Monday, August 17, 2009
Back in Nairobi, we gathered for a last meal at The Cedars, a wonderful Lebanese restaurant, after a day of shopping for gifts to bring home to family and friends. We spent the meal reflecting on what worked well on the trip in order to think more carefully about how to design future trips with students.
Although I was ready to return home, this trip was rich and full of evocative memories and new experiences. I am grateful to have had the time and the support from family and the University that allowed me to walk outside of my own time and space into the lives of others.
The last evening in Merrrueshi, the warriors gathered to dance and sing for us. Maasai traditional singing, like much of traditional African music, has a lead singer who sings out a line and the group responds with a chorus line.
A difference in the Maasai from the Shona or Zulu singing that I am more familiar with is the rhythmic breath and throat singing that becomes part of the response and creates a polyphonic structure under the lead singer's voice.
This breath singing, which sounds most like deep grunts, creates a beat that leads into a jumping dance. Competitive jumping occurs in a circle or line, and each warrior steps forward to jump as high as possible, in time to the beat, keeping a very narrow, upright profile, never letting their heels touch the ground. Their age-mates encourage or mock them depending on the height of the jump, and this competition was full of laughter and encouraging calls from us as the audience. By the end of the dance, the warriors had pulled most of us into the circle, and we tried our best to jump, but none of us could get close to the height that the warriors reached.
The lighting was only firelight and a few headlamps, so the pictures of this ceremony are dark and not too detailed, but I've included two here just to provide a little of the feeling of the evening.
Drought is a significant problem in Kenya, and it impacts the Maasai in a number of ways.
The animals around Merrueshi are dying because of the lack of access to water.
This water hole is typically a source of reliable water for both the wild animals and the cattle, but now it's cracked and dry.
The Maasai have had to move their cattle down closer to Mombasa, more than a nine day walk from Merrueshi, which takes many of the young warriors and boys away from the village for extended periods of time.
The Kenyan government has dug some waterholes in the area and has made attempts to truck water in, but even those holes are dry in this season.
While the others were on safari in Amboseli Park, I stayed behind to interview women about their views of childhood and childrearing in Maasai country. Mama Kakuta (Singote Maimai) and Mama Loorpapit (Noosiapai Parseloloi) were my primary sources, but other younger women, like Nolapeta and her friends, dropped in and out of the conversation. Samuel was the translator, a role that at times caused laughter, as he translated questions about sex and childbirth.
Mama Kakuta and Mama Noosiapai are both elders and our conversations ranged over the changes in Maasai life since they were young girls. Both were married very young, and both were in polygamous marriages - Singote as a first wife and Noosiapai a 'small' wife, the term that is used for second or third wives. Polygamy was common in the Maasai culture, perhaps as a response to the fairly high infant mortality rate in the past. (Infants are not typically recognized and named until they have survived at least three months.) Although still practiced, it is less common now according to Mama Kakuta and Noosiapai.
They described the family structure as largely organized around the compound or enkang set up at the time of first marriage or when a couple leaves the parents' home (which might be when the second son gets married). Each compound is likely to have three or four huts to house the members of the extended family.
They described a culture organized around 'age groupings.' Young children play in the compound and help with the chores. Both play and chores are gendered, with the girls helping with homemaking, childcare, fetching water and firewood, cleaning, and preparing food. Girls also pick calabash gourds, hollow them out and create the containers for milk, cornmeal or blood that are stored inside the huts. Like their jewelry, these calabash are often decorated with beads, leather and/or carvings - the functional made beautiful.
Boys help tend the cattle and goats and fetch water for the animals. The games they described were largely games that prepare the child for adult responsibilities - making small huts out of dirt, building small corrals and using stones to make a herd of cattle to tend.
Maasai is largely patriarchal, with the Maasai elders making most of the decisions for the tribe, but the interactions between the men and women are lively and full of laughter and teasing.
Both sexes are initiated into adulthood through circumcision rituals at about 15 to 18 years. The elders of the tribe decide when they need a new group of warriors, and initiate a circumcision ritual; all the boys/girls in the age range are circumcised at the same time. Although questions are being raised from within the Maasai community about circumcision practices, especially female circumcision, this ritual is still an important and significant marker of the step from childhood to adulthood, and the roles and responsibilities a boy and girl have in society change significantly. The tasks you are assigned, the clothes you wear, Samuel says that often a child (boy or girl) who is going away to boarding school may be circumcised before leaving to instill the attitude of mature decision making and behavior.
After circumcision, the boys become Morani, an age-related group of warriors whose primary responsibility is to protect the cattle and the tribe. Traditionally, the Morani lived together in their own compound (a Manyatta) for 8-10 years as junior warriors. The warriors wear the traditional red robes of the Maasai, braid their hair in intricate patterns, often colored with ochre.
The girls do not have such a tight age-mate structure, but are considered adults, helping build the huts in the Manyatta, singing praise songs for the lions and the warriors and preparing for marriage.
Warriors eventually go though the eunoto ceremony, preparing them for marriage and children. Warriors may choose multiple wives, and any warrior may have sexual relations with any circumcised woman of their age group, although women are free to reject the advances of any man. Any child that might result from sexual relations with his age mate is raised by the husband as one of his own.
The major sexual taboo, according to Mama Kakuta and Samuel, is sexual relations between an uncircumcised boy and a circumcised girl or a circumcised boy and an uncircumcised girl. This transgression brings great shame on the family, requires the payment of a large fine in cows or goats and may impact the woman's ability to be married, helping to perpetuate the practice of female circumcision
Another major sexual taboo is a man forcing sex on his pregnant or nursing wife. A woman who has been violated in this way goes to her age mates, who band together, gathering sticks and march naked to the husbands home to beat him. Samuel says that when men see the women coming, marching naked, they all scatter for the bush, as any man in their path might be disciplined.
Bride price is still practiced, and as the Maasai view cattle as the primary source of wealth, cows are typically part of this exchange. According to Samuel, the price is paid in appreciation for the work done to raise the girl child to be a good wife and mother. Although most girls used to be married right after circumcision, today they are likely to continue their schooling through high school before being married and an educated girl's family can now demand a higher bride price.
When a girl is married, she joins her husband's family compound; she and her husband are likely to live with the extended family until the next son is ready to marry. Then she and her husband (and any other wives) leave to start their own compound nearby.
After marriage, warriors transition with their cohort to become junior elders. They are given responsibilites of governance and leadership within the tribe.
Mama Kakuta and Noosiapai both had large families, 6-10 children, which was pretty common in those days. Wealth in the Maasai community was traditionally counted by the number of cattle and children, and a man who had few of either was considerd poor. Today families are smaller; Samuel said that in part the economics of sending children to school and the later marriage age of young women has changed these practices.
After we finished the interview, I invited the women to ask me any questions they would like. Immediately they shifted to sexual practices, curious about whether women have sex during pregancy (taboo after the first three months in Maasai culture) or during breastfeeding (also taboo). They wanted to know if women still had sex after 'the eggs are gone' and laughed right out loud when I said that many American women do. I gathered from their responses that Maasai women don't continue to have sexual relations after menopause.
Our first night in Merrueshi, Mama Kakuta invited us to her home for tea. In the last afternoon light, we walked down the path to her compound where she greeted us with her beautiful smile.
Like most traditional Maasai families, Mama Kakuta and her clan live inside an enkang, a 'corral' made from piled thorn bushes, which protects the family and livestock from predators at night.
Benches were brought out of the huts and we sat in the sun while Mama Kakuta and Meoshi made the tea.
Tea preparation was very similar to what we saw in India. A large pot of water and milk is set to boiling. Tea leaves are added and the mixture boiled for about 4 minutes. Sugar is added to taste and then the tea is strained into cups or a teapot.
While we waited for the tea, we were given the chance to see a very traditional Maasai home - a hut made of wattle and dung. Entering the home through a small, narrow curving hallway, it took time for our eyes to adjust to the dark.
The inside of the hut is lit only by two very small ventilation windows near the largest bed and a small smoke hole in the ceiling.
The inside of the hut is cool, and Letitik (Tom), Kakuta's brother, told us that milk put in a calabash in the storage holes will stay good for a few days. There were three sleeping places inside the huts as well; one large bed, where a warrior and his age mates might sleep. A smaller sleeping area for women and children, and one small sleeping area for those who are sick or recovering from circumcision. The beds are cow hide stretched over interlaced branches and are quite comfortable. A firepit sits between the bed alcoves and the ceiling and beams above it are black with soot.
As the Maasai have traditionally been a nomadic people, these homes were meant to be temporary dwellings and are easily erected and degrade naturally back into the landscape after they're abandoned. Modern life has rooted the Maasai in certain locales, as the newer homes and buildings in Merrueshi indicate. The two new schools and the health clinic built by the Maasai Association and some of the new homes we saw are all modern structures, and even the newer huts were likely to have corrugated metal roofs rather than the traditional grass or dung. The use of the traditional hut building techniques may become a curiosity for tourists rather than a living daily routine.
When we first arrived, the children in the compound were curious (or even frightened), gathering around to look at us and our cameras. Once the tea was served, however, they all lined up against Mama Kakuta's house to watch. Samuel said this was a sign of respect for the elders - a very important part of the Maasai culture. When elders are talking, the children know to stay out of the way. Another sign of respect from children to elders is the 'presentation of the head' upon greeting. An uncircumcised child is not supposed to shake the hand of an elder; instead they approach and incline their heads for a touch on the crown.
Sunday, August 16, 2009
Each morning while we were in Merrueshi, Kwenya, Moloke and Loorpapit took us out for walks at dawn.
We gathered in the Opoloi for coffee in the dark and then set out to look for animals as the first light tinged the red soil.
These morning were magic; my pictures are mostly in my memory because my camera is not powerful enough to capture the animals at a distance.
Almost immediately we saw five giraffe - four adults and one young one. It was a thrill to see them on foot and not from inside a car. Then dik dik explode from the brush and race away.Grand and Thompson's gazelles feeding on the lower branches of the bushes, goa, plovers and weaver birds taking flight.
We walked through the gathering light, mostly in silence, with the warriors pointing to an ostrich or a gazelle or a monkey in the distance. They have amazing powers of observation, catching the slightest hint of movement, pointing with their spears until we finally catch sight of the animals coming into focus.
One morning, as the rest of the group went to Amboseli on safari, Tim and I stayed behind and set off on a 2.5 hour walk to find zebras, which had been spotted near the camp the night before. We didn't find them on this outing (although they showed up later back near the camp), but we did see lots of giraffe - the same group of five we had seen the day before, and others in pairs and alone. One seemed intensely curious, staring at us as we moved closer and closer, finally backing away when we seemed too near for her comfort.
The Maasai women and men wear beautiful beaded jewelry - one of the trademarks of this culture.
One afternoon the elder women of the community came by to show us how they create the necklaces, collars, anklets and earrings. Although they don't speak English, and we, obviously, don't speak Maasai, the communication back and forth as we watch, and then were encouraged to try our own hands at the beading, was easy and full of laughter.
Mama Kakuta took me on as a novice, and showed me how she uses a small awl to pick up the beads and thread them around a hoop made from a plastic lid to create a beautiful bracelet.
I asked if the jewelry has any significance. Through Samuel we learned that the necklaces and earrings are primarily created for their beauty; they don't have special significance related to martial status some of the jewelry in India does. Some of the jewelry carries messages about which age group you belong to or the place you come from. The beads are typically set in patterns that have high contrast. A darker field is set next to the lighter colors; contrasts are seen as a reflection of the opposites that occur in the natural world - day/night, sun/rain, youth/age.
Another important function of the large circular necklaces, according to Samuel, is that in the dance and song competitions that are an important part of this culture, the women show their flexibility by how the necklaces move on their necks as they dance.
Beadwork has a long history among the Maasai. Before glass beads were available, the Maasai used natural objects for ornamentation. White beads were made from clay or bone, blue beads from iron or horn and red beads from seeds, copper or brass. But by the late 19th century, glass beads began to be traded widely in East Africa, and the Maasai women adopted them for their necklaces and bracelets, and the designs became more intricate.
After the beading lesson, the women set up a small market for us. There is something very satisfying about buying from the people who actually make the goods - much different than purchasing the same bracelet in a market in Nairobi.