Meeting Laibon Meshuko

By Wandering Maasai | 28 July 2016

By Stuart Butler

I’m one hundred and nine years old”, claimed Meshuko Ole Mapii, who has more children and grand-children than he can name. The old man was sat on a roughly hewn wooden chair. In one hand he held a cow tail fly whisk and in the other an ox horn, plugged at its base with a leather stopper. His short hair was a sparkling silver grey and when he smiled, which he did frequently, one large tooth jutted out of his mouth.

He wore a red shuka (the classic Maasai robe) wrapped like a Roman toga around him. His sandals were made from old truck tyres. He carried with him the air of a man who had seen and done it all and who was certain of his future. That he should have this air of certainty was hardly a surprise. After all, Meshuko is one of the last of the great Maasai Laibon.

Who are the Laibon?

What, I hear you ask, is a Laibon? That’s a little hard to answer. A Laibon is someone of great importance in a traditional Maasai community. They are someone gifted with the power to see the future. They’re not really a fortune teller and they’re certainly not a witch doctor. They’re more like a seer, but some also have the power to cure illnesses. A Laibon is the one who advices the community as a whole on the best course of action to take in a given situation. For example they can use their powers to say where the community’s cattle should be taken to in order to find better grazing when there’s a drought. They are the ones who can pronounce when the time is right for important ceremonies, such as the initiation of a new set of moran (Maasai warriors), to be held and they can also advise an individual in the community on personal matters. Historically there is no more respected member of the Maasai community.

The Role of the Laibon Today

Today though, as Maasai culture changes so the role of the Laibon is becoming reduced and in some areas no more Laibon remain. Therefore, when close to the end of my month long stay at Asilia’s Olivers Camp in Tarangire National Park, I heard from Lazaro, one of the Maasai members of staff, that there was a famous Laibon, named Meshuko, not more than an hours drive from the edge of the national park my interest was instantly piqued and a plan was hatched. I would go and stay the night in Lazaro’s boma (Maasai farmstead) and from there he would take me to meet Meshuko. In the days leading up to my visit I asked any other Maasai I chanced upon what they knew about Meshuko. All replied with the same mixture of amusement that I was going to meet him and awe at the thought of him. He was, it was universally acknowledged, a very powerful man and not just from a spiritual sense. It seemed he also had considerable power in the bedroom… It’s common for important Maasai elders to have a number of wives and many children and over the years I’d frequently interviewed old Maasai men who had been unable to recall the names of all their children (although to be fair to them I seem to be increasingly suffering from this problem as well and I only have two children and one wife), but Meshuko seemed to take the spreading of his genes to new highs. He had, so everyone I spoke with claimed, forty wives and three hundred children. In fact, he had so many children that rather than bother with the expense of paying school fees for each and every one he instead just had a school built in his village, which, so everyone said, was populated only by his children, grand-children and their spouses.

The Chance of a Lifetime

The night before my meeting with the Laibon I’d met Lazaro in the nearest town where we’d stocked up on the gifts he’d said I would need to present to the Laibon: a bag of sugar for his favourite wife and, for the big man himself, twenty or so small plastic sachets of ‘Valeur Superior Brandy’, which as a statement was one I doubted. We’d then ridden together on a motorbike to a wide open plain scattered with brown eyed cattle and the collection of smoky, mud and dung huts that made up Lazaro’s village. As a thunderous rainstorm pelted the sides of the hut we’d sat up late into the night, drinking tea and trading stories, with the dozen or more other villagers who’d piled into the hut to meet the foreign guest. The following morning the sky was once again clear, but a low mist clung to the ground and muffled the sound of the mooing cattle who’d spent the night in the protection of a high fenced corral. As the women busied themselves milking goats and cows, stoking the embers of fires and tending to the children, I sat with the men and drank tea until Lazaro announced that it was time for us to go.

