Orpul – Strengthening the Body and Mind

Orpul in Ngorongoro
Maasai men and young boys find shelter in a cave.

A traditional strengthening ceremony for Maasai men in which friends and families gather in the bush and away from the bomas for a minimum of two weeks—this is known as Orpul.

During Orpul, the Maasai eat large amounts of meat and drink a medicinal soup concocted from the roots and barks of a variety of plants, mixed with the innards of goats or cows. There are many locations that are host to Orpul all over Tanzania, where there are large groups of Maasai living. The locations deemed appropriate for Orpul are remote areas selected years ago by village elders for having a plentiful availability of medicines, water and many trees for firewood.

A requirement to participating in this event is the contribution of livestock to later slaughter and eat together. Everyone going to Orpul must contribute an equal amount of goats or cows agreed upon within the group.

Orpul in Ngorongoro
A young man helps with preparation during Orpul.

John’s two week trip to Ngapune Aruaka Orpul, located in Alchaniomelock village the Ngorongoro Conservation Area started this May with a group of seven Maasai adults together with four of their preteen male children.

Together, the men contributed a total of two cows and 10 goats. The children are not required to contribute anything. It was a long walk from AMSO Assistant Program Director Somiani’s boma, the starting point, to the location of this Orpul.

The group walked up and down overgrown rolling hills and arrived at an area surrounded by small caves. These caves would be the groups’ hosts. As soon as they arrived, and as the first traditional step, they slaughtered a cow during prayer.

Orpul in Ngorongoro
Even younger Maasai carry knives with them.

They then used its fat and feces to cover the walls of the caves and at the cooking area, known as the Ormotii. This Orpul requirement is done as a form of worship and prayer asking for protection during this time. Maasai believe this will keep them safe from the collapse of caves and dangerous animals.

After this it was time to settle in and divide the tasks for the time ahead. Children made the bed using the leaves of Sendu tree while adults split into groups to fetch water, hunt medicines and barbeque and boil the meats of which the juices are used to mix with the medicines in a kind of soup.

Throughout the day, the men created various meat dishes. In the morning they ate Olokuri (meat cooked for about eight hours, mixed together with fat and blood—looks very red). Lunch time was barbequed and boiled meat, and dinner was fried meat. The medicinal soup was consumed throughout the day. You are required to eat and drink everything cooked, even if you feel that the medicines are too strong or that you are full from too much meat.

After the first day the group found that its appetite for meat only grew—the medicines help a lot to increase apetite. The group sat in a circle while eating and ate equal amounts. The meat sat on long skewers stabbed into the ground, and one Moran was tasked with cutting slices and handing them around the circle of men until the meat was over. Saying you were full was not an option.

The meat is always divided by age sects and gender. The neck and liver are for elders, the chest is for children and the tail, rump and intestines are sent back to the bomas for the wives. The rest of the animal is eaten by the Moran.

There are over 100 different medicine trees most Maasai use. But for the short time I was there, I got to know only a few of them and only the most important ones. After the meat chunks were removed from the boiling juices, different medicines and fat were added into the pot to make a soup that was boiled again. When the soup is done, the pot is put down and stirred until it cools and is then ready to drink.

Orpul in Ngorongoro
Somiani, one of Maasai Partners’ partner directors, treks through the forest.

The Maasai believe these medicines treat joint pain, rashes, STIs and that they strengthen bones as well as increasing sexual performance. They believe that after the minimum two week period, the medicine acts as a general body cleanse, clearing the body of any negative toxins.

There are many rules in Orpul—one important one centers on the opening and closing of the cave entrance. Before sleep, one man must close the entrance area with prayer. After the entrances has been closed you must not go outside without permission from the closer. This same man must reopen if you wish to leave before morning.

In the morning, there is a different selected person who must pray again before the door is to be opened. Other notable rules are that no women are allowed to see the meat, there must be no sex, no consumption of water or other liquids other than the medicinal soup, each person must respect one another, no one is allowed to return to their boma before the end of their stay, each person must sleep in exactly the same spot each night and each person must contribute and participate equally in their work roles.

Orpul in Ngorongoro
Maasai use all parts of an animal for sustenance.

The main purpose behind Orpul is to make Maasai men strong and ready for their strenuous daily life again. The songs, prayer and almost kind of meditation that take place during Orpul are believed to truly heal and strengthen those participating. In particular, it aids in the healing and reducing of mental and stress-related illness.

When the men return from Orpul their wives are full of happiness and joy to see their husbands back home. Traditionally they save as much cow milk as possible for the husband’s return to gift him. Returning to Somiani’s boma, the group was met with huge smiles, much milk and one healthy cow. At the end of each Orpul the group must stab the neck of a healthy cow to get two liters of blood without killing the cow and then drink it straight away mixed with milk. Stomachs are very fragile for several days after so long with only meat and medicines as a diet so it is important to be careful with your food. It is generally agreed that you should have no hard foods for about four days.

Our intrepid explorer John is excited to make this an annual trip. This was his first Orpul, despite coming from Maasai heritage, and he loved the experience and the group of men that he stayed with.

Unfortunately, due to an outbreak of cholera in Ngorongoro the men had to cut their trip shorter than planned to be safe. Even in the short time they had, however, they all became close friends. John especially loved spending time playing with the children who would leave the caves to attend their normal school days before retuning in the evenings without returning to their bomas at all in between. As work colleagues this was a great team building and bonding activity for Somiani and John who are already planning for their next Orpul.

See more pictures from blog author John Nguruko’s firsthand experience at the Orpul here. 

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