Monday, March 22, 2010

Meeting the Maasai

It probably won't surprise you to learn that I was not looking forward to the visit to the Maasai village. Part of that was not knowing what to expect, and part of it was the photo issue I mentioned in earlier entries. It just seemed to me that either they have a spiritual problem with having their photo taken, or they don't. If they don't, why make an issue of it? And if they do, does receiving money really counter-act a spiritual objection?

But I was more uncomfortable about the idea than opposed to it, so when the time came I climbed out of the Land Rover along with the rest of my group to meet the son of the chief. He was dressed traditionally, smiled welcomely, and spoke excellent English. He told us to take all the pictures we wanted--actually we were told that over and over again, and I did end up taking some. Then he led us into the interior of the village.

Okay, here's where I have to go on a little digression. It wasn't really a "village"--it was smaller than that--a group of huts and a cattle pen all belonging to one family. Since one man can have many wives, it ends up being a substantial group of people, but it's not technically called a village. I'd remembered the term being something like "boda", and after spending 30 minutes googling to try to find it, all I could come up with was "enkang" from this link: The Destiny of the Maasai. But the link also says that the Maasai don't have villages, and according to the people we met, they do. They even pointed out their village in a nearby valley. So now I don't know what to think! (Edited to add: The term I couldn't remember is "boma". Thanks, Peggy!)

The huts were surrounded by a wooden fence and arranged in a circle with the cattle pen in the center. After we went inside the fence, a group of Maasai began singing and dancing to welcome us. A couple of people from our group joined them. It was all interesting, but a little awkward and even the Maasai didn't seem completely into the whole thing.

Once the dance was finished, the chief's son told us to divide into groups of two and a Maasai would guide us around. My roommate and I paired up and were met by our guide "Kennedy (I'm guessing that's not his only name). Like the cheif's son, Kennedy spoke great English. In fact most of the young men of the village seemed to speak and understand English (but not the women.)

The tour consisted of Kennedy leading us around the village while the rest of the Maasai, hung back and watched us with serious expressions on their faces. First he showed us a hut being built--a stick frame half-covered by a cow manure mixture that had hardened into the hut's sides. He also took us inside one of the finished huts. It was very dark and very smoky from the small fire that smoldered constantly within. Kennedy told us to take a picture, so I did, but I had no idea what I was shooting since I couldn't really see anything. Then he led us out again, and the tour was basically over.

No one said anything to us, but it became pretty clear that the next thing for us to do was browse around looking at all of the jewelry and other Maasai-made items that had been draped over the fence of the cattle pen. I'm not much of a shopper under the best of circumstances, and didn't really know where to start. My roommate was interested in buying a spear, so she asked Kennedy questions about them, while I circled around the cattle pen trying to find something for my kids.

Before long I'd chosen a beaded bracelet for my daughter, and a necklace with a carved bone pendant for my son (he'd wanted a lion's tooth, and this sort of looked like one), and once I'd paid, I was more than ready to leave. I'm not sure why I was so uncomfortable there and I'm a little ashamed at my reaction. Maybe it's because I'm usually pretty in-tune with what's going on with people--I spend a lot of energy reading others' attitudes and body language. With people so different from me, it was hard to get a handle on what was going on with them. Also, I'm basically an introvert and so trying to interact with people I didn't know much about was difficult. But whatever the reason, I didn't want to linger so I left the huts to wait by the car while the rest of the group finished up with their tours and shopping.

As I often do when I have a little time to myself, I decided to read. So I leaned against one of the Land Rovers and pulled out my Kindle. After a few minutes, the chief's son came up to me and asked me what I was doing. So I showed him the Kindle and the screen with my list of books. The one he zeroed in on was, of all things, the dictionary. The dictionary is one of my favorite Kindle features and I told him about how easy it is to look up words as I read them. He asked me to look up his name, so I did (it wasn't in there), then he left and I returned to my reading.

A couple of minutes later a group of 5 or so young Maasai men came up to me. One of them was holding a small piece of paper that was covered with cramped writing in blue ball-point pen. He told me that he'd been keeping a list of English words and wondered if I would look them up for him in my dictionary.

Now here's when everything changed for me and all my awkwardness and discomfort evaporated. I love words. I love talking about words. It didn't matter that we came from such different places, we had words in common.

But talk about a strange experience! Standing outside on a sunny day near Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, reading my electronic book, then talking about words with a group of young Maasai men in tribal dress! That's not something that happens every day!

Are you curious about the words they wanted me to look up? I was certainly surprised by them. Here are the ones I can remember:

tailor made

Not exactly what you'd expect. Where did the list come from? I don't know. If I had to guess I'd say they were words they'd come across while learning English. They certainly spoke it well, and clearly were also learning to read and write English. But I loved how much they wanted to understand. I often substitute teach at the local high school and these young Maasai were around the same age as the kids I sub. I can't imagine American teenagers being so eager to expand their vocabulary that they'd carry around a list of words they didn't know, and then approach a foreign, almost 40-year-old woman and ask her to help them learn. But these guys did just that.

We had to leave before I was able to look up everything on their list, but they were very appreciative and it certainly put the whole encounter in a new light for me and gave me lots to think about.

You expect to visit people who live without all the modern conveniences we take for granted and either think, "Wow, I'm so thankful for what I have," or maybe, "Gee, I wish I could live more simply." After visiting the Maasai, I am thankful for all I have. If I had to list everything in my life that I probably don't appreciate enough, I never would have considered the dictionary, but it really is a gift. When I want to know the meaning of a word, I just look it up: online, on my Kindle, or even using my old-fashioned, hard-bound American Heritage Collegiate Dictionary. Those young Maasai men didn't have any of those options. And the fact that they were so interested in learning the meanings of words--interested enough for the chief's son to know about it and bring them to me so they could take advantage of my Kindle and its dictionary, absolutely fascinates me. It was one of those rare moments in life that is both surprising and incredibly touching. I still smile to think about it.

I'm so glad I was able to connect with those Maasai young men over words, and I'm very impressed with their desire to learn and the way they took the initiative to find out what they wanted to know. I hadn't been very enthusiastic about visiting the Maasai, but it turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip to Tanzania.


craig said...

Good things do happen when we are open to them. That's a wonderful story. You can try and force a cultural experience, but I don't think that works.

Patti S. said...

Great story, Renee. I wonder if they knew the term "Bespoke" but not "custom made" -- that was something I had to look up once, when working with some folks from the UK.

R.E. (Renée) Chambliss said...

Craig: "Forcing" a cultural experience is just the way to describe it. You're so right about how tough that is to do.

Patti: They might have had trouble with that if they'd come across it. English is tricky! I wish I'd thought to ask them where the list came from. They were so eager to learn the definitions, that's where our focus was.