The recorded ramblings of an unschooled writer, aspiring biologist, amateur equestrian, ardent bookworm, avid music appreciator, increasingly addicted runner and college student spending the summer in Ely, MN.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Ako, Nylabu!

November 4, 2009

The first morning of my Maasai homestay started off with a few cups of chai and more Maa vocabulary lessons for me. After I had practiced my Maa pronunciation to Nini’s satisfaction, she took me out of the boma into the small scrubby forest nearby to show me where I should go if I needed to choo, so to speak.

On the way back, we visited briefly with Lisa and Mara who were living in the largest house in our boma, which was located just past the main opening in the acacia bush fence. Lisa took a look at my arm and was just generally her wonderful and sweet self, which was quite reassuring as I was, between the discomfort and the strange situation, feeling rather overwhelmed!

Next, Nini and I went back in the house to “ayer oloshoro” or cook uji. The uji I had known in Kenya was a purpley, millety sort of hot cereal that I find to be particularly delicious. Maasai uji, it turns out is a different breed entirely and is made from the same potato flour that also turns into ugali when it is more thickly concentrated. I watched Nini start up her fire again by adding a few choice sticks of “olerion”, the favored fire wood of the Maasai and blowing on the remaining glowing coals in order to instigate a small blaze in a matter of moments. Then she balanced a metal pot on the bricks surrounding the fire and added water, the potato flour, some sugar and of course, two heaping spoonfuls from the mysterious paint can of mafuta. She mixed it with a special carved wooden tool, a stick with three carved prongs at the end that she held between her hands and slid back and forth rapidly, to whip the liquid into a sort of froth. Once it started to thicken a bit, she removed it from the fire with her bare hands, set it aside and added another handful of sugar.

After it cooled, she gave me a steaming mug full of it. I gulped it down – it wasn’t an unpleasant taste, as it didn’t really taste like much of anything at all, but the texture was a little strange and slimy. Nini tried to give me another cup, but once again the “attaraposhe”/”ehseedie” combination was effective.

Our next activity was to poke goats with sticks for an hour. I suppose I should say that we were herding them, but we didn’t really seem to be moving them anywhere specific or trying to maintain any sort of order at all. The only thing I was sure of was that even the goats knew I was a clueless wazungu! All Nini had to do was glance in the direction of a goat and say “Sh! Sh!” to it in a sharp tone of voice and it would scurry away. I on the other hand, could yell, stomp my feet, growl, wave my good arm in the air and give the same animal a healthy rap on the rump and at the most it would turn its head around to look at me and say “Baa!”, essentially I felt, the Kigoati equivalent of a roll of the eyes.

Goat poking accomplished, we set out to perform the next day’s task, fetching water. Maasai women fetch water by filling large jerry cans and then wrapping leather or cloth straps around the cans. They then place the strap against their forehead and lean into the weight of their load, using their heads and necks, as well as their backs to carry the water back home. Nini and I chanted “Maji! Angare! Water!”, both of us pleased to know the word in all three languages, back and forth all the way down to the local school where she gets her water.

When we arrived at the tap, we met Lucy, who was on break from teaching. This also meant that all of the high school aged students were out of class too and were staring unabashedly at my glowing white, safari pants wearing, kanga-sling handicapped self. Luckily, Nini’s lessons were already beginning to sink in and though I couldn’t quite always remember to answer to “Nylabu!” I did know that I was supposed to answer to someone saying my name by saying “Ayeko”, respond to “Supa” with “Ipa” and “Takwenya” with “Iko”, so I managed to survive my brief interactions with the students while Nini filled my tiny, tiny, less than one gallon can and adjusted the head straps and placed it on for me and filled her huge container and adjusted it on herself, without feeling too much like an idiot. We returned home and placed the water containers back in the house.

By this time, I was thirsty and had run out of water in my own water bottle. However, we were instructed that as wazungu, it might not be safe for us to drink the water our host families were collecting and to only drink water from the large jerry cans that Simon and Habibu had distributed out in the bomas, one between every couple of homes, the day before. The only problem was, I didn’t know where the jerry can was within my boma. So, I decided to ask my mama.

“Nini,” I said. She looked up from piece of cow hide she had been trimming with her knife, “where is the juice of the white people?”

Incredibly, she didn’t laugh, but pointed me towards Mara and Lisa’s house with a twinkle in her eye. Lisa helped me fill up my water bottle and I headed back to watch Nini hard at work, crafting a container out of a cow horn, by using the piece of hide she had cut to craft a lid for it, by cutting it into pieces and sewing a cover for the top. I asked her what it was for.

“To store mafuta.” She replied.

Ah ha! At last! My chance to ask about this mysterious mafuta. My stomach hadn’t been a fan of the morning’s uji and I was guessing that mafuta might be the culprit as the other ingredients, the potato flour and sugar, are things I’ve eaten frequently in Tanzania.

“Nini, mafuta is what?”

She then launched into an overwhelmingly long technical and entirely useless description of mafatu in Swahili of which I understood not even a single world. I told her I didn’t understand, so she tried again, this time using much simpler language and speaking slowly as if to a very small and very dumb child.

“Mafuta, it comes from the inside of the very fat cows.”

So that was it! No wonder my stomach was upset! Spoonfuls of straight cow fat would be enough to make any long time vegetarians stomach more than a little unsettled, I think.

Soon after Nini finished the horn container, Lucy arrived, with Simon, Ken and Habibu in the truck not far behind. They stopped by our boma on the way into the village proper where the students were going to be having a meeting and wanted to know if I wished to tag along in order to see how my fellow wanifunzi were faring. Of course I wanted to! So I hopped in the truck and off we went, but not before Simon (in full Maasai garb and looking fabulous!) chatted in Maa with my mama for a little bit and she informed him that I was “a good big fat daughter and even with a bad arm, still very good and helpful”.

Once at the village it became apparent that although the students knew there was a meeting, neither the students or the mamas were really clear on where or when this was supposed to be happening. Lucy and I started wandering the village asking all of the small children “Wazungu wapi?” (Where are the white people?) and they were all too happy to point us in the correct direction of the homes where my friends were staying.

First we found Claire who was so happy to see me because she had no idea where her drinking water was, no one to communicate this to and was very, very thirsty. Lucy sorted things out for her – it turned out the jug was actually in the house she was staying in, she just didn’t know! Next we tracked down Natalie who was sitting in front of her house, beading with her family and playing with her neighbor’s puppy. After that, we found Miles, who similarly, had no idea that his source of water was already in his home. Then in the distance we spied two wazungu girls swinging their walking sticks and chatting away, already fully dressed in Maasai attire – of course, they were Lydia and Kim.

Eventually, those of us in the closer to camp village (those farther away had their own meeting) all managed to assemble at the school and catch up on what we had been up to. Kim and Natalie both told hilarious stories about trying to explain to their families where they were going when they needed to sneak off into the forest to use the bathroom. Rachel spoke of being given a bowl full of small doughnuts she was expected to finish all on her own every single time her mama brewed tea (which was frequently, judging by the slightly pained expression on her face as she recounted eating piles of andazi). She also said that the previous night, she had asked her translator to please tell her mama that she couldn’t eat anymore dinner. To which the translator replied, without even consulting her host mother, “Don’t worry, there will be more.” Kim talked about how her family had 50 cows two weeks ago, but since then, 20 of them had died, a very worrisome, but not unusual situation.

There were dead and dying cows everywhere in the village due to the drought and the lack of food. My mama and I had a conversation about it shortly after I arrived. It went something like this:

“Nylabu, do you know why my cows are far away and not here right now?” She asked me, after explaining that her cows where living far away where there was more water and grass with some of her sons, right now.

“Because for the food for the cows it be no here because no water is. Perhaps water is far from home so cows to eat the far and then return fat very and milk for many children of you!” She was quite satisfied with this answer as she had expressed her displeasure the previous evening that the only thing she had to offer all of the watoto (children) that came to visit her was uji, not milk as is the proper thing for a young Maasai.

Eventually, the wazungu truck returned and Lucy and I headed back to Nini’s house for a very late lunch. I ate a large brick of ugali and a plate of cabbage, but this time my complaints of “Attaraposhe!” were not good enough for Nini at all and she piled another huge chunk of ugali on my plate. Of course, this also was cooked with the dreaded mafuta, so the large portions were particularly unhelpful!

After lunch, Nini took a nap, so I sat outside with my journal to take some notes on the past couple of days so I wouldn’t forget anything and tried to make friends with one of the mangy tan puppies around the boma. He was very skittish and didn’t much like me touching him, but he was content to curl up next to me on the cow hide I was sitting on and watch me write.

When Nini woke up, we went into the brush nearby to pick up a small amount of “ekeepah” or firewood, which was rather difficult with one good arm, but I still managed a fairly decent sized arm full, which made Nini happy! We built up the fire a little bit again and then I headed off into the forest, again, thanks to the mafuta. (Nini actually began asking “Tena? Kweli?” (Again? Really?) given my near constant requests to have a minute along outside the boma. I guess, Mara and Lisa’s mama hadn’t realized I had left because when I returned, the gate to get back into the boma was closed! Luckily, Nini realized I had been missing and came to my rescue because moving large thorny branches out of the way is an activity best not attempted by a one armed mzungu, even if she is a good big fat daughter.

Once I was rescued, Nini and I returned to the house where she began preparing the evening meal of beans and chapatti. While she cooked, she asked my questions about my family in Amerika. I told her that I had a mama, a baba and three kaka (brothers) who I live with when I’m not in school and that I have a dog and a horse, too. Once those basics had been taken care of, she asked me many, many questions!

