November 5, 2009
By 4:45 am, Nini already had the fire started and was ready to go for the day. We each had more super sugary chai and half a leftover chapatti for breakfast while having a most interesting conversation about animals.
She chased the chicken out because it was scratching about at our feet for chapatti scraps in a most irritating manner and I asked her if she ever liked to eat chickens. She told me that she did like to eat chicken, but that she was not eating any chicken now.
“Why are you not eat chickens in the now?” I inquired.
“Because the cat comes in the night and eats the little chickens and the hawk comes in the day and eats any chicken and now I have only one little chicken and one big chicken. Also, I like eggs better.”
I told her that we have many chickens at one of the places where I work (Happy Trails) and she wanted to know about them.
“I don’t know how many because the like dog but not (coyote) or the bird big big with (pantomime a talon with my non-slinged hand) comes in the night or the morning to eat them. But no many are food now because now they have a man-chicken who hunts the big animals.”
I’m not sure that she understood that I was trying to say that hawks and coyotes used to eat lots of the chickens, but that a rooster now protects them, but she found my answer amusing nonetheless.
She also asked about my horse again – she wanted to know why I had such strange animal, I think, because she asked why I had a horse but not a cow.
“I have a horse because I like to ride the horse and my mama likes me so she bought it. I like cows too, but mama and baba are saying no cows and too no goats and no sheep also. They are liking the meat of cow but to go to buy in a meat-store.”
She seemed to think this answer made sense, though she was particularly amused by the idea that my family purchases all of our meat at a store. She also told me about her children, though it was very confusing because I am sure she was including the children of her co-wives because by the time she had listed all of the names and approximate ages and where they were (of which I only understood maybe a quarter of because she was speaking so rapidly), there must have been at least twenty of them.
Then we started talking about school. I asked her where she had learned to speak Kiswahili, because most Maasai children don’t speak Swahili until they start going to school. She said she had never been to school, which makes sense given her gender and age, but that she had learned her Swahili from all of the children of the boma as they studied. She spoke beautiful Swahili – just another example of what an incredibly intelligent and wonderful woman my Nini is! She told me how many children in her village go to boarding school, even at young ages and wanted to know if the same was true in Amerika.
I explained, “In Amerika, children that are small going to school very close to home because they have missed mama and baba but children that are big-big go far away because…because…because…we want to learn more. Big students live and eat and sleep at the college.”
She also wanted to know what I want to do for work after college. This was a difficult thing to explain using my Swahili skills, but I gave it my best shot.
“The work I want is like to be an animal doctor, but no. Like being a teacher but no also. Like to study many animals in Afrika and Amerika. Sawa? (You got it?)”
I don’t think she really got it and I’m pretty sure she thought I was crazy, but that was as good as an explanation as she was going to get!
Unfortunately, by this time the morning dose of mafuta was beginning to get to me again and I had to excuse myself. She was most concerned that it was her cooking that was making my “tumbo mbaya” (stomach bad) and I assured her it wasn’t, even though of course, it kind of wise, but I didn’t want her to feel bad as its not her fault that my body isn’t used to animal fat!
I told her that “My stomach is bad because of the doctor-food” while pointing at my bottles of pills and we left it at that.
When I returned, we went out to milk some of the goats. I did surprisingly well at this, given that I am a) a mzungu and b) was milking by straddling the goat to hold it still and using my good arm to milk. After the milking we went for a quick visit to Lisa and Mara’s house, which was nice. Its always a relief to speak in English for a brief time after hours of struggling along in sub standard Swahili.
Our next task was to fetch more water to cook the midday and evening meals. Nini seemed to have recognized that I was perhaps stronger than my mzunguness and sling would imply so this time she gave me the big jerry can. The hike to fill it was perfectly fine, but the way back gave me a killer headache! Maasai women are incredibly strong – my Nini must weigh only ¾ of what I do and yet is far better at carrying water than I.
After a brief rest, we went out to gather firewood with Lisa, Mara and their mama. Nini wound the leather strap I would be using to carry firewood around my waist in true Maasai style in order to free up my good hand to carry an axe.
“You are small!” she exclaimed as she tied the strap. “The clothes were so big I thought you were very fat like you had a child in you!”
