MAASAI DAYS by Cheryl Bentsen (Summit Books: $19.95; 286 pp.)

The Maasai tribe always has excited the interest of visitors to Africa. The tall, handsome herdsmen and fearless lion hunters seem to epitomize the spirit of proud, independent adherence to traditional life. Even when they are employed in the city, many speak only the tribal tongue. Nairobi old-timers have a name for the fascination most newcomers experience on first encountering the tribe: Maasai-itis.

Cheryl Bentsen became acquainted with the Maasai at a time when the pressures and lures of Western ways were finally creating undeniable rifts in the Maasai community. In "Maasai Days," she illuminates the changes in traditional tribal life through the lives of individuals she got to know over a six-year stay in Kenya. Her first visit with the group came when she picked up a young Maasai man hitchhiking out of Nairobi--an incongruous activity for a Maasai, but he was fetching medicine for a sick cow. Bentsen decided to take him to his destination, and thus began a friendship.

In the course of her stay, she met with Maasai friends both in the city and at their huts, learning the ways of traditional life (she witnessed men's and women's circumcision ceremonies) as well as the adaptations they made to modern life. Although "Maasai Days" naturally discusses the better known features of Maasai life--the central importance of cattle, the emphasis on courage, the battles over diminishing grazing lands--it is Bentsen's portrait of the women that sets her book apart from other accounts. The casual conversation on men, marriage, family and aspirations are particularly engaging, since Bentsen clearly spent time with the women she introduces on terms of friendship and intimacy. One of the most radical women is Nanta, who ran away from her husband because he beat her, although Maasai wives are beaten routinely. Nanta's plans to make money by opening a shop selling Maasai jewelry provide one of the most telling confrontations between modern life and traditional values.

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