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.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Call me Nylabu...

November 3, 2009

We started the morning with a short hike with Maanda to see some of the local plants the women use for various medicines. Honestly, I remember very little of this, as I slept for about an hour last night because I just couldn’t get comfortable and was still in quite a large amount of pain despite the kanga sling. I also couldn’t take notes because trying to hold a pen and a notebook in order to write while walking is an impossibility with the use of one hand. Luckily, Lydia and Rachel both took great notes so I will be able to copy them down later as I really would like to remember which trees roots can be used to make poison for arrows, which leaves are good for pregnant women, etc. as it is all really very interesting.

After we had returned to camp, we had a meeting with two members of the Pastoral Women’s Council who told us via Maanda’s translation about the difficulties and challenges modern day Maasai women are faced with. The talked a lot about female circumcision (also known as FGM) and how it is terrible but deeply rooted in Maasai tradition. An uncircumcised woman is considered to still be a child and as a result, women who give birth before being circumcised are often social outcasts, not permitted to join others for rituals and less likely to receive help from others. Many families will simply disown and chase from their bomas any daughters who happen to be in such a situation (though of course, no consequences are to be had for the man who helped make the baby in the first place), though the women expressed that there were some families who were not so extreme in their beliefs who would take in the disowned girls.

They also spoke of arranged marriages. Traditionally, all Maasai marriages are arranged and though the women seemed accepting of this fact, they also talked about how much a girl cries when she learns she is to be married and of how she may run to her mother’s home if her husband beats her, but her father and mother will always insist that she must have done something to anger him and that she must return. Marriages are arranged long before a girl reaches puberty and so even though she must “accept” the marriage before it occurs, really she has no say at all in the matter, unless she runs away.

The Pastoral Women’s Council helps support girls who have made the difficult decision of leaving home to avoid circumcision, forced marriages and who want to go on to secondary and higher education. I admire these girls so much – can you imagine having the courage to strike out essentially on your own at the age of thirteen?

The women also told us that because they can’t choose their husbands, almost all of them have lovers outside of their marriage. One of the women, an older lady of perhaps 60, was especially candid and told us that she has six children, four of which belong to her husband and two to her lover. They told us that all of the women in the community know who is who’s lover, but that none of the me know. In fact, they are usually very good friends with their lover’s wife and husbands will often suspect that their wife has a lover if she strikes up a particularly close friendship with another man’s wife. Of course, women do get into trouble because of these relationships, but the men, provided they can offer up enough alcohol and cattle in penance, get away scot free!
In addition, they spoke of the new idea of family planning. Though they said the men of
the community still think more children is better, the women realize that sometimes less children is better, especially in difficult times like the ones the Maasai are living in now because of the prolonged drought. They use modern, Western contraceptive medications obtained at a nearby clinic, though they do not tell their husbands they are using them.

After a break for lunch, we had another meeting, this time with two of the wazee, the older men from the nearby village of Ololosokwando. They spoke to us briefly about the rituals associated with becoming a moran or warrior and also of the process of arranging to buy a wife from her father by first giving him gifts when she is small and then by eventually exchanging many cattle for her. They also told us about the boma burnings that have occoured as the Maasai are pushed farther and farther out of their ancestral lands in order to clear the way for hunting concessions and tourism.

Then it was time to pack our small backpacks quickly for our stay in the bomas (of course, my packing was not slow or particularly organized given the fact that I was doing it with one hand). We were all very excited to meet the mamas!

They arrived all in a rush, decked out in brightly colored kangas and square pieces of checkered and plaid cloth, all of them resplendent in the bright purples, reds and oranges of the Maasai, their tiny frames weighed down by beaded necklaces, earrings, bracelets, ankles and other bangles that appeared to weigh as much as they did. They formed a straight line and Maanda told us that we should do the same. The mamas sang us a song about a child who is loved very much and carried on the back of its mother (translation for the wanifunzi was of course, provided by Maanda) and we in turn sang a three part round of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” for the mamas.

Then the mamas came at us all in a rush! For the most part there were no formal assignments for host families, except for Clare because of her dietary restrictions, Mara and Lisa because they wanted to stay with a family who could host both of them in one house and me because Maanda had misunderstood Lisa and I’s request that I be near another student and had thought I wanted to be next door to Lisa and Mara. This meant that one mother seized my good arm only for me to be yanked away by Maanda and passed off to another mama.

Then we all walked as a group towards the bomas. My mama and I introduced ourselves to one another as we started to walk. Though she told me her first name, Noongipa, she instructed me to call her “Nini”, which is kind of the Maasai equivalent of grandma as she was definitely one of the older mamas in the group. It quickly became evident that Nini knew an awful lot of Swahili and on the walk I told her that I have a horse in America, don’t have cows, but that I like cows very, very much. She thought this was hilarious and repeated it to all her friends – how silly this mzungu was to have a horse but not a creature as wonderful as a cow! Lisa, Mara and I, along with our mamas had to walk only about five minutes from camp to reach the boma, an area fenced in by acacia branches and containing several dung and mud houses and many livestock, which we would call home for the next couple of days.

