Corinne Hoffman, in her biography “The White Masai” (Die Weisse Massai, 1998) will take you to the authentic and traditional Kenya of the ’80s, through her description of the landscapes and cultures which are very different from ours. Her book has been translated into several languages, and in 2005 the movie directed by Hermine Huntgeburth was released.
She spent four long years with the Masai people, and her topics are initiation rites, polygamy, and taboos about food and women. Beyond the fascinating cultural aspect, Corinne presents Kenya as she experienced herself: from a simple holiday through to a controversial and courageous love story.
Corinne and her boyfriend Marco travel from Switzerland to Mombasa, to spend a few weeks on the beach. Strolling the city, she is enchanted by the beauty of a Samburu warrior in traditional costumes; a Kenyan ethnic group composed by semi-nomadic pastoralists. Love is instant. She breaks up with her boyfriend and stays in Kenya to look for Lketinga, the Samburu warrior. The two of them start a relationship which is difficult to carry on because of linguistic and cultural differences; but her determination pushes her stay in Kenya for several years. She sells everything she has in Switzerland in order to embrace her African dream. She faces illness, bureaucracy problems, copes with lack of hygiene, ignorance, superstition and every kind of discomfort. Her willpower forces her stay day after day, and then giving birth to her daughter Napirai. However, misunderstandings and difficulties forces her to take an extreme decision.
From Corinne’s experience, we can learn a lot about the Samburu people. She lived in Barsaloi, a village in the middle of the savannah, for a long time, and slept in manyattas (huts) made of mud, cow dung and straw. Despite basic English, she managed to communicate enough to understand their daily lifestyle, traditions, customs and beliefs. There was absolutely nothing in common with her Swiss culture, and indeed this gap was impossible to bridge.
In the Samburu villages, the elder people lead: they arrange marriages, manage the cattle and have direct contact with the tribal ancestors. Their traditional economy is purely pastoral, but the growing population forced them to seek further forms of livelihood, including agriculture. Nowadays, most young people look for a job in major cities such as Nairobi, or along the coastline, where they sell souvenirs or traditional handicrafts.
On the web, there are several reviews of this novel. There are those who recommend it to women that believe in “impossible love stories” and those who see in Corinne pure European idealisation of a stereotypical Africa. Personally, I liked this book because the story is captivating. Every page left more and more speechless, yet this novel gave me the possibility to learn a lot about a country and a population that I know little about.