Sabore Ole Oyie, a warrior, elder and the chief of his age group in his village in Maasai territory in Kenya, is a tall man who dresses in clothing that is predominantly red. The color is a tradition that dates back to his ancestors fighting with other tribesmen over cattle rustling, Mr. Oyie explained during a hike in Wunderlich Park in Woodside on Friday. Without colored clothing, it was too hard to tell friends from enemies, he said.
Mr. Oyie, who is also a cultural ambassador for Kenya, is in the United States on a three-month fundraising visit to solicit aid to drill 400 wells to provide safe drinking water for 9,000 residents of the undeveloped Ewaso Nyiro region of Kenya.
Woodside resident John Novitsky, who visited with Mr. Oyie in Kenya, invited him to town to promote the well-drilling project and to hike to see what insights he might have in identifying mountain lion tracks. Wunderlich Park is a known mountain lion habitat and Mr. Oyie is an experienced tracker in big-cat country.
Others on the three-hour hike to and from the meadow at Alambique Flat included Lisa Raskin and Lea Goldstein, the co-presidents of Friends of Huddart & Wunderlich Parks; Veronica Zermani, a San Mateo County park ranger; and this reporter.
Mr. Oyie is adept at spotting animal tracks, as is Mr. Novitsky. Good indicators are paw-sized disturbances in the earth on the side of a trail. Mr. Oyie also easily picked out wild animal tracks in the dust of heavily traveled park roads amid the chaos of tracks left by humans and horses.
His abilities probably came with the territory in which he grew up and where he still lives -- near the Maasai Mara National Reserve and the famed Serengeti Plain.
Lions are indigenous to the area, as are elephants, cheetahs, leopards, hyenas, giraffe and cape buffalo, a "very, very dangerous" animal, Mr. Oyie said. One cape buffalo can withstand attacks by up to six lions for a couple of hours, he said.
In a land of danger, it's important to understand pain. Mr. Oyie was circumcised around age 12. The operation is instrumental in teaching boys to accept pain, he said, adding that they are not supposed to move, not even to blink an eye.
Encounters with animals were common during his walks to and from school, he said. "When you're walking, you find an elephant and you don't want him to smell you, so you take a different direction," he said. "In the presence of animals, you're always (adjusting)."
Maasai girls and women face similar challenges with animals on their daily 6-mile to 8-mile treks to fetch river water. The girls should be in classrooms, Mr. Oyie said. Along with wells, two classrooms for his tribe are another top priority.
His fundraising efforts have paid for two wells so far, an investment of about $70,000, Mr. Oyie said. One 310-foot well taps an underground river, but the water is contaminated with nitrates and fluorides, so decontaminating equipment is needed. The other, at 721 feet, is uncontaminated.
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A blessing before traveling
As a cultural ambassador for Kenya, Mr. Oyie has taken his message around the world, including to Japan, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Russia, Germany and Poland.
He was chosen for the position in part, he said, because he speaks English and already had a passport. His first trip abroad was to Japan to participate in a documentary about eyesight. Maasai are known for their excellent eyesight and healthy teeth.
His father had not wanted him to go to Japan, Mr. Oyie said. He relented after talking with men untroubled by the prospect of traveling abroad. Mr. Oyie also made his dad a batch of beer.
When his parents' approval did come, it included a symbolic gesture of departure. Mr. Oyie stepped through a small gateway on the ground composed of shrubbery on either side and cut grass covering the passage in between.
"It's really good," Mr. Oyie said of the ceremony. "You go where you're going and you have the blessing of your parents. They're always with you."
Also with him more or less all the time is a rungu, a highly polished club of olive wood about 18 inches long with a knob on one end. He made it for himself long ago. "The only time I feel naked is when I'm flying because I have to check it (as baggage)," he said.
When he is not traveling, Mr. Oyie lives in proximity to his relatives in a home made of sticks and cow dung. The nearest power plant is 200 miles away. Electricity is limited to what can be produced by solar power, but it's good enough to charge cellphones and power cellphone towers. When darkness falls, people go to sleep, he said.
Maasai arrange their dwellings in a circle inside a wide fence of acacia sticks. The acacia's 6-inch thorns make a formidable barrier to cattle rustlers and predators. As added protection, the tribe's cattle, goats and sheep are themselves enclosed in one or more inner circles also surrounded by acacia fences.
Of the two commodities necessary to their safe shelter, cow dung and acacia sticks, the sticks are the most valuable because they are the hardest to replace, Mr. Novitsky noted.
Killing a lion
The lions are a threat to the Maasai, but they are no longer killed in individual hunts unless they threaten livestock, according to the Maasai Association website. Instead, they are hunted in groups, to "give the lion population a chance to grow," the website says.
In his youth, Mr. Oyie killed two male lions while in a group, and he has the manes to prove it, he said. If it's a male, the lion's mane goes to the thrower of the spear that kills it.
The event involves some 25 youths, armed with spears, who gather around a lion, Mr. Oyie said. The lion, penned in by human bodies, considers the possibilities for escape by looking for weaknesses in its captors, seeing fear in their eyes or in their body language, Mr. Oyie said. When a lion feints at you, you do not want to step back, he said.
The lion will charge where it sees weakness, he said. The circle dissolves momentarily as the youths retreat from the lion's advance, then reforms a few seconds later only to dissolve again.
Injuries and pain are part of it. One female lion injured more than half the youths surrounding her before she was killed, Mr. Oyie recalled.
"Oooh, it's not fun," he said when asked about his own experiences. "The lion is very smart. ... It's very emotional sometimes. You want to be the lion killer."
If you happen to be in a circle with a younger sibling, killing the lion before your brother does becomes an imperative, Mr. Oyie said. "It's like showing that you're not strong if your (younger) brother spears the lion. It takes away a lot of marks from me." He grew up with 17 brothers.
Did he feel sorry for the lion? "Now, I feel sad for the lion," he said. "When I was a young man, no, I didn't feel sorry."