My Nini’s house was the smallest structure within the boma. I had to duck and kind of scoot in sideways through the front door because my kanga-sling made me much wider than I normally am and Maasai ladies (and therefore the doors of their homes as well) are generally quite tiny. Right away, Nini seemed intent on teaching me some very basic words and phrases in Kimaasai. She was an excellent teacher, translating everything she said into Kiswahili so that I had at least some of hope of understanding it and urging me to repeat each word until I could pronounce it quickly. She would also command me to “Andika! Andika!” (Write! Write!) every time new vocabulary came up and was in fact quite upset with me when I didn’t bring my notebook and pen outside with me when we went out to learn the names of the livestock in Kimaasai, but I simply couldn’t walk and write one handed!

She was also curious to learn the names of the livestock in Kiingersia (English) and so I taught her them in exchange for the Maa words. The only one she remembered though, was “chicken”, which meant that any time a chicken wandered into the house during my homestay. I would yell “Ilgungoogoo!” and she would scream “Chicken!” and then one of us would chase it out with a stick.

After the livestock tour, Nini made chai for us. It was the most sugary tea I’ve ever had in my life. It was delicious, but I could just about feel the cavities forming as I drank it. My first chai with Nini also meant my first run in with the mysterious “mafuta”, a mystery ingredient stored in an old paint can that Nini seemed to put in absolutely every kind of food. The mafuta upset my stomach quite a lot, for reasons I didn’t discover until the next day.

We sat in the house trying to communicate awkwardly in Kiswahili and smiling widely at one another. Then Nini gave me a beautiful beaded Maasai necklace and tried to give me a beautiful set of earrings to match. She was quite distressed to find that I had not a single hole in my ears. She then of course asked “Kwa nini? (Why?)” I did my very best to reply in Swahili. This answer marked the beginning of what I know like to refer to as my “Me Talk Nzuri (Good/Pretty/Well) One Day” experience.

“I have no holes in (point to ears)” I said “because now I am no pretty very in Amerika and holes will not make me pretty also.” She seemed to accept this answer and managed to find space in her own ears for the earrings, so all was well.

I managed to compliment the necklace she had given me without sounding like too much of an idiot and we then moved on to the next topic of conversation. Lydia and I had both discussed wanting to shave our heads with the Maasai, so I decided to bring up this subject with Nini to see what she thought.

I said “I am liking your head with no hairs because it is very nice. I also would like a head with no hairs please because hair is very dirty for traveling. Sawa?”

She laughed and replied “White women with no hair are a very, very bad thing!” And though I tried again throughout my stay, I never could change her mind and as a result still have long hair that is very dirty for traveling.

Eventually, one of the translators, a young woman named Lucy, arrived to put a temporary pause to my atrocious Swahili. Lucy and I hit it off immediately. She is twenty two and currently working as an English and history teacher at the local secondary school in Ololosokwondo. We had a long talk about different types of schools and she was quite interested to learn that I had gone to a “single” (sex) school for my first year of university and was quite pleased when I said that I personally felt that all female schools really didn’t do many favors for women because I think that being in an all female environment doesn’t prepare you for the working world where you will be expected to speak with and in front of men. Lucy agreed with me as she had attended an all girls primary and secondary school and was using her time as a teacher as a way to learn how to be less shy when speaking in front of males before trying to go to university.

She offered to translate a few basic questions between Nini and I, but we were both quite satisfied with our Swahili interactions so far, so mainly Lucy and I just watched Nini cook dinner and chatted among ourselves. The three of us ate together, big plates of rice and potatoes seasoned with a frighteningly good top ramen like packet of “Chicken Dinner” flavoring. Again, the mysterious mafuta wrecked havoc on my intestines, but the food was quite tasty, though I could finish less than half of what Nini had served for me.

Before Lucy left though, Nini did have one translation request for her. Nini found my name and even the shortened form I had suggested (“Hill”) to be very difficult to pronounce, so she was wondering if it would be ok with me if she gave me a Maasai name for the during the time I stayed with her. I thought this sounded amazing, so I was dubbed “Nylabu”, a name meaning “one who rises to success” in Maa, which Lucy thought might have been a kind of joke in reference to my tallness (by Maasai standards).

I continued to confuse Nini throughout the evening with my strange mzungu ways and bad Swahili. She was quite confused by the ointment I was applying to my elbow nearly constantly and kept asking me why I was washing my arm so much and found the answer provided by my limited vocabulary “Because the doctor said” to be rather unsatisfactory.

I in turn was confused by the constant stream of small children and young women with babies that poured in and out of the house, sometimes stopping to talk or simply sit inside for a while. By the time it had been dark for an hour or so and everyone was yawing there where at least ten people in the house about the size of my bedroom at home. There were six people sleeping in the bed where I was – me, Nini and two women with toddlers. Maasai beds are made of woven sticks covered with a couple of cow hides, so they feel quite hard and lumpy to pampered wazungu. The bed was perhaps the size of a twin bed in the US, but a little wider, so the way you fit that many people on it is to curl up on your side, kind of in the fetal position and sleep the opposite way on the bed than you would think. Given my hugely swollen arm, this proved to be just about the most painful position that could have possibly been devised and as a result, I slept very little, probably an hour or two the entire night.

The rest of the time I spent watching the firelight flicker on the walls, listening to the goats gossiping in their acacia thorn pen outside of the house and hearing the chicken and its chicken scratching around in the dirt underneath of the bed.


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