Saturday, July 28, 2007

Muzungas in Maasai Land

We've learned the trick to having a great trip to Kenya: have a friend who has a friend who wants to show you around. As Tyler mentioned, our friend Donald connected us with Hesaan, a student of his who is a proud Maasai with an interest in showing others what his culture is like. So when Donald asked what we wanted to do while in Kenya and mentioned that a student could take us to stay with a traditional Maasai family, we jumped at the opportunity. While there had been times along the trip when we would have liked to do some kind of homestay or other kind of local immersion, they hadn't worked out or we hadn't had the time, so this seemed like a great opportunity to do tourist-y things in a very un-touristic way. After a few hours of trying to secure a car to drive to Narok, the closest town to the village we'd be staying at, we were set to leave early the next day.

Our first stop was a viewpoint over the Great Rift Valley from the Escarpment along a road built by Italian POWs the British held from World War II. We'd heard since we'd arrived in Kenya how bad the roads were, and I was having my doubts. For the first hour or so, they had been well-paved and--fortunately for Tyler who was again stuck doing all the driving in our rented non-automatic car--people seemed to drive pretty reasonably and follow the rules of the road. But shortly after descending into the valley, we learned that the reputation was well-deserved--huge potholes, unpaved, dusty roads, and lots of "diversions" for road work that was going on. Suddenly we realized why a town that didn't look that far on the map from Nairobi could be a four-hour drive.

Viewpoint of the Great Rift Valley

Our next stop was at a local market along the way. Tuesday and Saturday are market days, so we were able to see where people come from all over the area to sell cows, goats, jewelry, food and clothing. Unfortunately, I was too shy to pull out the camera while we were there, so I only have the memories of all the traditionally dressed men and women, the huge pens of men haggling over the animals, and the dusty environs comprising the market.

Then after picking up one of Hesaan's aunts who was coming back with milk from the family shamba, or garden, we were finally in Narok, a small but bustling town made up of lots of Maasai who had left the villages along with the usual smatterings of Indians and Somalis. Touring around town, we saw the market and met most of Hesaan's family, including his two younger siblings, parents, cousins, aunts and uncles, and grandparents. And we got a better understanding of the concept of "African time." While there is a lot of joking about people running late and being slow for appointments, walking through the market with Hesaan showed that it's likely because you know so many people or see family and need to chat with them. I think it would be the height of rudeness to suggest you didn't have time to say hello and spend a few moments with people. We also learned that it seemed that Hesaan knows half of Kenya and was always running into schoolmates, friends and family. After time spent securing the proper permissions and introductions for us to stay with the Masaai, we finally headed out the 22 kilometers through the bush to reach the family home with Vincent, the patriarch, with us in the car.

Tyler and Hesaan buying traditional shoes made from old tires--great recycling!

One thing we were quickly learning in Kenya--and Narok in particular--was how friendly and welcoming everyone was. I quickly learned another Swahili word--Karibu, or welcome--because we heard it so often. And this held true as we entered the family boma, filled with children, chickens and manyattas, or traditional buildings. Right away, they built a small fire so we'd be comfortable and made tea. And while our Swahili and Kimaasai are virtually non-existent, the older boys and the father could speak English and tell us about their home and life, including walking 20 days to and from a market to sell cattle and how Maasai have no fear of lions or other animals.

The entrance to the family's boma, or fenced area that includes a cattle enclosure and several buildings called manyattas

Inside the boma

Hanging out with some of the family before tea

More family--Vincent, two wives and fifteen children live together in the boma

After some time getting settled and taking some photos, Vincent took us for a walk outside the home to the local school. The school was in the process of getting some additional buildings from a major Swiss benefactor. There were nine girls there currently staying in the dormitory; a boy's dorm and a cafeteria were being built. Three teachers who were on the premises gave us a tour of all the buildings. They had some challenges. Most of the classes were still in an old traditional building, short on room and light. Classrooms for the older classes had been repurposed from a building with larger rooms that had been subdivided so that they could accomodate all primary school classes (nursery or pre-K through standard 8). But from what Vincent told us, this was an improvement from when students had had to travel very far distances to attend classes.

Girl students boarding at the Iltumtum village school

We returned in time for dinner preparations. While Tyler was left with the older men, I was escorted to the kitchen with the younger wife and many of the younger children to help with dinner. Besides helping hold the meat that was being cut up for dinner, mostly it was a time for the children to open up and ask me lots of questions: Are there elephants where you live? What kind of animals are there? Can you see stars where you live? What are schools like? Do you live in houses like this? Do you cook over fires like this? And I got to see some traditional foods, like ugali and udjee, being made. Finally, we sat down for a dinner of goat meat, spinach and ugali (a play-doh-like starchy substance made of flour and water and used like Ethiopian injera bread for eating).

In the kitchen with the young wife and children

After tea, it was time to play dress up the muzungas (white people). Tyler had bought a traditional Maasai blanket when we had visited the market, so they just added some beads, and a traditional weapon, while I was draped in women's sarongs and beads. Then we took lots of pictures with each other, the kids, and the important cattle. When it was time to go to bed, Malida, the young wife, started undressing me but kept me from taking off the large square beaded necklace and insisted I keep it as a gift. I was very touched. In such a short time, we really felt so welcomed and embraced by the family. In fact, Vincent told Tyler that if we ever wanted to live in Kenya or teach in the school, he would let us stay on 10 acres of his shamba, or land, as long as we wanted.

Tyler in his Maasai gear and Vincent, the family patriarch

Sarah as a Maasai woman, with Malida. I'm laughing because I was trying to copy their dance to a song the boys were singing and felt rather ridiculous not to get it!

More Maasai dress-up photos. We're not sure why all the boys staring doing these salutes

The family then had us go into the cattle enclosure for a photo--cows are incredibly important in traditional families

We then took off to our respective manyattas. The one we stayed in was essentially a guesthouse that Vincent had built for another muzunga friend who sometimes stayed with them. It was small and cozy, with an entry area for bathing and then two built-in beds with a small pit for a fire if it was cold in the middle. Fortunately, the weather was pleasant. Even better, the family lent us a mattress to use on top of the skin that made the bed's base but was very hard. After one small scare when we thought something was trying to scratch it's way into our home for the night (it was a chicken who'd snuck in and was roosting under the other bed), we went to sleep--at least until about 4:30 when it was time to head out again.

Inside our manyatta the next morning for tea and bread before heading out to Maasai Mara

I can't really say enough about what an amazing experience this was. I only wished we had had more time to spend with the family. For small gifts of groceries (some sugar, tea, bread and butter), we were welcomed with open arms, told we could come back and stay with them any time--even for a month. They were anxious to know when we might visit again and were invited back for an important rite of passage for Maasai girls happening in December. While I don't think we'll be back that soon, I do hope that we'll see them again.


ambika said...

I honestly think these are some of my favorite photos from your trip so far. I mean, vistas in South Africa and New Zealand just don't get to me like these amazing shots of the girls in their uniforms or the two of you in these clothes looking so at home in such a wildly different environment.

Anyhow, I tagged y'all. I couldn't not, given the topic.

Rick said...

I have to agree with Ambika you do look so at home and the smiles on everyones faces!

The General said...

It was a pretty amazing expierence. Moreso because the family we stayed with was an actual Maasai family. As we drove to Maasai Mara National Reserve, we passed several Maasai "villages" which were obviously just there for tourists to sightsee. But, because of Donald and Hesaan, we were able to stay that night with a family, instead of just visiting a tourist trap.

Plus, Vincent and his family were so accomodating and giving that it did make it feel like we were art of their family for the breif period we were there.