She asked about how many rooms were in my house and who stays in each one.

“Does your mama really always sleep in the same room as your baba?” She wanted to know, as such an arrangement would be unheard of in Maasai culture.

“Yes but when my father talks like this (makes snoring noises) when he have sleep, mama go to sleep far away.”

I also told her that my dog slept in my bed with me because she was concerned that I would be lonely having a room all to myself! I explained this arrangement as follows, “My big dog, he have sleep in my bed in my room with me because my house is cold-cold and my dog is not cold but like fire so then I am not cold-cold but like fire also when I sleep.”

She also wanted to know more about the kakas, so I described them for her.

“I have three brothers. One have six. This one, it is called Brody. Brody it likes playing with the big dog of me. One called Griffen. Griffen it likes the eating of the food of my baba. One called Sean. Sean is tall and also in college but a college called Oregon State.”

“Is Sean taller than you?” she wanted to know.

“Sean is big tall for me.”

“Does he fit in your house?” she asked, startled.

“Yes, my family we do fit all in our house but not the horse for me.”

She was very curious about the fact that I mentioned my father’s cooking so I had to clarify that point further as in Maasai culture, the men definitely do not cook to feed the children! However, I wanted her to think of my mother as a very excellent mom, because she is, so I decided that bringing up my mother’s tea drinking habit would be a good way to do this.

“Mama cook good, but baba cook very, very good. He to cook the dinner, the breakfast, the lunches very well, but mama she have make tea like masaai mama but perhaps in night not perhaps in morning because tea it give her to sleep so she not like to drink these in morning.”

If we didn’t have tea in the morning, then what did we have for breakfast? That question seemed to be of particular importance to Nini, so again, I tried my best.

“My family we no have chai and porridge and chapatti in the morning. We are eating bread very and the butter of peanuts or the eggs with the salt.”

She thought these were very strange things to be eating indeed, but kept asking food questions – perhaps just because I knew some of that vocabulary!

“Do you have potatoes in Amerika?”

“Yes! My baba is from a state called Idaho next to my state called Oregon. In Idaho all the people are growing many very potatoes that are many very good.”

She was also very confused by the fact that I don’t ever like to eat meat and kept asking me what I did with my portion of meat when my family eats it. I gave her the only answer I could figure out how to say, “The dog of me, he like the meats very!”

Her final question regarding my family was to inquire if I had a husband or a boyfriend.

“I have no a boyfriend now or before I traveled to Afrika and hurry hurry no to get one.”


“Perhaps pretty no am I or perhaps men he is thinking I am smart no. Friends of mine, many are man but friends because I am like sister and like brothers do no want my to be girlfriend.”

This answer seemed to satisfy her and I watched her cook in silence for a while, doing my bit to help by chasing out the nosy chicken with a stick and yelling “Shomo! Shomo!” everytime it popped its head back in the door.

One of the watoto, a boy of about 10 years old, named Kamil stopped by and chatted with me for a while after Nini gave him a cup of uji. We discussed his studies, how he likes to play football with his friends and his favorite foods (beef and rice and soda). He thought my bad Swahili was funny and was teasing me good naturedly telling me that out of all of the subjects in school, Swahili was “rahisi sana!” (very easy). I think Nini must have gotten sick of his jokes at my expense (though I found them funny) and as soon as he had he finished his uji, she sent him on his way with a “Shomo! Shomo!”.

Then Lucy arrived with a random very tall man who didn’t speak Kimaasai or at least that is what I gathered from the several hour long conversation Nini, Lucy and the tall man had around me, but in which I was not included at all. For the first time, I felt ridiculously awkward and really wanted to be anywhere but there.

Eventually, the tall man left and Lucy and I had a very frustrating conversation in which she kept trying to convince me that I needed to go to the medical clinic for my arm and despite her supposed proficiency in English couldn’t seem to understand that I had gone to the hospital and been released just the previous day. Finally I was able to convince her that I was more or less fine and oh, by the way, would she mind actually acting as a translator between my mama and I?

She agreed to this. Nini didn’t have any questions for me that she needed translated – she said she liked talking to me in Swahili! After Lucy had dinner with us and left, Nini and I chatted in Swahili again for a little while. Nini also learned how to pronounce my real name, but decided that Hillary should be name for in Amerika and that I should use my Maasai name in Maasailand. That seemed reasonable enough to me!

At last, it was time for bed and I noted with great relief that there were not a million people in the house this time. I’m still not sure why everyone in the world was sleeping in Nini’s hut last night – maybe it was just to stare at the big mzungu girl with the funny arm! Nevertheless, I was really relieved when I had my very own bed. I still didn’t sleep, but at least I could toss and turn without worrying about hitting half a dozen Maasai!


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