on the roof of the house I built near Djenne in Mali

I was born in 1956 and studied literature at the university of Amsterdam. In 1980 I made a trip around the world. When I returned I decided that I didn’t want to be an academic but a traveller and a writer. In the 1980s I started working as a journalist. In that same period I started travelling again, often to Africa. I crossed the Sahara 12 times in this period and explored most parts of the continent.

From the late 80s I started filming, first as a documentary maker for Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and Dutch television. I founded my own production company and directed and produced more than 20 feature length documentaries and feature films in the years that followed in Europe, the US, Africa and Asia. My films were broadcast in many countries and have won several prizes at festivals.

If you want to read more about my films and watch click HERE

In 1996 I sold my business and went to Africa, where I lived and travelled for the next 12 years. Since 2000, I made three feature documentaries about Africa and made my 12 part documentary series Spirits of Africa about traditional healers.

From 2019-2023 I made Histories of the Alentejo, a series of short documentaries about Portugal before the 1974 revolution.

From 2001 onwards I published 15 books. Several of them were bestsellers, like ‘Solitaire’ which is now in its 22nd reprint. This novel about my experiences in Namibia appeared in English in 2018 and my book ‘The Sandcastle’ about my life in Mali appeared in German in 2019 (Pagma Verlag). You can order from Pagma Verlag.

My other books have not (yet) been translated into English. One of my stories appeared in an English collection which also featured stories by Michael Palin, Paulo Coelho and other international writers.

I have also published three historical novels, three childrens’ books and two biographies.

In the autumn of 2024, my new book The Others, asylum seekers in the Netherlands will be published.


In 2020 I founded Portugal Filmschool with the purpose of giving beginning documentary filmmakers the chance to make their first short film during a two week non profit course in south Portugal, where I live during part of the year. In 2024 I started a continuation of this film school in the Netherlands called Holland Film Farm.


Here is a brief introduction to four of my books in English, followed by some excerpts from the text.

Ton van der Lee: a short introduction to his ‘African trilogy’

Ton van der Lee was a successful film director/producer based in Amsterdam. At age 40, hungry for adventure and spiritual renewal, he gave up everything and left for Africa with a one way ticket and no plans.
His first book, ‘Solitaire’ , starts off in South Africa and recounts the three years he spent in a remote part of the Namibian desert. He joined two local men, who taught him how to hunt and survive. After a year they set up a primitive restaurant and campsite as tourism to the Namibian desert began to develop. Things got out of hand when, within a year, the amount of visitors grew from two a week to fifty per day. Ton van der Lee learned the meaning of the proverb  ‘money is the root of all evil’.  
The book includes descriptions of trips into Bushman land (Botswana), the Kalahari Desert, Okavango Delta and the remote Himba region (near the Angola border).
It is a tale of paradise found and lost again.

In the second book, ‘The Sandcastle’, Ton van der Lee continues his quest for the heartbeat of Africa. It recounts his move to the heartland of West Africa. As a student he had stayed with the painter Salvador Dali, who had designed a house for him in the shape of a surrealist castle. In a remote part of Mali, not far from Timbuktu, he found a traditional style of building resembling Dali’s design. He settled there, learned the local language and helped by local masons with millennium old secrets he built his ‘Sandcastle’, which is actually constructed of adobe. During this time (4 years) he develops a relationship with a local woman from a nomadic tribe who is finally and tragically forced into a pre-arranged marriage by her family. The book includes a crossing of the Sahara desert (Mauretania, Morocco), a journey along the historic cities of the Senegal river, and an exploration of the region where the legendary Dogon live, but is chiefly centred around  the ancient cities of Timbuktu and Djenne in Mali.

His third book, ‘The Dance of the Spirits’ centers on the spiritual side of the African experience. It recounts how the author becomes the apprentice of a shaman, is initiated into the ancient religion of the Songhai tribe, and participates in dances of possession. Guided by an initiate, he embarks on a hazardous quest to follow The Path, a journey through remote regions in search of enlightenment and the traditional heart of Africa. Its locations are Niger and Mali.

All three books are a combination of travelogue, adventure, and a personal quest for the spiritual heart of Africa. For many Dutch and Belgian readers they have become a favorite introduction to Africa.

In 2008 Ton van der Lee published ‘Secrets of the Maasai’, a book-DVD which is the account of a very special expedition to the mountain stronghold of the high priest of the Maasai. Van der Lee and his travel companion were the first western persons to be received by the high priest and were allowed to film, witness and participate in a number of hitherto secret rituals. The book-DVD contains a wealth of unique material.



I live under a tree in a dry riverbed. All around me, the barren wastes of the Namib desert stretch away into the shimmering distance. I sleep on an improvised bed in the sand. Around my bed I have made a circle of rocks and branches to frighten off the scorpions and the snakes. I don’t know if it works.
The three buildings which make up the village of Solitaire are a mile away. Peter, the owner of Solitaire and the surrounding desert, lets me camp here.
He has lived at this remote junction of dirt tracks in the middle of the Namib Desert for years. His only company are Moose, his brother-in-law, and the jackals that howl in the night.
His wife ran away with the kids. She lives in the capital, where she owns a small shop that sells bridal clothes. Once a year, at Christmas, she comes round. Moose never had a wife. He’s too fat, and he drinks too much.
Peter and Moose live off the shop and the petrol pump. Solitaire is the first stop after Walvis Bay, 180 miles to the north.  In between there is nothing, absolutely nothing, except barren desert. People have no choice, they have to fill up here. The next town down the road has twenty houses, and is almost 200 miles away.
The shop sells canned food, beer and liquor, strips of zebra meat (shot and dried by Peter), and homemade bread, the specialty of Moose.

Solitaire is always open. Four or five cars pass by every day. You can see them coming for miles because of the dustclouds.
The two men sit on the old, creaking veranda all day and watch the mountains in the distance. I slept in the kitchen behind the shop for a while. Moose sleeps in a cabin next to the generator, which is usually broken. Peter lives in a small house made of corrugated iron, by the well.
The kitchen floor became too hard for me so I moved to an enormous camelthorn tree on the bank of a bone dry river. It comes out of the mountains in the east, winds its way through the plains, and somewhere in the west it must reach the hills I call the Three Sisters. The mountains here have no names, except in the language of the wandering Nama, which nobody understands, and is impossible to pronounce with its strange clicks.

I’m very happy with my camp. The river sand is soft and white. Between the banks there is a microclimate. There are a lot of bushes and plants, yesterday I counted twelve different ones that were flowering. It almost never rains in this desert, but there is a heavy dew every night. The animals and the plants have adapted. There is a lizard here that climbs up on the edge of a dune at dawn and unfolds a specialised collar. The dewdrops are caught in the collar and roll straight down into its mouth. There are lots of insects and small animals. I see their tracks in the sand every morning. There are burrows of earth wolves in the riverbanks nearby. At night I hear them sniffing around, rustling through the undergrowth.
The tree provides me with a pleasant shade. It is January and in the daytime it gets very hot, up to 40 degrees. I sleep on a mattress in the sand. Around my bed I have made a circle of rocks and branches, and I have dug out a shallow moat in the sand, to frighten off the scorpions and the snakes. I don’t know if it works.
 Towards dusk I make a small fire and stare at the sun going down between the Three Sisters, somewhere far away where the cold South Atlantic Ocean breaks on the desert beach. It’s a magnificent spectacle, and it is different every day, orchestrated flawlessly by an invisible director for my pleasure.

I go to bed early and get up at dawn. The tree also shelters me from the cold dew.
Usually, I wake up sometime in the middle of the night.   I put on my slippers and walk up the river bed, by the light of the moon I watch for scorpions I might step on, they stand out black against the white sand. I take a pee, look up at the enormous sky full of white shiny stars and feel happy. I think I’ve found my place.
I’m not quite sure yet, but I do get the feeling that I’d like to stay here, in this beautiful, virgin desert, where nature is untainted, where tourism has not reached yet, and where the spirit of mother earth hovers over the plains.
When I stand there and look up at the sky I feel the spirituality I was looking for all around me. I suddenly understand the people who say that the earth is one big, living organism. I’d like to include the sky and the stars, too, because it all feels like a logical, organic whole that could not have been different, that is perfect in itself. I can almost hear the creature breathe. How can it be that I had lost every inkling of its existence, back in Amsterdam.  Almost lost, I should say, I remembered enough to go and look for it.
This is how our ancestors must have lived for hundreds of thousands of years, in harmony with nature, a part of it.
Romantic feelings, which are interrupted roughly when the diesel pump by the waterhole roars into life at six in the morning and tears the pristine desert silence to pieces. Fortunately it only takes half an hour to pump up enough water for the rest of the day.


Excerpt one: a visit to Salvador Dali

Salvador Dali is dressed in a long, flowing, purple robe. In his hand he holds an antique staff embellished with miniatures.
He fingers the long, stiff points of his famous moustache, and proudly tells me the staff was made for Catherine de Medici, medieval ruler of Florence.
‘Since those days’, he says with an offhand gesture, ‘it has only been in the possession of the great and mighty of this earth, such as myself’.
I nod, and look around me. We are standing on the patio of Dali’s house, where he has lived for almost forty years now with his wife and muse, Gala. The view of the bay is familiar to me from his paintings, as is the naked back of Gala, which is visible through one of the windows.
‘What do you think of the house?’, he asks.
These are the early seventies, the time of hashish and psychedelic rock, and Dali’s surrealistic paintings are popular with young people all over the world.
I know the history of this house. Forty years ago,  Dali bought a derelict fisherman’s cottage on the bay. He restored it, bought the one next to it, and another, and another. He linked them together, added weird and fantastical constructions of his own invention, and slowly this whimsical castle came into being, full of twisting stairways, strange turrets, unexpected patio’s and terraces.
‘It feels like I’m in a dream’, I tell him.
He smiles, gratified.
‘One day, I would like to build something like this’, I say spontaneously.
Dali looks me in the eye. He does not laugh at me.
’You can, you can. Every human being is a God’.
He picks up a sketchbook. In a few strokes, he draws a building with strange towers, a cloister of twisting columns, and bizarre roof ornaments. A castle of dreams.
It seems to awaken something deep inside me.
‘Something like this?’, Dali says, with a smile.
I nod, speechless.
‘They build in this style somewhere in Africa. I’ve forgotten where’, Dali says. ‘Wanted to go, but never made it. And now I’m too old’.
He hands me the sketch.
‘Don’t be afraid. Follow your dream.’

Excerpt 2: Caves of the Dead

The cliff rises up steeply in front of me. High up,  I can see the ruins of an ancient, abandoned Dogon village. The crumbling houses cling to the rock face and balance precariously on narrow ledges. Life must have been tough and dangerous here.
I am getting a little winded from the steep climb, and ask Arama to stop for a rest in the shade of a stunted baobab. While I drink some musty water from a gourd, Arama clims into the tree and collects its juicy leaves. They are used to make a delicious sauce. In Dogon country, there are no shops, and most people still live from hunting and gathering, and a little agriculture.
As we climb on, the sun rises high into the hazy blue sky and the rocks begin to get hot to the touch. Here and there I have to hoist myself up by grabbing roots and ledges. Far below us, the village we have started from is no more than a dark speck on the hot, shimmering plain.
Finally, we arrive at the first caves. They are little more than shallow holes in the cliff face, where the Dogon have been burying their dead for centuries. In the first cave, we find a single skeleton. The grey, crumbling bone is partially covered by shreds of the shroud the deceased was wrapped in when he was taken to his grave. The skull has come loose and has rolled into a dark recess. The next cave, which is much larger, startles me. Dozens of skulls stare at me with hollow eyes, there are stacks of yellow bones everywhere. Between the dead I see broken gourds, earthenware pots, necklaces and other objects. Arama fingers the protective amulet around his neck, and stares at the dead bodies of his ancestors with a mixture of reverence and fear.

Excerpt 3: In love with a nomad’s daughter

Every morning around eleven, the papaya girl stops at the hotel where I live until my house is finished.
She is tall and slender, she has the light brown skin, almond shaped eyes, and graceful features typical of the Fulani nomads. She puts her basketful of fruit down by the gate and waits for customers. Sometimes I buy a papaya, which I eat in my room.
Her name is Mamou. As we get to know each other, I pay less and less for my papaya’s. I start buying one every day, although I can hardly eat all of them. But I don’t want to disappointment Mamou. And I want to see her shy smile, the graceful way she puts her basket down, I want to see her body move under her dress while she picks out a nice, ripe papaya for me, and hands it to me. Every time she tries to pronounce my name, she breaks down in giggles because she just can’t get it right.
There is a vague smell of fruit and milk about her that makes me feel good.
One day, Mamou does not stop at the gate but climbs the stairs with her basket. She enters my room and sits down as if this is nothing out of the ordinary. Her long dark hair is in plaits today. She wears a necklace of golden amber and her earrings jangle faintly when she moves her head. The tattoos around her mouth and eyes form dark, intricate  patterns on her lightbrown skin.
She has put henna on her feet, and small silver rings on het toes.
Without a word, she comes and sits next to me on the bed. She takes my hand. I feel the warmth of her body and hold my breath, too astonished to do or say anything. Giggling softly, she gently pushes me backwards, onto the bed.
Hours later, I wake up. Mamou has left while I was still asleep. On the window sill is a large, orange papaya. She is gone, but inside the room, some of her fragrance still lingers. After a while I open the door and walk out on the veranda with blinking eyes. The sun is already setting. She is probably back in her family’s camp by now, a few miles outside the town, somewhere in the bush, among the straw huts, the cows, the goats, and the smouldering campfires.
She’s gone, but I know she will be back.


I am sitting on the flat roof of my house. The sun has just risen and the endless plains of the Sahel are bathing in its orange glow. Below me the river reflects the first light. Fishermen are returning home in their dugouts after a long night on the water. Women squat in front of the straw huts along the riverbank and light their cooking fires. Their long robes billow in the dawn breeze and the first smoke rises to the sky. A flight of white herons swoops down to the water’s edge. The leaves of the tamarind tree by my house whisper in the warm wind.
I love this land with all my heart and soul. It has been five years since I arrived here, after a three year trip that took me all over Africa.
I had fled the West. It was all getting too much for me. Pollution and waste, stress and indifference. Concrete and asphalt, walls and fences. Too much materialism and a frightening lack of spirituality. I felt that I was dying slowly. My soul was gasping for air. I wanted to get back to nature, I wanted to learn how to listen to the heartbeat of the earth. I wanted to become a human being again.
I am not a dreamer, I never was and I never will be. I come from a sober, practical family and I started my own business when I was young. The media fascinated me and I founded my own film company. Before I knew it, I had an office in the centre of Amsterdam, too many employees and three mobile phones that never seemed to stop ringing. I had a lovely girlfriend, a brand new Mercedes and a beautiful house on one of the historic canals.
For years, things went well. Everyone ran, and I ran with the rest of them. I bought stocks, I bought options, I bought a country house. Business was great. I worked day and night. I got up at six in the morning and came home at eleven in the evening. I saw my parents once every few months. My old friends – I had no time for them anymore. I only had colleagues left. My girlfriend left me, but I hardly noticed. I went on. And on. And on. Until something snapped.
It was a small thing, really, that triggered it all. Something ridiculous, in fact. It was a lovely spring morning. I was sitting on a terrace with two colleagues. We were discussing a new film plan. It was to be a major production with a lot of foreign investment. My mobile phone rang and I answered it. While I was talking, my colleagues also started telephoning. I looked around me and saw that almost everyone on the terrace was talking into their cellphones. No one really noticed eachother, everyone was totally occupied with his own phone.
Then a small bird landed on our table. It picked up a few crumbs, looked at us one by one, as if it was surprised by something and then it flew off. I kept watching it getting smaller and smaller until it was just a tiny dot in the air, and I finally could not see it anymore.
‘Hello?’ I heard a surprised voice at the other end of the line. ‘Hello?’
I did not answer. A feeling of enormous loneliness and pointlessness came over me. I hung up, put my cellphone on the table, got up and walked away. I looked back for a moment and saw that my two colleagues were still on the phone. One of them waved to me absently.
I flagged down a taxi, went home, pulled a suitcase out of my cupboard and started packing. I called the travel agency that always arranged the tickets for my film productions. That same evening I was on a night flight to Capetown. With a one way ticket. More expensive than a return flight, the girl from the agency had said with some surprise. But I had insisted. It was a symbolical gesture.
The next morning I took a cab from the airport to the outskirts of Capetown, where all the used car dealers are. We passed through huge, miserable shantytowns where halfnaked, hungry-looking children were playing in the dirt.
A coloured man with a beer belly sold me an old Ford stationwagon. I put my suitcase in the back, bought a map at a petrol station and drove north, out of Capetown and into Africa.
I stopped at a telephone booth, called my accountant and told him to sell my business and put my house up for rent. Before he could utter a word of protest I hung up. From the post office of Paarl, the first small town I came to, I sent a telegramme to my parents: ‘Gone to Africa. Staying indefinitely. All well. Love you.’ At a general store I bought all the gear I needed to camp out, far away from towns, hotels and tarred roads, far from civilisation. That was the start of a long trip which was to last three years.
Africa was all I had hoped for, and more. I felt free, as free as I had never felt before. I travelled through hills and valleys, across endless landscapes of mountain and desert, of forests and lakes. Africa welcomed me like a lost child. It embraced me and comforted me. I learned to listen to the voice of nature. I slept under the stars, I lived with the sun and the moon. Within a few weeks, my past in Europe had become a distant dream. I realised that I had taken the right decision. The urge to get up and leave had been the result of a process that must have been going on for years within me at a deep, subconscious level. Gradually I began to realise why I had left. I was myself, for the first time in my life.

From my rooftop I can see the outline of the town of Djenné in the distance. This is where I have finally settled down. I had seen the tropical coasts of Natal, the summits of the Drakensberg Mountains and the flowery pastures of Namaqualand. I had drunk tombo beer wiht the Herero of Otjiwarongo, spied on pink flamingo’s in the salt pans of the Kalahari Desert with the Bushmen, and I had gone to church with the white reformed farmers of Keetmanshoop. I had spent a lot of time in the heart of the Namib desert, I had seen the giant white spider dancing on the dunes and I had seen the zebras mating in the sunbaked mountains of Kaokoland. I had seen the cold waves breaking on the barren, lifeless beaches of the Skeleton Coast, seen herds of elephant bathing on the banks of the Chobe river, I had seen buffalo graze on the islands of the Okavango Delta and smoked marihuana with the Tonga people of Lake Kariba. I had seen the tea plantations of the breezy Iringa mountains and watched the giraffe of the Tanzanian lowlands gallop through the savanna. I had drunk whisky with war veterans in Mozambique and listened to the melancholy stories of Indians in Dar-Es-Salaam. I had sailed to Zanzibar in a dhow and made love to a Kikuyu woman on the beach of Pemba.
I had been ill, I had suffered from malaria, black water fever, typhoid and dysentery, I had been tired, angry and desperate, but I had fallen in love, I had become hopelessly addicted to the great mystery called Africa. I had travelled on, further to the west. I had seen the island of Gorée, which glitters like a jewel in the blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean. I had travelled up the Senegal river, I roamed through the Sahara and the endless wastes of the Sahel, always onwards towards the heart of Africa, until, one late afternoon in the hottest time of the year, I saw the walls and towers of Djenné rise up in the distance.
I arrived when the sun was already going down and drove slowly through the narrow, twisting streets. Everything was made out of adobe, the streets, the walls, the houses. I got the feeling that I had arrived in an unreal town, which had not been created by the hands of men but had slowly evolved over the centuries like a living organism. I saw towers, stairways and terraces, balconies and turrets, slanting walkways, pillars, walls and facades glowing in every imaginable shade of red, brown, ochre, yellow and terracotta. I saw ancient wooden doors embossed with copper, I saw secluded courtyards with shady trees and cool fountains where graceful people in long robes were resting after the heat of the day.
I knew that Djenné was one of Africa’s most beautiful towns, and definitely one of its oldest, for its history goes back almost three thousand years. But nothing could have prepared me for this overwhelming wealth of shapes and colours. I drove through the streets slowly, until the houses suddenly fell back and I found myself in the large central square. It was dominated by a huge, redbrown building with three enormous towers. Its pointed turrets stood out like dark silhouettes against the slowly dying light on the horizon. I switched off my engine, got out of the car, and I felt small, very small.
The mosque of Djenné, the largest adobe building in the world, radiated a majestic power and effortless beauty I had not experienced before. I took a deep breath, and suddenly I knew. I realised it immediately, without a doubt. This was the place where I would settle down.



(Toya, a former Maasai warrior, recalls the three day ceremony during which he and 2000 other Maasai warriors were initiated into a new age group. This ceremony is also on the DVD)

We left with a small group of warriors for the valley where the ceremony would take place. As we got closer we met more and more other warriors. Some of them we knew, others I had never met before. When I got to the top of the hill and saw the valley below me, full of people, of cows, of dancing warriors, women in their best clothes and priests from all over Maasai land, I was overwhelmed by emotion. I felt myself grow, I realised I was not just one man, but part of a larger whole.
There was a big enclosure where rich Maasai had sent oxen to be slaughtered during the ceremonies. Fires were burning and big red flags were flying in the wind above the sacred huts. Everywhere I heard the battle cries of arriving warriors and the singing of women welcoming them. The atmosphere was very special, a feeling of expectation and excitement but also of enormous power. That old feeling the Maasai must have had in the past, when they were the lords of all East Africa and all other tribes took flight before them. It was a religious feeling, as if our God Engkai was very close that day.

The next morning the rituals began. That night we had hardly slept, because we were so excited. First the warriors formed a long line. Everyone was dressed in his best outfit and carried all his weapons. Everywhere I saw warriors with headdresses made from lion’s manes or ostrich feathers and for the first time, I saw men who had painted their faces half red and half white. Those are the ones that have killed a human enemy.
We began to dance, hundreds, thousands of warriors at the same time.  We formed battle formations and executed mock skirmishes. We were one, we sang with one voice and the sound rose up to the sky. Some warriors got into a trance. They shook and shivered, they screamed, they fell to the ground and foam came out of their mouths. Two of our group were touched by god in that way, we had to hold them down so they would not hurt themselves.

They brought a big black ox. There wasn’t a single spot on its skin. It was drunk on the honeybeer they had been giving it and it staggered around. Green leaves had been woven around its horns and it smelled of the sweet herbs they had been feeding it. The warriors grabbed the animal by the horns, wrestled it to the ground and wrapped a leather skin around its muzzle. It was slowly choked to death. It has to be done that way to keep the sacred breath inside it. The blood was tapped from its veins and collected in a flap of skin that had been cut loose. One by one we had to kneel and take a sip of the blood, that the priests had mixed with milk and special herbs. That way we sealed the unison of our age group. We had all drunk the blood of the same holy ox, we belonged together and it would stay that way until we died.
While the old men carefully began to skin the ox, the warriors left for the forest. There, at a special place the priests showed us, we hacked out lumps of white clay and softened it with the water streaming at our feet. We painted eachother with it, our arms, our legs, our faces. We no longer felt like individuals but like something different, something bigger and more important, we had forgotten who we were, everyone sang, danced and embraced eachother, we were one, the bravest generation of Maasai warriors that had ever existed.
Then we returned to the holy village. The girls were waiting for us there, they formed long lines and danced with us. They sang us songs, some in which they insulted us and said we wanted to stop being warriors because we had become old and cowardly, but in other songs they praised us because we were finally ready to start a home and a family.
When the dance was finished we filed past the priests who blessed us by spitting milk on our heads. Then it was time to eat meat and drink honey beer. We went on until we were so tired we fell asleep in the high grass and only the old men and the priests stayed awake.

On the second day they brought the skin of the holy ox that had been slaughtered the day before. The old men cut it into long strips, and the strips into short bits. A priest tied the short strips of leather around the ring finger of each of us. That is how we all got our rings of cowskin. The uncut hide symbolises the whole generation of warriors, which is undivided. The ring around the finger of each warrior means he is now an individual and must go his own way, but will always remain a part of his age group.
Yes, our Eunoto was a beautiful time. Only the third day was difficult. It was the day our mothers came to cut off our long dreadlocks. We had to sit down and the mothers stood behind us with razorblades. When I felt the razor on my head, I knew my life as a warrior was really over. My long locks, which were heavy with ochre and grease, fell to the ground. With each fallen lock I became a little less of a warrior. Now my youth was finally gone.
When everyone was shaven, the women came to grease our bald heads with cowfat and paint them red. Then the priests prayed with us and asked god that we should become responsible tribal elders with many children and lots of cattle.
At the end of that day everything was different. We were no longer warriors. I felt sad and lost. I think we all felt that way. Our thoughts went to the future and the life ahead of us. We would have to make a life of our own, find a wife, start a herd, build a house, we were going to have children.
The priests and the tribal elders spoke to us earnestly, they told us stories and gave us advice about the future. In the meantime, the women were packing up and saddling their donkeys. We said goodbye to our friends, some we had known for years and others we had just met. We were blessed for the final time by the priests. Then we took our things and left the holy village, some alone, some in small groups. Everyone was silent, different, changed for ever. Behind us the ceremonial huts were torched, for that is our tradition. The sky was full of fire and smoke. It was not only those huts that went up in flames, but my youth and my years as a warrior too.


(the author and his travelling companion Senteu are sitting by a small stream with Toya and Meromo, two Maasai herdsmen they have made friends with)

We sit down on the trunk of a fallen tree by the bank of a small stream. Toya gathers some dead wood and starts a fire. Meromo plants his spear in the ground and vanishes into the forest. He has promised to cut me a rungu, the cattle stick that all Maasai herdsmen use.
Toya calls something out to him in Maasai.
‘When he gets back you should ask Meromo about the day of his lion hunt,’ he says to us with a wink. 
‘He asked him why he did not bring his spear with him,’ Senteu translates for me. ‘In case he meets a lion.’
A few minutes later, Meromo reappears with a sturdy branch.
When we are settled around the fire and Meromo is carefully peeling the bark off the stick I ask him whether he saw any lions in the forest.
His face lights up.
‘Not today. But if I did meet one, I would know what to do,’ he says in an offhand manner.
‘How do you mean?’ Toya asks.
Meromo does not seem to notice his teasing tone of voice.
‘It was in my days as a warrior,’ Meromo begins. ‘Someone had spotted a lion and we had decide to track and kill it. I had been chosen to round up all the warriors at daybreak in their bush camps because I was the fastest runner.’
Toya winks at us but Meromo does not seem to notice.
‘I had tied an iron bell to my thigh to wake everyone up. That is our tradition. While I ran from camp to camp I sang the song of the warrior who is afraid of nothing.’
Meromo gets up and takes a deep breath. His eyes are glowing.

‘Bird of prey, friend that flies high
Meet me at the battlefield
In the land where the lion lives
For there you will find much food
If I will not be killed there
I will kill. You will feed
On my body or that of my enemy.

