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When a bribe threatened to tear the Maasai apart

Maasai morans with a herd of cattle. [File, Standard]

Bribery or the exchange of cash or its equivalent to receive a service is as old as mankind.

Locally, bribes have been used to circumvent justice or deny life-saving services to the deserving citizenry. However, as one Joseph Thomson realised, bribes were an essential means of gaining passage through hitherto hostile Maasai territory.

Thomson was the son of Scottish stonemason, who, at only 25, dared to run where others feared to tread. Maasailand was a no-go zone, not only for Europeans but other communities as well.

But Thomson, with his army of 140 porters and with a serious sponsorship from the Royal Geographical Society was willing to dare the gods.

And so in March 1883, Thomson began his long trek from Mombasa to the interior. If he expected ululations in Maasailand, he was mistaken. There was little difference between men's and women's temperaments, and as he described in his book, Through Maasailand, "Maasai felt they were a superior race, and that all others were but as slaves before them."

Thomson had read the memo and knew nothing short of acceptable bribes would see him leave Maasailand alive. 

In the meantime, Maasai morans had already surrounded his tent with war cries, "their murderous spears gleaming in the sun as they gave them now and then a rotatory movement." When the chants died out, Thomson's men settled on the amount of bribe needed for the six distinct groups. But rather than hand over each consignment in an orderly manner, Thomson's men threw the goods out into the open before running for their lives. 

Even the formerly passive women joined in the mad rush for the spoil. "They had now lost their calm and dignified bearing, and had become rude and obtrusive; the young, unmarried women being the most insolent and not showing the slightest trace of fear." 

After the fight over bribes, the locals turned to Thomson in some uncanny examination of the white man, touching his face, hair, pushing their hands up the sleeves of his coat in what he termed as "annoying attentions".

He got irritated when one mean-looking warrior attempted to turn up his trousers and examine his privates. "I gave him a kick with my foot...he sprang back a few steps, drew his [sword] and was about to launch himself upon me," wrote Thomson. The moran was however subdued. 

Towards the end of the year, Thomson was gored by a buffalo, and got dysentery and delirium. He died in 1895.