Meshuko’s Village

Set halfway up a low forested hill topped with a red and white radio mast, Meshuko’s village has views across to the flamingo-filled Lake Manyara and is a large and orderly place far more permanent in feel than Lazaro’s village. We found the Laibon sat under the shade of a tree outside the only bricks and mortar building in the village. He was busy treating a thin and quiet lady for “fertility problems” and as we arrived he merely glanced up and nodded a quick hello. Speaking in Maa, the language of the Maasai, Meshuko asked the lady questions and she murmured back short one word replies. As his interrogation into her condition continued he laid out a white goat skin at his feet and started to vigorously shake the ox horn that he held. This, he said, was his ‘oracle’ and when he was satisfied that it had been shaken enough he carefully removed the leather plug and asked the lady to spit into the horn. He then turned it upside down and allowed a stream of small, polished stones (as well as a random ball bearing and some kind of small seed pod) in whites, browns and speckles to fall onto the goat skin. These were then arranged into three neat piles from which the Laibon was able to ‘read’ the ladies future by looking at the patterns of the stones and work out what she needed to do to cure her infertility. As all this was taking place two assistants stood to the side chopping up an orange tinged root vegetable that Meshuko had found in the surrounding forest. This was then pounded into a thick paste using a heavy, dark wood pestle and mortar. This was the medication the lady needed to consume in order to become fertile again. She could either mix it with her food or swill it down like tea in hot water. Either way with what must have been two kilos of the stuff ready for her to consume I didn’t envy her.

As the consultation finished Meshuko turned to me saying how the lady would recover from her problem in a few months and go on to have children. He then invited me into his house so we could talk in peace. It was clear that a person of such importance as Laibon wasn’t born in the same way as the rest of us. So, I wanted to know, where exactly did the first Laibon come from? Every remaining Laibon probably has his own version of this tale, but this one, which has its equivalent in many cultures and religions, is the version Meshuko told.

The First Laibon

The Laibon might be a direct descendent of Enkai (the Maasai God although nowadays Christianity is taking over from Enkai), but life for the first Laibon started in humble ways. One day two Maasai warriors were walking in the forest when they came across a small child. One of the warriors wanted to leave the child. It was after all just a small boy who would likely be a hindrance to them. The other warrior though, who was from the Ilaiser clan (there are seven main Maasai clans plus other sub-clans and the Ilaiser are one of the most powerful clans), picked up the boy and said he was going to take him home and bring him up as his own. The warrior named the boy Kidongoi.

As the years progressed it became clear that this boy had special powers. The cattle he tended were always plump and healthy, even during times of drought when everyone else’s cattle were starving and dying. Other Maasai had even observed him calling into the Heavens for rain and immediately rain would pummel the ground around him and the grass become lush and green. Acknowledging his unusual powers the people made him their spiritual leader or Laibon. Ever since then all Laibon have been from the Ilaiser clan.

A Laibon’s Pebbles

Meshuko paused in his story, stood up, walked slowly to the door of his house, loudly cleared his throat and spat onto the floor. Wiping his mouth he returned to his seat and continued to explain how although the position of Laibon is hereditary a person must still train to be a Laibon. When training begins (normally after the wannabe Laibon has served his time as a moran or warrior) the father, who is himself a Laibon, consults his oracle to identify a suitable ox which the trainee must then negotiate for. The ox is slaughtered and the hide and right-horn shell removed. The father then places his own oracle, pebbles and medicines on the new hide and blesses the hide and the horn. This transforms them into oracles. The trainee heads into the forest to gather any pebbles which take his fancy. They can be unusually shaped ones, pretty ones, perfectly round ones or just plain looking chips of rock. He keeps these inside the ox horn and, as I’d seen earlier, it’s by reading the patterns that these pebbles make when they’re emptied onto the floor that the Laibon makes his divination. However, another Laibon whom I’d once met in Kenya, had told me that not all pebbles can be trusted and as the trainee Laibon becomes more experienced and knowledgeable at divining he might start to notice that there are always one or two pebbles who make false divinations. These pebbles are discarded and replaced with better behaved stones.

Conversation moved onto the moran. Almost every visitor to East Africa will encounter a so-called Maasai moran at some point during their travels, but knowing already that Maasai culture had changed enormously in the past two decades or so and that ‘real genuine’ Moran were now rare, I was curious to hear what Meshuko, who’d been a moran for around twenty years (this will have been a guess as years and the passing of time means little to most older Maasai – as was likely demonstrated when he had told me he was 109 years old) thought of todays moran. He laughed at the question, “When we see these so-called moran, we elders think of them as children. They don’t live in the bush for long. They don’t get to kill many lions. They’re always looking at their telephones and they shave their heads like a woman. When I was a moran men had long hair and women had short hair but now it’s the other way around. They are not real moran anymore”.