Meromo sits down again.
‘The warriors came together. Everyone was fully armed with spears, swords and shields.  Otherwise we were naked for a Maasai warrior knows no fear. Our skin shone with grease and red ochre, our hair was long and our knives glittered in the morning sun. There were about twenty of us, all young, strong and healthy. That day, Black Engkai was with us.’
(The Maasai recognise two aspects of their female god Engkai. Engkai Narok, the black god, is benevolent. She is present in the black clouds and the rain that they bring. Red Engkai, Engkai Nanyokie, is the lightning which strikes and kills cattle and people. She also stands for the season of drought that brings hunger and death.)
‘We discussed where we might find the lion and then we started off in a long line. I was one of the best runners and went ahead. Soon I was alone for I ran faster than the others. I ran and ran, I never tired until I saw the lion in the high grass. I stopped and cried “Eele!”. The warriors behind me took over my cry. When we had all gathered we crept closer. The lion had already heard and smelled us, of course, but it hid among the grasses, it pressed itself against the ground. Suddenly, when we were very close, it jumped up and ran.’
‘When a lion sees Maasai warriors, it always runs,’ Toya adds. ‘Normally it will turn around and fight but it knows that it has no chance against us.’
‘The lion wanted to escape,’ Meromo continues, ‘but we were faster and formed a large circle around it. We sang the songs our fathers had taught us, the words that every lion fears, and slowly closed in on him. It was a male, a large animal with black manes. I knew what he was going to do, every warrior knows that. He will attack the man who throws the first spear. The warrior who throws the first spear must call out his name and the name of his clan. That way, everyone knows who he is and he can claim the honor of the kill. If he lives, that is, for when he has speared the lion he must step out of the circle and draw his sword. The lion will run for him and that is the moment when the other warriors attack and throw their spears. If they do not manage to kill the lion right away the first warrior must kill it with his sword. In such a fight people often die.’
‘There is another possibility,’ Toya says. ‘If a warrior is very brave he will throw away his spear, step into the circle and grab the lion by the tail. Once he has grabbed it, all warriors attack at once.’
‘Anyway, we had circled the lion,’ Meromo continues impatiently. He has gotten up again. His knife and the half-peeled stick are lying on the ground, forgotten. ‘I thought of my ancestors and of eternal fame. I thought of the girl I loved and stepped forward while I called out my name and that of my clan. A few moments later the lion was dead on the ground, with twenty or more spears in its flanks and its belly.’
‘You are forgetting something,’ Toya interrupts.
Meromo continues without a reaction.
‘When we got back to the village everyone was waiting for us. The girls were wearing their best beads and dresses, the women had roasted meat and the old men arrived with gourds full of honey beer. The most beautiful girls danced with the warriors who had claimed the kill and adorned themselves with the manes and the claws of the lion. Everyone danced and sang and praised our immortal courage.’
‘So during the Eunoto ceremony you wore a lion’s mane?’, Senteu asks. ‘I was there but I never noticed that.’
Meromo suddenly sits down.
‘Meromo did not wear any headddress at his Eunoto,’ Toya says with a laugh.
During the Eunoto, a ceremony which marks the transition of a warrior to young elderhood, every warrior wears the symbol of his courage. Some have a headdress that is made from the manes of a lion. They are those (rare) warriors who threw the first spear and managed to kill the lion. Some wear a lion’s claw on their belt; it is awarded to the man who threw the second spear during the hunt.
At the Eunoto, there are more warriors who wear the signs of the ostrich or the buffalo, which are easier to kill. Other animals are not considered dangerous enough by the Maasai to be a trophy. Then there are those who have painted their faces half white and half red, a horrendous mask that signifies they have killed a human enemy.
‘I stumbled,’ Meromo says sadly. ‘I called out my name and stepped forward to throw the first spear but I fell.’
He picks up the branch again and starts whittling away furiously.  ‘He did try to catch an ostrich later’, Toya says with a grin, ‘but however fast he ran, the ostrich always ran faster.’
He throws some wood on the fire.
‘It does not matter. I haven’t even been on a lion hunt at all. Most warriors don’t get the chance nowadays. There are so few of them left.’
The number of lions in Kenya is declining steadily. According to the latest count there are only two thousand of them left, whereas there were still more than ten thousand in the nineties. One of the reasons is their shrinking habitat: farmers need more and more land for agriculture, so the lions move to the parks. But there, they are often caught and killed in traps that poachers have set for larger animals like elephants and rhinos. Also, a lot of lion cubs are smuggled to the west via the ports of Somalia. The poachers pull out the teeth and nails of the little animals to make it easier for the buyers to keep them as pets. Then there are the farmers whose cattle is eaten by lions. In revenge they often kill a sheep or a goat, poison the carcass and leave the lions who eat it to a slow and painful death. 
Toya puts his hand on Meromo’s shoulder.
‘At least our man here has been on a real lion hunt. He is the only one in our village. We do like to tease him a bit, but we are also very proud of him.’

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