It was a true, if less than flattering description of my appearance given that I was wearing as loose fitting clothing as possible so it would be easier for me to get it and out of with minimal movement and bending of my left arm.
After watching Nini sharpen the machetes and axes and trying to teach Mara how to sharpen them too (I didn’t learn – it is a two handed sort of job), we set off to find firewood. We walked until we reached a good brushy area filled with “Olerien”, the preferred wood of the Maasai and then the mamas started hacking away at limbs, stumps and still living trunks while us wazungu stood awkwardly around and helped by dragging branches out of the way and stacking the wood in piles, when we could.
Eventually we had several healthy stacks of wood and the mamas tied into bundles with the leather straps so we could all carry it on our heads back to the boma. Before we could return however, the mamas decided that we all had dirty teeth and they cut tooth brushing twigs from the olorien for us and we had to spend a good twenty minutes or so brushing away in the brush before they loaded us up with our bundles of wood. Mara remarked that carrying such long pieces of wood this way made her feel like a buffalo with very large horns. Putting away the firewood once Nini and I had reached our house was also quite an awkward task to perform one handed, but I managed it, breaking the longer pieces by stepping on them instead of breaking them with my hands the way Nini did.
Next Nini cooked ugali and potatoes while a very unhelpful translator who just got upset with my mama for not making me enough jewelry stopped by and irritated us. Eventually he left and we resumed our conversations in broken Swahili. After he left, Lucy came by to have lunch with us, for which I was very grateful. Even with Lucy asking on my behalf for Nini to reduce the portion size three times, I still wasn’t able to finish the plate despite my very best efforts.
Lucy was convinced that we had a meeting with the other students at the village school like we had the previous day, which seemed strange to me as we had all agreed after a short discussion with Mwalimu Ken, that we didn’t need to meet and would prefer to spend the time with our families. Of course, when Lucy and I arrived we found absolutely no other students waiting and it had started to rain, though pour would be a more accurate description. We started to walk around town in the rain and ran into Meryl and Heather, who had walked all the way to the store from their boma, which was many kilometers from the village center. Meryl told me about singing the song “Silent Night” for her host siblings – because they had been dancing for her when they sang, she decided that she would do the sign language motions she knew for “Silent Night” from being in choir. She explained what she was doing to the children by saying “My hands. Look at them. My hands they are singing for the people who cannot hear.”, so at least I wasn’t the only one confusing my hosts in Swahili!
Next, Lucy and I went to the store because she needed to buy some sugar and flour. She also bought us each a piece of “bubblisi” or Big G, a particularly sugary and generic sort of Kenyan bubblegum that I have come to love! After leaving the school, we ran into Lucy’s little sister, Cecilia. Cecilia and her best friend were running around town in their green sweaters and blue skirts (school uniforms), having a great time and were all too happy to come stare at the mzungu for a bit, though they ran away laughing after they greeted me shyly in English and I responded in Swahili. At this point the rain started again and we huddled under the eaves outside a butcher shop, which just happened to be the same place Meryl, Heather and their mamas were taking shelter, so it ended up being quite fun.
Once the rain was coming down a little less forcefully, we went and visited a random friend of Lucy’s. They chatted in Kiswahili while I stood there, with mating chickens just outside the door my only form of entertainment. Eventually, we left and visited another eight or so women, each of whom Lucy described as being “the mother in law of my uncle”, which was a little confusing, but they were all very nice and quite shocked when I could greet them properly in Maa. Speaking of greetings, I also had to bow my head anytime we passed an older man in town so he could touch the top of my head as is the Maasai custom. I really didn’t like this – I would have had no problem if it was just an issue of showing respect to elders, but I didn’t like the idea that I should show more respect to the older men than to older women like my mama.
Eventually we went back to the school house and waited for Habibu, Simon and Ken to pick us up and take us back to Nini’s boma. Once they arrived, Lucy and I hopped in the back (the first time I’d ridden in the back since acquiring my sling). Riding standing in the back of the trucks is really fun, but not something I’d recommend in the pouring rain and with only one hand to hang on with. I ended up banging my bad elbow pretty good several times and smacking my jaw against the bar when we kind of fishtailed on our way down across the small creek. Luckily there was no bruise, but I had a killer headache the rest of the day and well into the night!
