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Status anxiety

A Kenyan education

5 January 2013

9:00 AM

5 January 2013

9:00 AM

I’m currently in Kenya with my family where I’m planning to stay for the next seven weeks. The official reason is to help my friend Aidan Hartley set up a primary school in Laikipia, but I have another, less pious motive. Last June, Aidan arranged for me to give a speech at Pembroke, his children’s prep school in the Rift Valley, and I was so taken with it I asked the headmistress if my own children could come for half a term. It has such an adventurous, Wild West atmosphere, I thought it would make a good contrast to the C of E primary school my children are at in Shepherd’s Bush. The headmistress agreed on condition that I teach a class in English literature. I’m going to start them off on The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber by Ernest Hemingway.

We spent our first four days here at the Karen Blixen safari camp in the Maasai Mara and the variety and abundance of the local wildlife was spellbinding. Even my jaded children were impressed. ‘This is so epic, Dad,’ said four-year-old Charlie, staring at a herd of zebra on our first safari drive. ‘It’s just like Madagascar.’

One of the highlights of our trip was a visit to a Maasai village, where every adult male has at least five wives. Each wife has her own mud hut where she sleeps with her half-dozen or so children and has to wait her turn as her husband makes the rounds. Caroline got quite irritated when I told our Maasai guide — a man called Dominic — that this custom had much to recommend it.

One of the reasons the men have so many wives is that divorce is expensive. When a Maasai man gets married his family pay the bride’s people a number of cows, depending on how desirable she is. This isn’t based on beauty — a minor consideration, according to Dominic — but on how rich her family is, i.e. how many cows they own. If the woman subsequently wants a divorce, her family have to return the original number of cows plus interest, which is calculated at one calf per original cow per year. So if a bride’s purchase price is 17 cows and she wants a divorce after ten years, her people have to come up with 187 cows.

Another perk of being born male into the Maasai is that only men inherit their father’s cows. That means that if a man dies leaving a widow and six orphans, his cows are divided between his male children. My daughter Sasha asked what happens if he just has girls and Dominic said that almost never happens because if a man’s first wife repeatedly gives birth to daughters that’s considered a legitimate reason to take a second — and so on until he produces a male heir.

Men have to look after their own cows — taking them out and grazing them and so forth — but only until one of their wives gives birth to a son. After that, responsibility for the family herd is soon turned over and we saw boys as young as four in charge of more than 200 cows. From this point on, Maasai men enter a period of blissful retirement, their only job being to service the womenfolk. Their sons look after the cows, while their wives and daughters do all the cooking and cleaning.

Learning about life in this Maasai community, I couldn’t help thinking of It Takes a Village, Hillary Clinton’s book urging Americans to be more ‘African’ in their approach to raising children. I don’t suppose many American feminists would approve of the division of labour among the Maasai — although if Bill Clinton had been born in a village like the one we visited, that would explain a lot.

A couple of days later on another safari drive we came across a pride of lions and I was immediately struck by how similar their domestic arrangements are to the Maasai’s. Not only does each lion have four or five ‘wives’, but the lionesses do nearly all of the hunting and have to give their ‘husband’ first dibs on whatever they kill. Once he’s reached his maturity and has his own family, the lion’s chief responsibility is impregnating his harem.

As we flew away from the Mara in a twin prop, both Caroline and Sasha were in shock, reeling from the lack of sexual equality among the humans and animals alike. My three sons, by contrast, were busy impersonating lions. I always knew this visit to Kenya would prove to be highly educational.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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