couldn’t read or write! I gave him my card and told him if ever he came to Nairobi, I would be glad to show him around. I had forgotten that he had never been in a classroom and couldn’t make head or tail of what the card contained.”
Maki went back to Nairobi and forgot all about him … until the phone call came. The call started the romance, not whirlwind “because traditional Maasais don’t say I love you’” she says in jitters of laughter. There were little, if at all, mobile phones in his village at that time. He had none. Getting to a pay phone in the Mara meant walking more than an hour’s distance and the thought that he had walked all that way to call her made her see him in a different light. He invited her over to his village, an offer she couldn’t refuse, not after all that.
Everyone was there to welcome her. They slaughtered and roasted a goat for her.
“According to the Maasai culture, men and women don’t dine together. It is the men who spend time with visitors and you could imagine my shock when they told me they had met earlier and talked about my marriage to Ole Nareiyo. Marriage?
What do they mean marriage? I was shocked; he never even told me he loved me. I had never told him I loved him and here they were mentioning marriage. Their culture was so different from ours; I couldn’t imagine incorporating all that! And I love my job so much, which involves a lot of travelling. The traditional Maasai wives rarely have formal employment so there was no way I was getting married. And to be honest, I didn’t even know him. To add on all that he already had a wife!”
She had brought her own tent because she didn’t want to spend the night in the manyattas, which she felt were too cramped. He was her night guard, standing outside the tent as she slept.
“A typical man would have come in and asked for sex, not Ole Nareiyo. I wasn’t sleeping at all because I thought he might sneak into the tent and ask for the obvious. He did not. At some point started raining but still he stayed outside. I had to drag him into the tent out of the rain. He slept in the furthest corner. That was when I decided I am marrying this ‘ man. I was beyond impressed.”
Maki met Ole’s wife the following morning when she brought her warm water for her bath. She asked her if she was easy with them sharing a man, and she was fine. “At first, I thought something was off. How can a woman be so happy with having a co-wife? I later came to learn that Maasai marriage is a special kind of marriage. It is not only about love. It incorporates ‘ identity, trust, companionship, friendship and responsibility to the society. A wife had the duties , of fetching firewood, water, cooking, and the more a man got the better.
I am grateful to that woman. If she was not around I would have been forced to leave my job, which means a lot to me.
The elders assured me that they would respect my decision to keep my job if I married their son.”
Telling her mother about her intentions to be Ole Nareiyo’s second wife was easy, since her mother is “a special kind of mother who trusts my every judgement. She asked me if he was a Maasai and I said yes. ‘Then I know he is special if he is a Maasai,’ she said. I explained to her polygamy was a norm for the Maasai and she still gave me her blessings. If it would have been any other mother, they would have gotten a heart attack but like I said, she is special. My father had passed on by then.
“We got married in April 2005 at his village in the Mara. We have been together now for six years. We communicate in Kiswahili, and for the villagers who speak no Swahili at all, my husband does most of the translating. We tried once for a baby but couldn’t get any. I am 44 now and have decided not to have any children. He didn’t like it at first, but what can we do? Besides, he already has five children with his first wife.
“Our kind of love is a special kind of love. The reason why it has survived this far is because we share common values like trust. He is an honest man. And he keeps his promises. I never expected to be part of a polygamous marriage but Maasais are different, and I had fallen in love. I am not jealous of his first wife, if anything, I am grateful to her. She has taken all the responsibilities of the traditional Maasai woman.
I have a traditional mud hut in the village and a room here in Nairobi that I share with a friend. I travel a lot so I can go on for many days without seeing him. I feel I have a responsibility to these people, my husband is a community leader and we are planning to start a school. I am talking to a couple of friends in Japan to bring this project to life. That is my mission, together with my husband. To bring change to Maasai land.
The climate is changing; they cannot go on depending on their lifestyle of herding cattle alone. We are trying to let them know they can still observe their traditions but also change with the times. That, I believe, is the reason God brought me here.”