Mt. Suswa, known to the Maasai as Oldonyo Onyokie, “Red Mountain,” is not only a very unique natural structure within East Africa’s Great Rift Valley but also a place of immense cultural importance for the Maasai. Second only to Oldonyo Lenkai in Tanzania, Mt Suswa’s inner crater is known to the Maasai as Enkang Enkai, “House of God,” and to live within its rim signifies being closer to God. Geographically, Mt. Suswa is unique for 2 distinct reasons: having a double crater and the 70 lava-tube caves that occupy the northeast side of the outer crater.
The geographical features and stunning landscapes were of course I big draw for me, but the cultural significance was the true reason that we had chosen to make the journey to the Suswa region last week. As I’ve continued to explore the culture of the Maasai I’ve found aspects of spirituality/religion before the influence of Christianity to be one of my largest hurdles. So when the opportunity to visit what was once, and still is, a major religious site presented itself I was more than excited.
Although very dry at the moment, Suswa was incredibly beautiful. Simple villages and small shambas (farms) scattered the flat-lands along with the occasional steam vent and geo-thermal powered well, all back-dropped by the beauty and power of the ancient volcano, Suswa.
The trek (drive) to Suswa is any and everything but pleasant. To call our route a roadway would be a gross overstatement, it was more akin to a Jeep path designed to test the abilities of both the driver and the vehicle, throwing endless challenges at us as if to dissuade us from achieving our goal. John’s driving skills proved victorious, but by the time we had ascended into the Suswa region the darkness of night had set in and the realization that we didn’t really know how to get to our destination had set in. We did our best to find our way, unable to find assistance due to the incredible ability of Maasai homes to blend into the environment thus making them indiscernible from their surroundings in the night, until we were graced with dumb-luck and came upon the home of the Pulei family. Our destination, they informed us, was still quite a distance and we’d unlikely find it that night. Instead, they insisted that we stay with them, showing us true Maasai hospitality: offering us a much needed and very delicious meal and a warm bed to sleep in.
After some tea, boiled maiz and conversation the following morning we were underway, only then discovering how many homes we had passed blindly the night before. After exploring the area for a bit we met up with a local elder, Jeremiah Ole Tanin, who had agreed to take us on a tour of one of the lava-tube/caves, cave 18 – Olng’aboli (?) in Maasai, named for the tree that graces the entryway. Containing 5 separate openings as well as 2 different levels, Olng’aboli is an incredible cave system that also houses a huge bat colony, incredible cave paintings and a phenomenon none as the baboon parliament.
Our adventures in the caves were very mellow and more than enjoyable with Jeremiah really standing out with his knowledge and stories. Unfortunately I hadn’t brought the equipment necessary to photograph caves of this magnitude with me to Kenya so I was very limited photographically, but that didn’t prevent me in the slightest from an incredible time.
The next day, Friday the 25th, John and I along with our new companion Peter Ole Sempui made our way around Suswa in search of elders that would be willing to sit and talk with me. Suswa lies within the Ilkeek Oonyokie section/sub-division of the 15 Maasai sections, one I have visited but not yet fully explored so I was very anxious to see what they had to teach me.
Our first interview turned out to be a bust, the elder forgetting that we had scheduled a meeting – sadly not an uncommon occurrence with members of the older age-sets. Not one to waste time though I decided, finally, it was time to cut my hair and John and I did our best to make it happen while we waited. Eventually we realized he wasn’t coming so we continued on to our next appointment, an interview/experience with a local herbalist Joshua Ole Tanin.
After the usual introductions and explanation of my purpose in Kenya, Joshua happily welcomed us into his home. He, along with several other guests in his home found my work here fascinating and a blessing for the Maasai, complimenting me in ways I’m not sure I deserve yet still feel very honored to receive.
Within his Enkang’ (house) a collection of men were partaking in his services, consuming a brew/tea called Olchani, a concoction of local herbs used in cleansing your blood. The testimonies of those present left me with little doubt, but an interesting side effect was a mild intoxication due to the fermentation process.
The remainder of the evening, our last in Suswa for the moment, was filled with spirited conversation, a short but extremely informative interview, and an invitation to return and learn first-hand about the herbs and remedies of the Maasai herbalist. Without a doubt, I know my next visit to Suswa will be nothing short of spectacular.