MOMBASA, Kenya (Reuters) - Maasai warrior Lempuris Lalasho went to Kenya’s tourist haven Mombasa to find a white woman to marry, but he ended up working as a hairdresser, a profession that is taboo in his culture.
His story opens a window on the strains faced by this ancient tribe as it adjusts to modern life in east Africa’s largest economy, whose Indian Ocean beaches lure thousands of tourists, including women seeking sex.
Maasai warriors, or moran, are a familiar sight on Kenya’s beaches and in its renowned safari parks -- dressed in distinctive red robes and wearing beaded jewellery, they often act as guides or work in security.
But sometimes, the eager young men who flock to the coast hoping to make their fortunes -- some with dreams of marrying a white tourist -- have to go against their traditions.
Lalasho’s status as a moran means he is charged with protecting and providing for his people, and it makes his transgression all the more serious.
Maasai warriors are not allowed to touch a woman’s head: it is regarded as demeaning in the patriarchal culture. Moran who become hairdressers risk a curse from the elders, or could even be expelled from the community.
“If my father finds out what I am doing he will be very mad at me or even chase me from home,” said Lalasho, who comes from Loitoktok, near Mount Kilimanjaro on the border with Tanzania.
“But I have to eat, that’s why I broke my taboo since city life is very expensive,” he said.
An estimated 500,000 to one million Maasai live in scattered and remote villages across northern Tanzania and southern Kenya, eking out a semi-nomadic existence with herds of precious cows.
As drought and hunger bite harder in their rural homes due to climate change and increased competition for resources, hundreds of Maasai men are heading to towns and cities.
In tourist resorts like Mombasa, these men end up as hotel workers, night guards, herbalists and hairdressers.
Lalasho, who is illiterate and does not know his age, was inspired by the good fortune of a friend, Leishorwa Mesieki.
“My friend Leishorwa is now rich. He married a mzungu (white) woman who took him to ... is it New Zealand or Switzerland? I don’t know. He came back to build a big house and bought so many cows. I envy him,” he added, shaking his head.
Lalasho did not have such luck and he was forced to use his skills at spinning hair, which he learnt during his initiation into moranhood in a thicket near Mount Kilimanjaro.
Morans learn to weave hair into thin, rasta-like dreadlocks during the initiation, which takes place when boys are aged between 17 and 20. The warriors’ hair is often dyed red as well, and the red style is popular among women in cities.
For Maasai elder Michael Ole Tiampati, the fate of men like Lalasho threatens the wider Maasai culture.
“It’s an abomination and demeaning for a moran or Maasai man to touch a woman’s head,” said Tiampati, media officer for the Maa Civil Society Forum, which protects Maasai traditions.
“They have gone against the cultural fibre ... They have to pay a price to be accepted back into the society,” he said.
Kenya’s Maasai are based in the picturesque Great Rift Valley region, home to the famous Maasai Mara game park. But the tribe who gave the park its name earn little from tourism, which is among Kenya’s top three foreign currency earners.
This lack of revenue pushes young Maasai into other activities, but their increasing renown in tourist resorts is also bringing competition.
Men from tribes like the Kikuyu or Samburu are disguising themselves as Maasai on the beaches of Mombasa and elsewhere.
“Foreign tourists love Maasai for their sincerity. We are good-hearted people who do not feel jealous,” Lalasho said.
Tiampati is more explicit.
“(Maasai) warriors are perceived to be erotic, that is why women pensioners from Europe come to look for them. The warriors take a lot of herbs -- some known to have Viagra-like contents like the bark of black acacia tree -- to re-invigorate their loins.”
The copy-cat trend has angered some Maasai.
“It’s the beginning of an end of Maasai culture,” said tour guide Isac Oramat in Nairobi.
“Soon our tradition will just exist in books ... I warn tourists to be aware of these fake Maasais.”
But for the morans in Mombasa, survival for now takes precedence over preserving their traditional ways.
“I have not gone to school. This is the only thing I can do,” said hairdresser Ole Sambweti Ndoika, 35.
“The women here love our style. We get good money ... I hope to save enough to marry my second wife ... by end of the year,” said the father-of-four from Narok in the Rift Valley.
Longishu Nyangusi, 25, also works as a hairdresser and like Lalasho came to Mombasa to find a white tourist wife. He says his lack of English has held him back.
“I could have hooked a white woman by now. I regret refusing to go to school. I was fooled by our fat cows and thought life is just fine,” he said near his open-air salon-cum-shop.
Editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile