Monday, March 11, 2013

Maasai Village

We left Amboseli Saturday morning at 8:30 am to return to Nairobi. We opted to stop along the way to visit a Maasai village. When I was told we would need to pay 2,000 Kenyan shillings each to visit this village, I must admit this started the wheels turning in my jaded American mind. How authentic would it be? Turns out, it was the real deal, complete with fresh animal dung to step in and sufficient flies buzzing around to drive us to distraction.

The chief of this village, with about 115 inhabitants, spoke very good English. He is the one who gave us the tour. It started out with a native song/chant with both men and women doing a bit of jumping. The chief explained this was part of the ritual for young men and had something to do with scaring away lions. Or maybe it was evil spirits. I didn't have the pad and pen I was using to jot down travel notes and of course can't recall his exact words.




This is one of my favorite pics (seen below) because the Maasai woman is carrying the baby on her back. Plus it gives you a good view of the cattle and goat pen "walls" behind the gathering folks. In order to protect their highly valuable herd of goats and cattle, they keep the animals in the center of their little village at night. They use these bushes and limbs to build a barrier to keep the critters in the center of the huts that surround it. Then around the perimeter of the huts is another wall, of sorts, made from more branches. This protects everyone from animals like lions, cheetahs and hyenas that might harm them in the night. If you look closely, you can see the fresh piles of cow dung on the ground here in the animal pen where the native song/chant was performed.





The animals are herded out during the day to graze the adjacent land and be driven down to the nearest watering hole for a drink. There are no fences and so drivers have to constantly be on the lookout for Maasai, mostly men and boys, minding the animals as they herd them along the side of the road or move them across it. 

After this ended, we sat down with the tribe's medicine man, for lack of a better term, so he could explain the natural remedies he uses for his people. This is a skill passed down from father to son, generation after generation. I don't recall the uses for each item pictured below on the mat he spread out before us, but I do remember they were used to treat things like stomach aches, tooth aches and head aches. 



It's something I had a hard time processing, something I couldn't even imagine. Our senior was born with a tumor that required immediate medical intervention and there was absolutely nothing on this mat that would have helped her. We complain about the costs of prescriptions or how long we have to wait to see the doctor at the A&E (ER in the US). We refuse to go to our local hospital and will drive to a better facility in a different city because we want the best care our insurance and money can provide. There is no 911 to dial if you have a medical emergency. There is no car to take you to the hospital in a life or death situation. For all of our bitching and complaining about the faults in our first world medical system, we really are blessed beyond measure in comparison to these folks in Kenya. It was truly a count-your-blessings moment for me.



After the session about their homeopathic medicines, the chief told us that they don't have matches. Three of them then demonstrated to us how they use these simple materials in the pic above to create a fire. And they did so in about 2 minutes right before our eyes. The chief is the one in the middle and the medicine man is on the left. They explained to us that boys are taught this skill and it's their responsibility to start fires, when needed.




Next, the chief explained their huts, constructed of dung, mud and elephant grass over the course of about 2-3 weeks. There is just one entrance that curves around to the left to keep out rain in the wet season. Allowed to go inside and take a peek, it was very dark because there is only one small opening in the wall behind the fire (laid right on the dirt floor) in order to provide a place for the smoke to escape and let in a bit of light during the day.

Along the wall opposite the fire and the end opposite the entrance there were two small beds made of stretched cowhide and raised about a foot off the floor. The chief described how this is necessary to keep them safe from any crawling bugs or reptiles that might find their way into the hut. Plus it keeps them dry during rainy periods. We also learned that the Maasai are a polygamous society and men are allowed up to five wives. However, only the wealthiest of the tribesman can afford that many wives. The chief said each of his wives has her own hut and when he visits the wife, the children are sent to spend the night in one of the huts belonging to another of his wives. 

After this, we had a special treat and out of respect for the occasion I didn't ask about taking a picture. The chief's daughter had given birth just 14 hours before and we were granted permission to enter the hut where the baby was born and see the Maasai woman who serves as midwife holding the baby. It was swaddled in cloth, very peaceful and absolutely beautiful. No fetal monitor, no epidural, no emergency c-section as an option if something had gone wrong. Truly a gift from God.

Finally, our last stop on the tour was the Maasai version of a gift shop at the end before you head to the car park. The tribeswomen had spread out cloth on the ground and were displaying their handicrafts for sale. 



I brought way more than I should have and actually ended up leaving some things (extra shampoo, toothpaste, hand sanitizer and body spray) in our hotel room in Nairobi before departing for the airport the next afternoon in order to fit these items in my carry on sized suitcase.





If you look at the close-up above, you'll see the groups of book marks I bought, tied together with a length of dried grass. I'm thinking I probably have around 50-60 of them, created on strips of leather and hand decorated by the Maasai there in the village. Since I plan to return to teaching once we get back to Texas, I was thinking it would be a good way to share my touring experience in Kenya with my students.

It was interesting how I "checked out" of this Maasai gift shop. A group of men all gathered around while one of them wrote down all of the different things I had gathered up to purchase. It was all inventoried and even though it was in a language other than English, I imagine they were making sure all of the village artists/vendors would get their share. Nothing had a price on it and so I knew what was coming. It's common practice in most countries on the continent of Africa to haggle and agree upon prices. However, I didn't care what the expectations were. I had seen how they lived and my heart was touched, so I had every intention of paying whatever outrageous price was initially presented to me. I knew my money was going to a good cause.

After the impromptu accountant had recorded every item in a pad, the chief pondered for a minute and then scratched out the sum of 32,000 shillings in the red dirt just below the red cloth. To paraphrase him, he said that this is where we would start. He was taken aback when I immediately agreed to the sum. I asked him if he would take some British pounds because I was loathe to part with all of my remaining shillings since we still had more than 24 hrs in the country before leaving for England.

He asked me at least twice more if the price was acceptable and I assured him it was. I imagine he was probably thinking that I was a gullible rube and a disgrace to my husband with my total lack of bargaining skills. Or maybe he was grateful for my generosity. Whatever the case, I walked back to the safari mobile to collect my backpack in order to pay for our purchases. 

I didn't dig them a well so they would have a source of fresh water. I didn't bring them vaccines to protect them from disease. I didn't plant them crops so they could enjoy fresh vegetables to improve their nutrition. But I like to think that the amount I paid for my trinkets, a large sum to folks in such meagre circumstances, will go a long way towards an investment in more cattle or goats or anything else that will help improve their daily lives. And the first thing I did when I got home to England was go online and make a donation to Heifer International to help other people around the world just like the Maasai. You, too, can make a difference in the lives of truly needy people by clicking on the link below.

Heifer International




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