Gideon was one of the most interesting characters to develop. He is a man with a simpler lifestyle than the white characters in the book–and a man who understands himself and the world around him better since he has his eyes fixed firmly on what he feels to be essential. Coming from a culture that–of necessity–has survival and community as top priorities, he is able to see much of the so-called “civilized” lifestyle for what it is: silly self-absorption. At the same time, he is fascinated by their way of interpreting the world around them. He knows the land intimately and is intrigued by the notion that someone has developed a system to break nature down into building blocks–hence his interest in the periodic table.
Because he’s not distracted by the demands of the settlers’ expectations of one another, he takes Delilah as he sees her. Unlike the colonists, Gideon looks past the scandalous behavior to the damaged person beneath. His intention in offering friendship is twofold: there is the practical matter of being given the task by his friend and employer of educating Delilah in how to survive in a dangerous land. But on his own initiative, Gideon actually befriends her–for her own benefit more than his. Gideon is a man who knows exactly who he is and who feels comfortable in his role, both within his native community and with the world at large, and it’s from that position of complete self-awareness that he’s able to see that Delilah is a lost soul.
As a member of a culture that is highly oral, he has a keen appreciation for story-telling and poetry. He is intellectually curious and far more articulate about his feelings than a character like Dora with her buttoned-up repression. His behavior fully reflects the culture of his upbringing–a culture that stresses values of community and cooperation and courage.
It is always a dangerous thing to generalize about a culture–the Masai in particular have often been portrayed in the media as doing little but sitting around drinking cow’s blood and practicing vertical jumps. (Neither of those have anything to do with day-to-day Masai life, BTW.) It’s also challenging to present a full picture of a culture most readers aren’t familiar with–if nothing else, it’s difficult to create a credible picture of that culture without stereotyping it in some fashion and yet often those stereotypes are rooted in fact. The notion of a native guide knowing more than the white people has been written. A LOT. And the reason for that is because it’s true. Even now, whites who have lived in Kenya for generations will rely on native guides because they are simply more experienced and better informed. And since SPEAR is a period piece, the guides and porters and farm workers had to be Africans–and I use the word in the context of both genders and multiple tribes of people who are indigenous. It was a common practice amongst hunting safaris and household staffs to mix the tribes. While this could lead to conflicts between tribes with traditionally hostile relationships, it was believed by many whites that allowing too many Africans from one tribe to work together, particularly as porters in a hunting party, could lead to rebellions. (The story in SPEAR of a group of Kikuyu taking out their resentments on a hunter by urinating in his mouth is based on fact.) In all of my research I didn’t find a single household or hunting safari whose employees were taken entirely from one tribe. In the same way that the English at home favored French ladies’ maids and Scottish nannies, in Africa they often preferred Somali butlers and Kikuyu blacksmiths.
Even today, after residing in Kenya for generations, in some quarters whites are not considered to be “real” Africans–largely because there is a segment of the white population that is very happy for it to remain that way. While many other African countries were colonized by farmers, there was a disproportionately large number of aristocrats and upper class settlers who made their way to British East Africa to establish estates for trophy hunting rather than simple working farms. This attitude of colonial entitlement still creates friction today, although there are whites who are making every effort to integrate into Africa life rather than expecting the opposite to occur. For a fascinating story about a second-generation white Kenyan working to preserve ethnic diversity in the area, check out Sveva Gallmann–daughter of enviromentalist and writer Kuki Gallmann–and her work on the Four Generations project. And for the flip side of that coin, google Lord Delamere’s heir, Tom Cholmondeley.
So, it was absolutely essential to make Ryder’s guide and friend a native African. But why Masai? There are many tribes from the Nilotic group that would have made equally good options for Gideon’s ancestry–Kikuyu, Samburu, Turkana. But the more I researched the area and the tribes, the more apparent it became that the Masai were the least respected in many ways. The relationships amongst the tribes are complex and frequently shifting, but to many other native Africans in the colonial period, the Masai were viewed as poor and therefore less worthy of esteem. The fact that this would set Gideon a little apart from the other men employed as guides and porters intrigued me and also provided an opportunity for him to act as a foil to Delilah. When with native African men, he is viewed as “other”, as Delilah is to society back home. But Gideon’s “otherness” in this respect does not trouble him. He is content with who he is and his serenity comes from not particularly valuing what the other men think of him while Delilah is perhaps a trifle less insouciant about her scandals than she pretends.
There are some specific references that went a long way toward helping to build Gideon’s character. First, as a general guide to Masai culture, the book MAASAI by Tepilit Ole Saitoti and Carol Beckwith was invaluable. It details every aspect of their traditions from birth through the coming of age ceremonies to their views on community and gender roles. It also provided Gideon’s birth name–the one he answered to before the church changed it. FACING THE LION: GROWING UP MAASAI by Joseph Lemasolai Lekuton is a fascinating memoir of a young man’s experiences growing up in a traditional culture struggling to survive in a modern world. I also watched–courtesy of the Africa Channel–a number of interviews with Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, the Kenyan writer and professor who has lived in exile for the past 30 years. While the professor is Kikuyu and not Masai–and therefore his upbringing would have been quite different to Gideon’s–his stories about the rivalries between his father’s wives and the friction between them inspired the backstory about Gideon and Moses’ mothers. In his 70s now, he is as creative and eloquent as ever, and Gideon’s intellectual curiosity is reflective of that spirit. (This is the iceberg tip of resources I used, but these were by far the most helpful. I also found MY MAASAI LIFE: FROM SUBURBIA TO SAVANNAH by Robin Wiszowaty to be extremely informative. Wiszowaty left her typical middle-class American life to travel to Kenya and live as a Maasai woman. She discusses the day-to-day reality of life in unglamorous detail. The mention in SPEAR of the jigger worms is a tip of the hat to her.)
Note: while most modern sources use the spelling “Maasai” most references in that period use “Masai” so that was the spelling I chose.