Skip to content
January 12, 2011 / Dan Whipple

How many wives?



The first thing Richard said to me on our walk was, “How many wives do you have, Dan?”

I told him experience taught me that one was enough. Usually more than enough.

He shook his head, disappointed. “In the Maasai,” he said, “you have at least four wives to be an important man. Your parents choose your first wife for you. Then the first wife chooses your second wife. When you get to the third wife, then you can choose.”

We were walking toward the Mara River, where we hoped to see—and in fact did see—a large herd of hippopotamuses drifting and snorting in the water. Do hippos come in herds? Richard told me that when we went to his village later, maybe my first wife could choose my next wife for me. I said this seemed like a good idea and I would mention it to Kathy. She agreed to the scheme rather more eagerly than I’d expected provided, however, the second wife’s surname was Rockefeller or Rothschild.


Hippos in the Mara River

Our attention was temporarily diverted from this discussion of wives. Despite our seasoned and well-armed guides, one with a Russian-made AK-47, we stumbled upon a small herd of elephants, strolling and eating, perhaps 30 meters downwind of us. Now if you’re thirty meters from the end zone on a football field, you think maybe it’s quite a way to go. But thirty meters from five elephants doesn’t seem so far, once you’re there looking them in the trunk and measuring. The AK-47, which seemed so large and reliable a minute ago, suddenly seemed inadequate to its mission. We back away, slowly at first, then at a race walk. Think of Wile E. Coyote sneaking up on the Roadrunner then moving away at speed. Like that.

elephants at a safe distance

We watch the elephants at a safe distance

The elephants receding safely into the distance, Richard returned to wives. “You need fifteen cows to get a wife. Do you have fifteen cows?” he asked me. I considered. I lived in Wyoming for a long time. Many of my friends have cows. Surely they wouldn’t miss fifteen. This fifteen cows is pretty much a flat rate. A wife gets fifteen cows, whether she’s got a Ph.D. in animal husbandry or you found her on the trail outside the village enkang. The enkang is a sort of fence made of acacia encircling the village to keep the lions out. The new wife’s family also gets seven additional cows as bride price, but this does not have to paid until later, and it can be paid in installments. The husband gives the new wife the fifteen cows. They’re hers.

After seeing the hippos and giving the elephants the slip, we headed to Richard’s village lying just at the foot of the Ololooloo Escarpment. The village is surrounded by the enkang, through which are cut a number of doors, one for each family that lives there. At night the herding boys bring the cows in through the owner’s door, then they are all gathered together in an interior corral for protection.

The Maasai (or Masai) have put up some of the strongest resistance to westernization among the Kenyan tribes. Many like Richard and his extended families still live in traditional ways, with some adjustments made for tourists. During the European colonization of Africa, the Maasai’s reputation for bravery and ferocity kept the Europeans largely out of their territory. In the late 1880s, even the best equipped European expeditions avoided the Maasai homelands or submitted “to humiliating exactions,” wrote Thomas Pakenham in The Scramble for Africa. The nomadic Maasai still cover enormous distances on foot. Men from Richard’s village will walk the cows to markets in Narok, perhaps 100 kilometers away, or Nairobi. Richard said they will walk for 37 kilometers (about 23 miles) a day for seven days to get to Nairobi. Me and my wives took the plane.

Maasai boys, tired and hungry after herding cattle all day

Maasai boys, tired and hungry after herding cattle all day

When Maasai boys come of age—between nine and, say, seventeen—they become warriors, living together in the manyatta, a camp away from the main village, in this case on the far side of the Ololooloo Escarpment. Their chief duty is to protect the camp from raiders and predatory wildlife. But they also walk all over Kenya, Tanzania and lord-only-know-where else. They can been seen wandering in their traditional dress, sometimes including their spears and clubs.

In the old days, Richard said, a warrior had to kill a lion to graduate into manhood. There are more Maasai warriors now than there are lions, so a compromise has been reached in which only one lion is killed by the entire graduating cohort of warriors to satisfy the requirement. This grudging accommodation is not entirely satisfactory to either side.


House for a new wife under construction

House for a new wife under construction

We entered Richard’s village, named Olonana, I think, but don’t hold me to it, to a warm welcome. Just to the left through the entrance, a new house was going up. Each wife gets a new house. “The senior wives build the house for the new wife,” Richard said. He eyed me quizzically. I told him I didn’t think this would be a problem, since we have a couple of rarely used spare bedrooms in our current house. We visited some of the existing houses, saw a demonstration of traditional fire starting in the council house, and were serenaded with welcoming songs by the current wives of the village elders, which you can hear and see here:

In the end, I managed to escape without a second wife, but not without various trinkets from the Maasai market set up especially for us at the end of the tour. These Maasai think they are pastoralists, but in fact they are natural-born salesmen. God help us if they ever discover collateralized debt obligations. I spent at least one cow there.

(Video by Kathy Bogan, senior wife)



Leave a Comment
  1. Doris Whipple / Jan 12 2011 7:40 pm

    Wow! Thank you! I really enjoyed it! Entertaining as well as a cultural learning experience.

  2. Judy / Jan 13 2011 1:31 am

    I did a quick check online about what to call a group of hippos. Seems that there are a number of collective nouns for hippos–herd is one, as well as bloat, raft, pod, float, thunder and huddle. Looks to me like you can call a group of hippos about anything you would like to…

    • Dan Whipple / Jan 13 2011 6:11 am

      After our encounters with hippos, I’m going to check with them to make sure they approve of the collective noun before I use it. “Huddle” seems very appropriate, though.

  3. chas / Jan 13 2011 3:59 pm

    Seems like “huddle” would also seem appropriate for having multiple wives…or perhaps “clutch.”
    From both of yawls posts it seems like your experience just keeps getting richer… BTW great video by Number One Wife.

  4. Sharaine / Jan 26 2011 12:05 am

    I had to regain my composure, I was laughing so hard! I would definitely not make it in the Masai! Glad that Kathy is still senior wife … would love to see pictures of the trinkets you bought. Can’t wait to visit you and Kathy some day and see the wonders of Kenya with my own eyes.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: