Untimely Observations

A Very Different Kind of Wedding


Recent discussion about the Royal Wedding here in the United Kingdom reminded me of a very different—and perhaps even more extraordinary—kind of wedding, about which I learned round about this time last year. It gave one much to think about, eliciting a wide range of feelings. I reproduce below the article that appeared in the Daily Mail:

My Masai Mr Right: Why is this middle-class woman giving up a life of luxury to live in a mud hut with an African warrior?

By Kathryn Knight

Like many young women in love, Colette Armand believes she was hit by a coup de foudre when she first saw her future husband. 'The attraction was instant,' she says. 'We had an immediate connection.'

Photographs testify to the strength of their bond, showing a beaming young couple clearly delighted by each other's company.

That, however, is where the conventional nature of their romance ends. For Colette's intended is a Masai warrior whose home is a mud hut on the vast African plains.

Meitkini's tribe have no possessions and no running water, and their food is either plucked from the ground or killed with a spear.

Nonetheless, after a courtship of three years, Colette, 24, is preparing to abandon all the comforts of her western lifestyle to join her life permanently with his  -  even though, to date, she hasn't shared so much as a kiss with her 23-year-old fiance, as Masai rules forbid physical contact between men and women who aren't married.

What's more, she has to accept that, in the future, she may have to share her husband with other women, as Masai tradition permits any number of wives.

'In time I may have to accept that he will marry again,' she says. 'I hope he chooses not to take another wife, but if not then I will compromise.'

Colette admits that she never expected her life to end up on such an unusual path.

The daughter of a nurse and a businessman, her father's job, as director of a large mining company, took the family all over the world.

Academically gifted, at 17 she was studying literature at the Sorbonne in Paris. At 21, disillusioned with her studies and with a failed romance behind her, she decided to take a gap year  -  'I realised I needed to have an adventure and try and find myself.


'I had always wanted to go to Africa, so I found a job working for an organisation that runs orphanages in Kenya,' she says.


'In the space of a week I quit my studies, withdrew all my savings and got on a flight to Nairobi. I didn't tell anyone what I was doing, except my mum, who was hysterical. She thought I was throwing away all my hard work. But I'd made up my mind.'

So, within 24 hours, Colette had swapped the comfort of her apartment for a rug on the

Meitkini's tribe have no possessions and no running water, and their food is either plucked from the ground or killed with a spear.

Nonetheless, after a courtship of three years, Colette, 24, is preparing to abandon all the comforts of her western lifestyle to join her life permanently with his  -  even though, to date, she hasn't shared so much as a kiss with her 23-year-old fiance, as Masai rules forbid physical contact between men  floor of the orphanage, which had no electricity nor running water.

'Yes, it was basic, but the funny thing was that I felt instantly at home,' she says. 'Working with the children helped give me perspective. Most of them had been abandoned because they were disabled, which was very humbling.'


Among them was Mumbe, a nine-year-old boy who, prior to Colette's arrival, had never spoken a word. 'One day, he turned to me and said "mummy",' she recalls. 'It was a huge shock, and everyone at the orphanage thought I had magical healing properties.'

So much so that word spread, and a few days later, one of Colette's supervisors told her that the head of a local Masai tribe wanted to meet her. The tribe lived several hours drive away over dusty, uneven terrain.

'When I got there I was taken to meet the chief, Kehmini, who was incredibly welcoming. I was lucky that the tribe spoke quite good English, so I could communicate well. Kehmini then invited me to stay, and showed me to a hut that would be my home while I was there,' she recalls. 

Even after the privations of the orphanage, her first night was spent in insomniac discomfort. 'There are no doors on the hut, so I was terrified a snake would slither in,' she recalls. 'I lay there listening to every movement.'

The next morning she was further shocked by the harsh realities of life in the Masai. 'The only water came from a small muddy tributary that's home to snakes and crocodiles,' says Colette. 'I was too scared to bathe, so I had to resort to having a makeshift wash in water boiled on the fire  -  which is what I ended up doing for months to come.' 

Nonetheless, she quickly grew to love the simple rhythm of life with the tribe. 'A typical day starts at 4am and ends at 6pm, when everyone sits around the campfire, and cooks and talks. You go to sleep at seven. In the morning, the men go out hunting and the women look after the children and work in the fields. The beauty of sitting under a vast African moon by the campfire, or watching the sun rise over the plain, is hard to describe.'

The tribe quickly took her to their heart, and after two weeks Colette was told the community had decided to sacrifice a goat as a welcoming gift  -  a huge honour.

'They slaughtered it in front of me, which was horrible, then put its warm blood in a cup for me to drink. It tasted disgusting, but I had to do it as I would have hugely offended them otherwise. I just closed my eyes and tried not to be sick.'

On other occasions, it was animal life of a different kind that was hard to stomach. 'One night I left the hut in the small hours to answer the call of nature, only to see a black mamba snake rearing its head just a few feet away. They are deadly, and I was terrified. My screams woke the whole camp, and men came running with sticks and managed to carry it away. I was still very shaken.'

But for all these privations, Colette soon realised she had no desire to leave  -  a feeling enhanced when, a few days later, she first saw her future husband while she was picking coffee beans in the fields. 'Meitkini was the chief's brother, but I hadn't seen him before as he'd been away hunting for several weeks. When I first saw him he was striding towards me carrying a lion he had helped kill, and he looked like this incredibly masculine force. I was smitten.

Later, when I was introduced to him by the chief and we started talking, it was like speaking to my double. He was clever and articulate, and there was an immediate connection. From then on I was in love.'

Meitkini, she says, felt the same way, but Masai relationships do not adhere to the same conventions as they do in the West. 'The Masai don't marry for love but for power and social position, so it is a slightly alien concept. It was a long time before we were able to acknowledge our feelings for each other, and we couldn't express them physically, as Masai rules forbid physical contact between unmarried men and women. It was frustrating, but I had to respect their culture. I was a visitor and it would have been a gross insult to behave any other way.'

Instead, Colette waited, hoping the tribe would grow to trust her. 'Five months later, Kehmini told me the community had accepted me and would be happy for me to live there permanently. It was a huge honour.'

Yet there was one final hurdle to overcome  -  Colette felt an overwhelming urge to finish her studies back home before she could commit to her new life in Kenya. 'It was tough because I loved him, but the intellectual side of me wanted fulfilment too.' Colette recalls.

'I talked to Meitkini about it and he told me he would wait for me.' Matters came to a head when, in October 2008, with civil unrest sweeping the country, a passing UNESCO charity worker told her that, as a white woman, she was in huge danger and urged her to leave Kenya for a while. 'I was scared but also upset  -  I didn't want to leave Meitkini, but he said I should take the chance to return to England and study for a while. There were a lot of tears.'

But there were happier tidings too: before she left, the tribe's chief gave Colette and Meitkini his blessing to marry. 'He said the whole tribe felt something special had happened between us and that we were destined to be together.'

Colette returned to England, moving in with friends into a small flat in south-east London, and quickly being accepted onto her PhD course. But life in the West no longer felt familiar.

'For three weeks, I barely left my room. I felt like a stranger in my own culture  -  the sheer noise of city life gave me a splitting headache. I realised I now thought of Africa as my home, and I was determined to go back.'

Unsurprisingly, her conviction has proved incomprehensible to many of her friends, who cannot grasp why Colette wants to turn her back on the luxuries of western life. 'Obviously, some of them have found it hard to understand  -  they just cannot conceive of what my life is like there. At the same time they can clearly see how happy I am, and none of them have tried to talk me out of it,' she says.

Sadly, the same cannot be said of her mother, who is still unable to accept Colette's decision and remains estranged from her daughter. (Her father's opinion isn't known, as he walked out on her mother when Colette was 12, and hasn't seen his daughter since.) 'The fact that I'm going to marry a Masai is a scandal in the family and, as a result, she and I don't speak. It's sad, but we're very different people,' she says.

And so Colette is making the final plans for her wedding. It will be a two-day affair, with Masai travelling from miles around to celebrate their union, and an ox slaughtered in honour of the happy couple. That, however, is where the festivities will end, and afterwards Colette will be back in the fields at dawn, planting grain or harvesting coffee beans.

'It's a simple life, and one that would be anathema to most people in the West, but it makes me happy,' she says. 'I have no problem with giving up my western ways. When I'm there I feel so alive and free. Living with the tribe has taught me to live in the present. It taught me what matters.'

I wonder how she is doing now . . .