I could see that Meshuko was starting to tire and in the breaks in conversation his eyes were becoming heavy and closing for ever longer periods. He was nearly ready for a mid-morning nap and so I asked him one final, personal, question. “Rumour has it that you have forty wives and three hundred children. How many do you really have”? Meshuko sighed. It must have been a question he’d answered a thousand times. “People say this but I don’t. I have a few wives. Eight of them. Each of these wives has about eight, nine or ten children, but I’m too old to remember exactly. When people come here though they see all these children and women but they’re my daughters-in-law and other relations and my grandchildren and great-grandchildren, but people see them all and they go away and say I have three hundred children but this is not true”. Before the interview was complete Meshuko turned the tables on me and asked why I only had one wife and two children. My reply about it just not being necessary to have more children didn’t seem to cut the ice and then Lazaro gave his opinion on why people in the West and urban Africa didn’t have more children, “It’s all to do with the chemicals you put on your foods. You don’t eat fresh foods that you’ve grown yourself like we do and all these chemicals stop you having more children”. It was a good point, and as I thanked Meshuko for his time and left him to sleep, I made a mental note never to buy bio-food again…

Stuart Butler, the author of this piece, has spent the past eighteen months walking and travelling around the Maasai lands of Kenya and Tanzania working on a book about contemporary Maasai culture. Once We Were Lions will be out in 2017 and for more information on it see his website www.walkingwiththemaasai.com and www.stuartbutlerjournalist.com

The post Meeting Laibon Meshuko appeared first on Asilia Africa.


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  • Which is the best camp for the Great Wildebeest Migration?

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    For this reason, Asilia Africa has permanent camps that cover the traditional migration route as well as semi-permanentcamps which are moved 2 to 3 times a year to ensure prime game viewing.

  • What is the best time to see the Great Wildebeest Migration?

    The Great Migration can be enjoyed year round. Different times of year and location will offer different encounters, so it’s a good idea to work closely with your travel agent to ensure you plan the ideal migration safari to suit your needs.

    The first few months of the year offer exceptional predator encounters in the Serengeti as this is the calving season for the wildebeest and newborns make for an easy kill.

    By July, the herds are heading into the central Serengeti where the wildebeest make their first river crossing, and take their chances against the waiting (and hungry) crocodiles.

    In August, the herds cross over into Kenya’s Masai Mara and by September, the big herds have fragmented into smaller groups. The last few months of the year bring the short rains, causing the Wildebeest to move back into the Serengeti where the animals brace themselves for the next calving season and predator attacks.

    You can read more here about what to expect from the migration each month as well as which of our camps are best positioned to enjoy this spectacle at those times of year.

  • Are all Asilia Camps open year-round?

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  • How do I choose which camp to visit?

    Choosing your ideal safari will generally depend on a combination of the following factors: who you are travelling with (e.g. are you going with your family), where you want to go (e.g. Kenya or Tanzania), what you would like to see (e.g. Great Migration) and any special activities you are interested in doing (e.g. hot air ballooning or climbing Kilimanjaro).

    You can narrow down your choices using our safari tools for where to go and what to do, or you could check out some of our itineraries to get you started with some ideas.

    We’d love to hear from you so we can create the perfect safari to suit your needs.

  • Where are Asilia’s camps?

    We specialise in Kenya and Tanzania, home to some of the highest concentrations of wildlife in the world. Our camps are positioned in prime locations ranging from the world famous Serengeti and Masai Mara, through to critical private conservancies, as well as more pioneering areas somewhat off the beaten track.

    Kenya: Greater Maasai Mara, Mara Naboisho Conservancy & Ol Pejeta Conservancy

    Tanzania: Serengeti, Ngorongoro, Ruaha, Rubondo, The Selous, & Tarangire

    Zanzibar: Matemwe

  • How do I choose between Kenya or Tanzania?

    If you have more time available for your holiday, the bordering countries of Kenya and Tanzania can easily be combined with each other as well as with other nearby places like Uganda, Rwanda and Zanzibar. If you are going on a shorter trip (less than 10 nights is a fair guideline), choosing which country to enjoy will depend on what you want to see and do. For example, if you’re planning a migration safari, your destination of choice will be largely dependent on where the wildebeest are at your chosen time of travel.

    To provide you with the best advice tailored to your particular travel needs, we recommend contacting your preferred travel agent or simply enquire with us and we’ll get right back to you.

  • Can I combine my safari with a trip to Zanzibar?

    Definitely - Zanzibar is a great addition to any safari itinerary or even just as an idyllic escape on its own!

  • What are meals like on safari?

    Meals on safari feature wholesome homemade dishes with a hint of local flavour. We take great pride in growing our own fresh, organic produce wherever possible and supporting local communities.

    Our camp chefs are able to cater to any dietary requirements with advance notice, including preparing gluten free, dairy free, vegan, and halaal meals.

    Lunch is usually a buffet featuring fresh salads and meaty mains, while dinner is a 3-course meal served beneath the stars. Dishes feature beef, chicken or fish, and wholesome organic produce with a hint of local spices and flavours. You can read more about Asilia's culinary experience here.

