It was dawn on the Mara of Kenya as I crawled out of my warm bed, searching with my flashlight for my clothes. The air was crisp and under my canvas tent I could hear all around me the sound of wildlife as it too, awoke. For a girl who hates early mornings, today was indeed a rare occasion.
Our guide was already awake, waiting with breakfast and hot coffee. Even he was excited to get out and discover what the plains of the great Rift Valley held for us today, having heard elephants near the camp that night.
As the African sun began to quickly warm the soil, we began our rugged dirt road descent from our mountain camp towards the Oloololo Gate of the Maasai Mara National Reserve.
In the distance we could hear the clinking of soothing bells, signalling that a Maasai herd of cows was ahead. The Maasai depend on their cows for everything—drinking the raw milk, eating the meat, cooking with the fat, building their homes and fires from the dung, trading goods and buying wives, even drinking the blood to give them strength. This herd of cows would be the lifeforce of a small village, and tending them would be a job mandatory for survival.
What I didn’t expect as we turned a bend around the steep riverbank, was a young boy, no older than six years old standing, alone, leaning on a long stick, his herd of cows on the hill above.
Our guide stopped and leaned out the window. “Good morning, what are you doing here alone this morning?” He asked in his native Swahili.
“Today, this is my job.” The young boy replied.
“There have been lions and elephants spotted near the camp above, do you need help? Aren’t you scared to be here alone?”
“Go on, I am okay, I am not afraid.”
I couldn’t stop staring at this tiny boy as we drove away. He had answered and waved us on with absolute resolute. That morning my world tilt-shifted for the first of many times during this trip.
Here I was, worrying if my luggage was over 30 pounds. Should I take a Xanax to avoid a panic attack? Do I need to check in with the office? Am I fulfilled with my job? Should I get serious about that passion project? Is everything in my life worthwhile? Am I doing enough?
A six year old with a freaking job just told me he was fearless. Fearless in the face of true danger.
My life is definitely fuck-ety.
And mine isn’t the only one. All around me I see depression and anxiety. People who feel sad, empty and lost, struggling to find their way. Or others who feel driven and obsessed, striving to get more things, to have more, to do more. Each of us chasing the exact same thing—that elusive happiness.
We live in a society that has healthcare, clean water, plenty of food, opportunity to do anything we choose. We have clothes, cars, homes, extra income for travel, Starbucks and wine. Our own children watch us, and demand more money, more things, more clothes, more activities, so that they can grow up to be just like us.
The paradox is that even with all our stuff, the Maasai suffer from almost zero depression, anxiety, suicide, panic attacks or other mental health issues. They are healthy, strong, happy and proud people. Each time I found myself talking with a Maasai I felt invigorated and happy from their energy. I need a freaking herd of cows.
Somewhere along our privileged, consumer-obsessed lives we have lost the one thing that a tiny six year old boy standing at the side of the road had in abundance—purpose.
He had no choice, he knew his job was to tend those cows, it was a clear path and he wasn’t afraid of anything that would stop him from doing it. His whole village needed those cows. He never questioned his life choices, whether he was on the right career path, if he should take a one hour lunch break, whether he was happy.
We no longer live in a society with nomadic tribes, and to see this for the first time made me wonder, if given no choice, what would my own purpose be?
A purpose isn’t getting a new house, changing spouses, making a career change or earning more money. A purpose is something you do because you are contributing to something that matters.
We’ve all lost that perspective because lions no longer eat our cows. So we’ve grown restless, bored, unfulfilled. We’ve lost our nomad hearts. Even the one fundamental purpose we still have left, to feed our family and keep a roof over our head—makes us unhappy.
That day on the side of the road I was given a small glimpse into what we’ve lost. That boy had one thing that few of us have—people who valued and depended on him for their survival.
What if, just what if we all refocused our time and energy into building our villages? If we all made a conscious effort to surround ourselves with people who value and depend on us, just like it has been since nomads roamed the earth. What if we all created a space in our homes and offices and lives where people feel accepted, valued and needed?
I can’t fix the world, and I certainly don’t want to buy a herd of cows (I secretly do), but that morning under the African sun, watching a small Maasai boy as he disappeared on the horizon in the dust of our Land Cruiser, I felt a shift inside myself.
I drove away ashamed that like most of us, I haven’t tried harder, that I’ve been focused on all the wrong things, that I didn’t know sooner the things that make a difference.
That morning I realized that my purpose is to create a village around me where my heart is open and my nomad spirit is free.
A place where I am fearless in the face of danger.