While I was out, my mama had prepared a special surprise for me. She had gone to a relative’s house to pick up some special items to show me, so that with Lucy’s help as a translator, she could teach me more about Maasai culture. The first item was a beautiful leather purse made out of sheepskin and decorated with shells, beading and ornate leather stitiching. It was called “embener maasai” and it is a special bag that a woman is given on the day of her marriage by one of her female relatives. She packs very special items in it and on the way to her new home, she may carry other things, but her husband must carry this bag for her. The next thing was an “orkayla maasai”, a sort of Maasai wedding dress, a leather smock that goes over one shoulder and over the rest of the woman’s clothes and is decorated similarly to the bag with shells, fancy stitching and beadwork. It is also usually made of sheepskin.
Nini tried it on and then insisted I try it on too. I’m sure it looked ridiculous on me, a hulking big mzungu girl, but Nini told me I looked “ehseedie sana” or “very nice” and I felt flattered! Even more, I was touched that she wanted to share so much of her culture with me – especially when she told me that she had gone to fetch these particular items because they were once she herself had made. She asked me to please tell my friends and brothers and family at home about them and about the other things she had taught me about Maasai culture. She said she isn’t sure what people in Amerika think of Maasai but that she wants them to know that the Maasai are a very good sort of people.
Lucy left to go check on Mara and Lisa while Nini and I admired the marriage items once more before putting them away. Then I realized that I still had Lucy’s cell phone in my pocket from when she had put it in there for safekeeping during our wild ride back to the boma, so I ran over to the other house to give it to her. By this point, I though the whole situation and everything else in the world was hilarious – I’d reached the stage of exhaustion, where even pain couldn’t stop me from feeling absolutely giddy!
I watched Nini cook chapattie and beans again for dinner while I swept out the house, nearly running headfirst into a skinny brown cow’s rump when I failed to look where I was going first while sweeping the pile out the door. After I came back in, a Maasai man and woman I hadn’t seen before came in and visited with Nini for awhile. They talked only in Maa and as a result I still have no idea who they were or why the visited. Eventually they left and Nini and I had a quiet dinner. This time she listened to my cries of “Attaraposhe!” and understood that I would need to leave the house shortly after the meal – the mafuta had struck again, I fear!
When it was getting close to bedtime, Nini turned to me and spoke to me in Kiswahili. I didn’t know every word she said, but it was one of those incredible moments when you are in perfect understanding with someone just because the emotion behind the words is so heartfelt and true.
“Nylabu,” she said “last night, I could hardly sleep at all. You were so far away and I kept worrying about you. What if you were cold in the night and needed a bigger fire, but weren’t able to do that because of your bad arm? Or what if you need to go out and you can’t open the door with one arm? Or what if you start to really hurt in your arm and you need help? Tonight, I will sleep right here next to you and if you need anything in the night, all you will do is say ‘Nini’ and I will get up and I will help you.”
Sure enough, she did sleep right next to me, which meant that I didn’t sleep at all (literally, not once did I fall asleep all night), because not only did I have a hard Maasai bed, I had a very bony Maasai woman who liked to move around and snore in her sleep digging her knees or elbows into me with increasing regularity, but all of that aside, it was one of the nicest things that anyone has ever done for me in my life.
I can’t believe how quickly I’d become part of Nini’s family and how concerned for me she was. Maasai women are incredibly strong, lifting loads with their small, wiry loads that would give many American gym rats pause. They are so wise, knowing how to cook, how to build a house, how to tend to a sick child. But I think they must in some way have bigger hearts than everyone else too. In Maasai culture, children are raised in a communal fashion. If a child’s parents aren’t caring for it properly or are otherwise occupied, someone else will make sure it is fed, comforted or has a place to see.
I feel like its an incredible testament to Nini, that she could immediately see past our differences and see that I, big and tall and as pale glowing white as I am was really in many ways just a child very far from home! I hope that I can incorporate some of this open heartedness in the way that I relate to other people and the world – thought I doubt that it will ever come as naturally to me as it does to Nini.