Nairobi Stories and Tips

A visit with the Maasai

Welcoming Photo, Nairobi, Kenya

The words of the song in the Maa language of the Maasai are incomprehensible to my ears. I look down the long line of young men and women who are welcoming us and am somewhat relieved to see my mild embarrassment at this (paid) visit mirrored on a few of the faces.

It is the middle of the day; the sun is high and hot in a clear blue sky and in the distance the peaks of the Kilimanjaro are still visible through the haze of dust and heat. Mohamed has taken us to visit a Maasai homestead, or inkangitie, in the vicinity of the Amboseli lodge (a few hours from Nairobi). The Maasai strive to retain as much of their culture as they possibly can in this modern day and age. Yet, at the same time, sharing that culture and demonstrating it to eager tourists is a source of much-needed income. The combination makes a visit with the Maasai a strange mixture of hospitality, intercultural exchange, mutual curiosity and economic pay-offs.

A part of me is very interested to see a little bit of a lifestyle that is so alien to my western mind. Another part is anxious about doing or saying something that might be considered offensive. I wish I had learned more before coming here.

Our guide and translator will be Nicholas Karaine. He learned English in a missionary school. Before we enter the village, he says, the song welcomes us, and a prayer will be offered.

Once the rituals are over, we follow Nicholas through the long-thorned acacia fence into the village grounds. It is basically a circle of small cabins, surrounded by the fence and enclosing a couple of small trees that provide shade. Nicholas explains the program of our visit: we will be allowed inside one of the houses, and will be shown how the Maasai make fire. Because we paid the fee, we can take as many pictures as we like - doesn't mean I didn't usually ask first.

While the men and women of the welcoming committee go about their business -until the next vanload of tourists arrives- Nicholas shows us around and leads us toward a small hut, an inkajijik. It is build of tree branches and cemented with a mixture of cowdung, dirt and urine. Seen up close, it actually looks pretty sturdy.

The Maasai are a nomadic people. They herd their cattle where there is food and water. If it rains twenty kilometers further on, they will relocate their village and abandon their houses to simply build a new one. House building is a woman's work and it depends on the skill of the woman how long it takes to finish. "Could take a month, could be much faster," Nicholas says.

We crouch and follow him inside. It is gloomy; the only light filters in through the doorway and a small hole in the roof, which acts as a chimney. While our eyes grow used to the darkness, Nicholas explains that the Maasai are polygamous: a man can have more than one wife. But, he says, every wife builds her own house, and the husband will move from one home to another.

We chat some more about the differences in our marital cultures. "What if husband and wife don't get along?" D. asks. "Do they divorce?" Nicholas looks shocked. Divorces, it turns out, are very rare. The couple will just have to learn to get along as best as they can.

Back outside, Nicholas collects a couple of the men. It is time to show us how to make fire when you have no matches or a lighter. Tools are used; a flat piece made of a soft wood with holes in it, and a hard-wooded stick. A little clod of dried dung is broken apart and some straw is placed nearby. One of the men sets to work, twirling the stick between his hands and causing friction with the plank. When he tires, another man is ready to take over. In a few minutes smoke is drifting up. The fire maker kneels close and blows gently upon the dung, adds some straw and blows again. The smoke thickens and billows white. Then, although expected, a sudden yellow flame leaps up.

"Is it difficult to do?" we want to know. Nicholas grins and says, "For us, it's not difficult." We laugh. We would be so lost without our electricity and central heating and gas stove.

Nicholas points to a young man. "He is a doctor," he says. "He learned medicine from his father, who was also a doctor but who is now retired." Nicholas continues to explain how the Maasai treat malaria. The cure sounds as unpleasant as the disease itself and I make a firm resolution to not forget my prophylaxis.

Nicholas introduces his wife and child. We ask where the other children are, having noticed that there are only young men and women in sight. "They are in school," he says and points to a wood shed some hundred meters away from the village. "Would you like to see the school?"

Of course we would.

Nicholas precedes us to the small building and waves us inside. Two dozen small faces curiously look back at us. We have interrupted their English lesson and on the blackboard are exercises: words preceded by 'an' or 'a'?

Their teacher (whose name I sadly forgot) asks the children, ranging in age from 2.5 to 6 years old, to sing a welcoming song. A girl stands up and begins a tune. The other children fall in.

The children demonstrate their knowledge of mathematics, science and English as their teacher asks the class some questions. The days of the week, the months of the year, the sources of light. The pupils, like children everywhere in the world, are eager to show off what they have learned. They raise their hands as high in the air as possible, before the question is even finished.

Their teacher explains that up until several months ago, the school was located in the shade of an acacia tree. With the help of donations, they built this small, one-room building that will protect the children from the elements. Now that they mention it, I realize that the school building does look brand new.

Books and pens are another matter that is hard to obtain, Nicholas explains. Lesson plans are difficult to find and have to be bought in Nairobi (a three-hour drive away) whenever there is a donation. H. had the foresight to put several spare pens in her purse that morning and digs them out to hand them over to the school's teacher.

The children sing a goodbye song before we depart and we thank them.

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