The Constant Apprentice is a place for curious humans to explore craft, visual arts, writing, nature, food, and all things classic, then and now.
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Blood & Leather Project completed

History records that rapacious, musket-armed Arab slave caravans of the 18th and 19th centuries avoided transiting what is now central and southern Kenya and northern Tanzania—it just wasn’t worth risking the wrath of the belligerent spear-wielding Maasai who dominated the region. Early European explorers as well dreaded the sight of a line of colorful leaf-shaped shields appearing on a hilltop, and took roundabout routes into the interior. Even the mighty British Empire never directly confronted the Maasai militarily, and relied instead on political sleight of hand to squeeze the tribe out of its best grazing lands once the area was deemed a protectorate.

While the Maasai no longer range and raid at will over the East African landscape, they have continued to fight to retain their identity as a tribe and culture, picking and choosing which bits of the modern world they wish to adapt. Thus a red-robed and sandaled herdsman leaning on a spear in the South Rift is quite likely to be chatting in Maa on a cell phone, and a smartly-dressed businessman in Nairobi might go home for the weekend to a hut surrounded by a thorn boma that keeps lions out of the livestock.

But one icon of Maasai history—those tall, intricately decorated rawhide shields, so universally recognizable that one features centrally on Kenya’s national flag—seemed lost forever, save as dusty relics in museums, rare and expensive objets d’art from exclusive curio dealers, or, tragically, as cheap, undersized, shoddily made tourist souvenirs. The loss was doubly sad since each shield’s design elements, or sirata, revealed detailed information about its bearer’s clan and achievements, and thus represented a tangible record of Maasai history.

This loss seemed unacceptable to two elders in the Olkirimatian community of Kenya’s South Rift Valley. Tonkei Ole Rimpaine and Karinte Ole Manka—both former shield bearers now in their 70s—approached ConserVentures, our small non-profit that often donates resources for cultural conservation projects, with a plan: They wanted to put together a workshop to build new shields, using authentic techniques and materials, with the immediate goal of producing examples to be displayed in a planned Maasai heritage museum, and the secondary but much more vital goal of passing on their knowledge to a younger generation. Through the generosity of several donors, we arranged to source rawhide and supply food and transportation to the group, and to use the Lale’enok Resource Center as a base. John Kamanga, the chairman of the Olkirimatian community and a driving force for Maasai cultural conservation, was our liason as we worked on logistics from 7,000 miles away. The construction team comprised John’s father, Ntetiyian Ole Pasoi, two other elders, Sipale Mpoe and Marikete Ole Ilelempu, and four women, Rijano Ene Ntetiyian (John’s mother), Majakus Ene Saitage, Moyiangei Ene Sampao, and Bebi Ene Mugesa.

Over the course of five days in late October, Tonkei and Karinte supervised the group while we photographed and filmed the entire process. In that time, one cowhide (the only major concession to the 21st century, the original cape buffalo being no longer available since Kenya banned hunting), some goatskin, and a pile of limbs from a Cordia senensis tree magically morphed into two sturdy shields—a stiff rawhide face backed by a carved, tensioned center stay and handgrip, the perimeter laced with goatskin around flexible Cordia wands. Then, alchemist concoctions of charred bone, ocher, limestone, and cow’s blood (the latter amusingly stored in an old Famous Grouse whiskey bottle), dabbed and streaked on the shields with chewed twigs, blossomed into recreations of the original Olkirimatian sirata. The two senior elders eyed each line and color critically, and more than once sections were scraped off and re-painted to achieve the proper symmetry. Throughout the process, young Maasai men of the community hung around to watch or help, taking cell-phone photos and fueling our hopes that some might be inspired to take up the craft as a business—we believe there’d be a ready market for detailed and authentic Maasai shields as a counterpoint to the cheesy tourist rubbish.

To us the end products—as far as we know the first true Maasai shields produced in decades—seemed like priceless artifacts. Yet before the paint was dry Tonkei and another elder had grabbed them and set to in a fierce mock duel, leaping and yelling like the Morani they were 50 years earlier while we cheered wincingly from the sidelines.

The completed shields, not minus a few scuff marks, are now stored at the Lale’enok Resource Center. One will be taken to Nairobi to be used in educational programs; the other is destined for the planned cultural museum to be built at a nearby archaeological site, Olorgesailie.

That is, as long as Tonkei Ole Rimpaine and Karinte Ole Manka don’t decide to requisition them, grab a couple of spears, and head out to raid cattle and take some land back from the British.

* * *

51-shield making team at Okiramatian1-elders-shields2-cow3-kill4-skinning and bleeding5-blood
6-stretching hide7-pegging hide8-ash on hide9-rubbing hide10-audience11-burning bones for pigment
12-fire for bones13-bones burning14-grinding burned bones to powder15-powders mixed with milk16-blood ready to mix for pigment17-dried hide
18-hide buried in boma dung19-hide under dung20-gathering rib poles by river21-Cordia poles for frame22-Elder and youth23-roughing in main rib

Photo gallery (51 images): click here.

ConserVentures provided photography and videography services for this project, and will be producing books, posters, and film for the Maasai Cultural Heritage Program. You can learn more about the South Rift Association of Land Owners and their programs at

The Jesuit final exam

I wasn’t lucky enough to know Reverend Anderson Bakewell, S. J. (Society of Jesus) before he died in 1999 at age 86. But my friend Steve Bodio knew him well and hunted with him.

