Among the Masaai

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On a matatu to town, a bus to Ngong, and a motorcycle to the family compound in Masaailand; it was around noon by the time Deanna, Markus and I finally arrived.

The way was interesting.  Nairobi city was the hustle and bustle of life and business found in any big city.  Ngong’s market was the busy hub of the somewhat quaint town found partway up Ngong Hills.  We stopped here to purchase some rice and flour (the type that is used for making chapati) for the family, and some bottled water for ourselves, before hiring motorcycles to take us the rest of the way.  The driver, Markus and I on one bike, Deanna and a driver on the other.

We had gone towards the end of the rainy season.  Thankfully the rain that night had not been too strong the roads of dirt and rocks were no longer completely mud.  It would have definitely been unsurpassable in certain areas.  I was so glad to have brought my sunnys, the Aussie word for sunglasses, because the dust was bad.

I marveled at the brown and green terrain, looking at the man-made ponds storing the rainwater and wondered how they were already seeming to dry out even though it was still the rainy season.  Water really does mean life and I could only guess what would happen when the first month of the dry season had passed.

We rode past many Maasai wrapped in bright red, boys and men, watching over their goats and sheep.  Some goats, stretching themselves along the tree trunk to reach the green leaves above, seemed to be eating the leaves clustered on the thorny trees.  Was I seeing right?  Of all bushes and trees, why choose this tree of thorns?

We passed cactuses.  I am always surprised to see them growing here in Kenya.  Seeing cactuses here, in the rolling hill terrain under the direct sun makes sense, but seeing them up in the Ngong Hills and in Gigiri where the altitude is higher and the temperatures cooler always surprises me.  It seems so unnatural.

Our driver wore a baseball cap.  Half way down one of the bumpy hills he started fidgeting with one hand in his pocket.  Not so cool when there are two passengers and their bags behind him, and the road resembles something like a mined obstacle course.  I asked if he needed help and he pulled out a tuque (or knit beanie).  I placed this over his baseball cap.  Whoever thought Kenya would be hot and humid was wrong.  There are tuques everywhere and even I, the Canadian, am constantly in sweaters.

We entered the compound through a new gate and fence.  Instead of being greeted by the entire extended family that we were told was visiting for the weekend, we spent the day with the primary school children, a couple secondary school children and one grown child.  The others had all gone to the Christmas Bazaar in Ngong to sell their goods.  The secondary school-age children were in charge.  The young kids did some work beating the maize, and the rest of the time they spent playing skip-rope or running around the compound being followed by some very cute puppies.

The family that lives here is polygamous.  There were numerous family homes on the compound.  The homes were made of earthen ingredients, mainly mud and sticks.  In some places the mud had fallen away and the internal stick structure was visible; quite interesting.  From inside we could see the grass or straw strings used to tie the roof in place.  Of course, not every home was like this.  The father’s place was now made of brick and the newer building as well.  In this earthen building, the kitchen was inside and the room small filled quickly with smoke making it hard to see.  The rice and beans awaiting us satisfied and I was reminded how simply it is to live in a rural setting; memories of Bolgatanga, Ghana flooded back to me.  The sound of children playing accompanied by the older brother’s radio blasting some tunes from the neighbouring house filled the air.

I found myself thinking how interesting it is that families everywhere are similar no matter how different the circumstance and context.  Even in this relatively modern Masaai family some of the issues I heard about had parallels quite similar to those one would hear about in North America and in other cultures around the world; others were quite different.  The sons of the first wife are the ones which raise the livestock and therefore have not attended school.  Even though they hold a very valuable position within Masaai culture (according to the Masaai, God entrusted them to care for the cattle, which are invaluable) these young men are disappointed that they could not attend school.  One of the older daughters had a child with someone she wants to marry but her father won’t allow her, and last year one of the younger daughters wanted to run away because she was scared of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).  FGM is one practice that the family continues because it will ensure the daughter is considered eligible for marriage within her community; giving her a better future than to be thought unclean and remain unmarried.  However, being relatively modern, they had it done in a hospital.  Yes, this is illegal, but having hospitals practice this is far safer than having it done in the bush. (If you’ve seen this, you’ll understand how scary my nightmare after watching it was.  In that nightmare, I too was forced to marry someone old enough to be my grandfather.  Thankfully that nightmare was not a long one.)

On this topic, I recently saw the film, Desert Flower, based on the true story of Waris Dirie who ran away from a nomadic family in Somalia as a young girl and eventually became a globally renowned supermodel. http://movies.nationalgeographic.com/movies/desert-flower/  Of course Waris’ Somali culture and the culture of the Masaai I visited are very different.  The FGM practiced in each country is different; however elements of FGM, various reasons for practicing it, and why it is so difficult to stop the practice in both cultures are similar.  Desert Flower was a hard film to watch but it was incredibly done.  It revealed the ups and downs one feels when in a new country, seemingly lost and trying to assimilate to the foreign country surrounding them.  For Waris it was a painful process but she has become a heard voice, able to accomplish so much.  I remember my mother speaking to me about Waris when she first spoke up with raw honesty.   .”  I highly recommend looking into Desert Flower Foundation.  http://www.desertflowerfoundation.org/en/   “According to records kept by the United Nations more than 8000 girls become victims of this heinous crime every day.”

We go for a walk to see the local school and Deanna, who lived here last year showed us around.  A fully-furnished school, there was even a library, nice latrines and piped water.  I am impressed.   We climbed out behind the school and up a cliff.  From here we could oversea much of Masaailand, with Ngong Hills in the distance.

Upon returning the family compound we decide risk the rain and head out to the valley with the secondary school-aged boy and grown one.  The boy left us part way needing to check on the goats.  The remaining four of us trekked on.  We are told that all this land belonged to the family.  Our informant had grown up here but spent the month of September in Spain.  I could not imagine what this Masaailand born and raised, man must have thought when arriving in Madrid.  He spoke of the nice metro, the beauty of the Spanish countryside, the delicious food, and of the lack of natural environment within the city area, and of people engaged in constant partying which included too much drinking and drug use.  He works for a Spanish organization picking people up for the airport in Nairobi once in a while.  His questions to me were about Canada, the metro system of Toronto, and whether or not our cities have natural or artificial nature.

We were a good distance from the family compound and almost at the valley when the rains started.  It was after all, still the rainy season (we had visited one weekend too early, for the following week it barely rained at all).  We marched through what we could until it began to fall like buckets of water being poured from the heavens, and eventually took cover under a tree.   Someone joined us.  He turned out to be a nomadic Masaai that had come to this area in search of better grazing for his cattle.  The wind blowing rain around the tree at us, we run to another.  This one was better, but you had to watch yourself; it had thorns.

By my feet there was a spider’s web.  I point it out to my traveling companions, the 2 muzungus beside me.  Deanna said it looked like the web of a funnel spider.  She warned us to be careful because as funnel spiders are poisonous.  Really?  Oh, of all the luck.  This unfortunate fact was reconfirmed.  Thank God she said that because, as in tune to my natural reaction when looking at spider webs, I had already been looking for something to throw at it.  I vocalized this and was told that was definitely NOT a good idea.  I should have considered this fact already seeing as she had already warned me about poisonous spiders in the outhouse – as if that wasn’t scary!  Of course, Markus thought it would be funny to play a prank on me and freak out pointing near my foot.  I should have seen it coming.  I’ve known Markus long enough and he’s really funny but not when you’re the one being pranked – especially when you can’t escape because of the thorn tree above and around you.  Need I say I was unimpressed?  I’m not sure why they didn’t understand my logic when I then decided I’d rather get rained on, but it seemed quite logical to me.  A funnel web must mean the funnel spider is nearby.  And poisonous or not, big or small, I know I want nothing to do with it.

The rains over, we looked at the valley from high above on a very steep and slippery cliff’s edge and traced the road we had come on as far as we could see.  Heading back to the family compound we see the other Masaai man again and say farewell.  This time he is moving the cattle and I was in awe.  These were the nicest, biggest cattle I have seen in ALL of Africa.  Sure, I haven’t been everywhere, but they were far from the skeletal emancipated cows I’m used to seeing in this part of the world.  These cattle were full, muscular and huge!  I wondered what it must be like, moving from place to place to ensure they can eat.  Caring for them so much that you must travel so far from your family for so long.  Then again, I suppose these valuable cattle also contribute to the family.

We arrive at the family home and the older sister has begun to prepare some chai for us.  This is the first time I had chai the Kenyan way, with tonnes of milk and heaps of sugar.  We graciously accepted and drank the warm liquid sugar.

Our ride back to town was earlier than expected because the rain was threatening again.  Having a motorcycle, I knew how unsafe and unsurpassable the road would become when it is flooded out or a pile of mud.  It was hard enough getting here, slipping here and there as we did.  Our driver came and picked us up just as the rains began to fall again.  We made it to Ngong and got on a bus which pulled out of the market just as the rains began to fall.  We arrived in Nairobi and got onto a matatu which left the stage shortly before the rains began to fall.  We entered the boarding house minutes before the storm rolled into Gigiri.  What timing!  And what an awesomely culture-filled day!

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