Before leaving the bush, we visit another manyatta, where the Masai live just as their ancestors did hundreds of years ago. One of the elders gives us a detailed explanation of how a youth becomes a warrior, including the circumcision ritual performed when he is 16. Paris listens wide-eyed as the elder tells us that during the operation the boys are not allowed to flinch, much less cry, lest they be labeled cowards. We also learn about their diet: meat, milk, maize, and cows' or goats' blood. The Masai do plenty of walking, running, and dancing, so they have little body fat and few heart problems. They live off the land; the money they make selling souvenirs goes to purchase animals, their real currency. Joseph, who had come along to translate, helps us buy some bracelets and serving spoons, brokering the deal with the chief's son—who rings up the total on a state-of-the-art calculator.
And it is at this odd intersection of cultures that I finally build the bridge between my African-American family and the continent we came from. I had asked my father for a photo to take with me, and he chose one of himself and Uncle Bill standing together at Dad's retirement party. As we bid farewell to the Masai chief, I tell him how much the motherland meant to these two distant sons and leave the photo in his hand.
Joseph nods approvingly. He tells me that in his culture, history is recorded orally, passed down from father to son. "The chief will save the picture," he says. "He will hand it down to his children, and tell them the tale of the American man who brought not only his wife and kids, but also his father and uncle to Kenya." ✚
Blair Underwood currently appears in CBS's The New Adventures of Old Christine. He stars in an HBO dramatic series, In Treatment, airing in early 2008.