Hunted? Yes—Bakewell was not your ordinary priest, even for a Jesuit. In the 1930s he collected reptiles and amphibians in Mexico and South America for the St. Louis Zoo (and had several of them named after him). In 1941 he climbed Mt. Wood in the St. Elias Range, at that time the highest unclimbed peak in North America. He went on to be the youngest member of H.W. Tilman’s attempt on Mt. Everest in 1950, the first from the south, which would prove Hillary’s and Norgay’s successful route three years later. In the meantime he earned a bachelor’s degree and did graduate work in astronomy, mathematics, and philosophy. Oh, and in 1942 he entered the Society of Jesus and did missionary work in India (where he helped prepare antivenom for snake bite treatment) and Alaska (where his parish comprised 35,000 square miles). And became a member of the Explorers Club along the way. And compiled a modest arsenal of fine weapons, including a .416 Rigby which a British officer friend got for him for $75 (they go for $20,000 today).

Bakewell in his Santa Fe home

Recently Bakewell’s biographer sent Steve a (presumably tongue-in-cheek) clip from a mid-80s Jesuit newsletter in his effects, titled “Jesuit Final Exam.” If you’re familiar with Heinlein’s classic “Specialization is for insects” quote from Time Enough for Love, this will strike you as sort of the same concept . . . on crack. Steve wonders whether, especially given the rifle reference, Bakewell might have had a heavy hand in concocting this.

INSTRUCTIONS: Read each question carefully. Answer all questions. Time limit: four hours. Begin immediately.

HISTORY: Describe the history of the papacy from its origins to the present day, concentrating especially, but not exclusively, on its social, political, economic, religious, and philosophical impact on Europe, Asia, America, and Africa. Be brief, concise, and specific.

MEDICINE: You have been provided with a razor blade, a piece of gauze, and a bottle of Scotch. Remove your appendix. Do not suture until your work has been inspected. You have fifteen minutes.

PUBLIC SPEAKING: Storming the classroom are 2500 riot-crazed aborigines. Calm them. You may use any ancient language except Latin or Greek.

BIOLOGY: Create life. Estimate the differences in subsequent human culture if this form of life had developed 500 million years earlier, with special attention to its probable effect on the English parliamentary system. Prove your thesis.

MUSIC: Write a piano concerto. Orchestrate and perform it with flute and drum. (You will find a piano under your seat).

PSYCHOLOGY: Estimate the sociological problems which might accompany the end of the world. Construct an experiment to test your theory.

ENGINEERING: The disassembled parts of a high-powered rifle have been placed in a box on your desk. You will also find an instruction manual, printed in Swahili. In ten minutes a hungry Bengal tiger will be admitted to the room. Take whatever action you feel appropriate. Be prepared to justify your decision.

ECONOMICS: Develop a realistic plan for refinancing the national debt. Trace the possible effects of your plan in the following areas: cubism, the Donatist controversy, the wave theory of light. Outline a method for preventing these effects. Criticize this method from all possible points of view, as demonstrated in your answer to the last question.

POLITICAL SCIENCE: There is a red telephone on the desk beside you. Start World War III. Report at length on its socio-political effects, if any.

EPISTEMOLOGY: Take a position for or against the truth. Prove the validity of your position.

PHYSICS: Explain the nature of matter. Include in your answer an evaluation of the impact of the development of mathematics on science.

PHILOSOPHY: Sketch the development of human thought; estimate its significance. Compare with the development of any other kind of thought.

I’ve occasionally mused on how many of Heinlein’s human skills I could claim (at last count I think I was pretty sure about 16, not counting of course “die gallantly,” which no one can claim until it actually happens). But the Jesuit list? Um . . . I could certainly assemble the rifle, even without the instructions. I have a rough concept of the development of human thought, and some pretty good theories as to the sociological problems that would accompany the end of the world.

And that’s about it.

Steve Bodio, left, and a 75-year-old Anderson Bakewell in Magdalena, New Mexico, in 1988

Land Cruisers of Baharia, Egypt

Land Cruisers of Baharia, Egypt, a set on Flickr.

The oasis of Baharia, about five hours south of Cairo, is the gateway to the Western Deserts and a major hub for expedition services and vehicles.

While there during the Sykes-MacDougal Centennial Expedition in February 2012, we had heard there was a booming trade in all things Land Cruisers, but we were not prepared for the sheer numbers of every type of Land Cruiser imaginable—and then some!

There were plenty of new, expensive models, sure, but there were many custom amalgamations that sometimes boggled the mind. Apparently, to avoid the high import duties on any vehicle (new or used), canny Egyptian mechanics in Baharia started bringing in halves and quarters of Land Cruisers from Japan and elsewhere, and then reassembling them after arrival—duty-free.

These photos were taken in just one day plus part of a morning, not even a full 8 hours in the town during daylight. There were hundreds—literally six or seven out of 10 vehicles was a Land Cruiser. Almost all the images are snapshots, taken out the window as we drove or shot quickly while walking; there are a couple of non-Land Cruisers in there, just too interesting not to include.