  • What is the accommodation on an Asilia safari like?

    Most of our camps feature stylish and authentic tented suites in keeping with the classic safari experience. Each tent has a main bedroom with a shower, toilet and basin, decorated to reflect the local cultures while providing the necessary amenities and furnishings to provide a comfortable retreat. Do not worry about packing in shampoo, conditioner, body wash, or lotion - these are all provided for you in camp.

    Please note, all laundry in camp is done by hand and dried outdoors, therefore turnaround time is dependant on the weather. Out of respect to local culture and customs, we do not wash underwear. Washing powder is provided in all of our guest rooms should guests wish to wash their own.

  • What is included in the price of my safari?

    The overall cost of your safari can vary depending on a range of factors including seasonality, activities, any special offers that may apply as well as other factors.

    Generally, a safari at Asilia’s properties will cost you anything from USD $450 per person, per night, and upwards. Your accommodation costs are all-inclusive, which means that all meals, local alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, and game drives with our expert guides are included.

    For a more accurate estimate, it’s best to contact a safari specialist travel agent who can package an itinerary to suit your needs and budget. Alternatively, you can get in touch with us.

  • Can I book my safari directly with Asilia?

    We handle our booking process through a trusted group of highly experienced East Africa safari experts. We operate this way due to there being many nuances involved in planning a well-arranged, unforgettable safari holiday in East Africa. We know through experience that this is simply the best way to ensure our guests enjoy a seamless trip matched to their individual needs. Due to the volumes handled by these agents, they’ll also ensure you get the best possible overall price. If you’re thinking of joining us on a trip to East Africa and you are not currently working with an agent, simply enquire on our website and we’ll arrange for the best agent matched to your needs to tailor-make the ideal itinerary to suit all your needs.

    If you're unsure whether to book far in advance or not, this blog post may help provide some clarity.

  • How do I get from the airport to your camps?

    Getting around in East Africa requires significantly more planning than other destinations. Distances can be large; roads may be few. Our safari experts know their way around and can arrange all the transfers you require.

  • What are the vaccination requirements?

    Certain vaccinations may be required for travel to Africa, for example, often you will need a yellow fever vaccination. To be sure, consult your travel agent and your local Travel Clinic to obtain the latest health travel advisories. Concerning Visas, your travel agent will help there too.

  • What are the visa requirements?

    Kindly consult your relevant embassy for full details of visa requirements. Please indicate clearly that Asilia Africa is the DMC / ground handler and not the address of first overnight stay.

    For addresses and telephone numbers please visit our "contact us" page and either use Kenya (Nairobi) or Tanzania (Arusha) information depending on which country you are visiting.

  • What are the points of entry to get to your camps?

    For International visitors, the following apply:

    Kenya: Nairobi
    Tanzania: Dar es Salaam or Kilimanjaro Airport

  • Help! I’m planning my first safari. Where do I start?

    One way to start researching is by reading up more on the different safari destinations to visit, such as Tanzania or Kenya.  We also have some handy tools to help you along, including our camp finder and our experiences page. Another great place to draw inspiration from and to whet your appetite is by browsing our list of itineraries. These can be booked as-is, or customised to suit your needs.

    We recommend talking to a specialist East Africa consultant who will assist you with your plans.  In addition, they’ll be able to arrange your transfers, flights, and any additional activities you require. If you do not already have an agent, simply enquire with us and we’ll put you in touch with one of our trusted East Africa specialists.

    Find out more about what to expect on your first safari with us here.

  • Can I still go on safari if I have special medical needs?

    A safari can be suitable for a wide range of ages and physical conditions. With advanced notice, our camps are capable of catering to certain special requirements, so it’s best to advise your travel specialist early on in your booking process.

  • Are safaris suitable for people in wheelchairs?

    Some of our camps are accessible by wheelchair. It’s best to chat to your consultant as they will be able to advise which of our camps with be most suitable.

  • What do I pack for my holiday?

    There are a few handy items you won’t want to forget when going on safari such as a hat and sunblock to name a few. However, it is important to note that certain light aircraft transfer flights will have a smaller and stricter luggage limit. Please note, all laundry in camp is done by hand and dried outdoors, therefore turnaround time is dependant on the weather. Out of respect to local culture and customs, we do not wash underwear. Washing powder is provided in all of our guest rooms should guests wish to wash their own.

    Do not worry about packing in shampoo, conditioner, body wash, or lotion - these are all provided for you in camp. You can read our recommendations on everything from clothing to photography to toiletries in this blog post.

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