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Losing Our Way Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day I can hear her breathing. --------------------------------------------------------- Arundhati Roy (Indian author, advocate, activist)

Modern Maasai (ive...and a bit of mi!)

KENYA | Friday, 31 July 2009 | Views [5301] | Comments [2]

Maasai now approach a challenging precipice: between Tradition and Modernity.  Here, a grandmother with no formal schooling visits her granddaughter's classroom at one of the first schools built in the area.

Maasai now approach a challenging precipice: between Tradition and Modernity. Here, a grandmother with no formal schooling visits her granddaughter's classroom at one of the first schools built in the area.

Maybe the biggest problem with traveling to thirteen countries in fourteen months is that things happen so fast and furiously that you sometimes barely get a moment to get any of it down on paper. Since we left the KAASO school in Uganda, we spent a week ferrying across Lake Victoria and settling back into the traveling groove after three consecutive months of volunteering (two in Switzerland and one in Uganda).  After the ferry ride, we spent the next week on safari in the Serengeti and nearby parks (animal pictures!).  Following safari, we stopped by to witness the International Tribunal for the Rwanda Genocide (eery and interesting and provoked for us many thoughts and emotions...another story!).  We followed that with a week in Kenya living with a Maasai community (which we'll tell you all about in this story), and then spent our last week in Africa taking in the exotic Swahili/Arab/Indian culture of Zanzibar.  A whirlwind of successive adventures to end our time in Africa, and here we are - now in India! 

We began this week sweating our way into a brief taste of Delhi, and for the last few days Miral has been settling into the chaos and hassles of Kolkata. She tells me that she discovered wearing a salwar kameez (typical Indian pajama-like outfit with scarf) or a sari (which she is still getting adjusted to wrapping on) has reduced the hassles. Who would have thought? I’d have guessed that like Koreans, Japanese, and Chinese people who can distinguish one another at a glance that the chances of an Egyptian passing for an Indian were nil. Maybe its just the sweat dripping into their eyes, but Miral is apparently pulling it off! A woman actually came up to her in the Metro station asking for directions in Hindi...uh, or more likely Bengali, she wasn't sure which :)! Meanwhile, I am adjusting to the Himalayan altitude in Leh, Ladakh, and wandering around Buddhist gompas and stupas as if in a dream finally coming true. When in all of that are you supposed to find any time to write about any of it?

Well, each of these experiences deserves a long entry on this blog. (What? Me? Long entries?) But if there is one of these experiences that I feel like I MUST say something about before I disappear into the cyber-less hinterlands of a small Ladakhi village for the next month, it is about our time with the Maasai. Our original plans did not include visiting the Maasai any more than the average tourist does (by passing through a village to watch a dance for a few shillings) but our friend Pam spent time with the Maasai in a town called Rombo, Kenya, in February of this year, and her descriptions made us certain we also needed to meet them. So we detoured from our journey through Tanzania for a one week stop over the Kenyan border.  Where we found........ 

To begin with, if you know as little about the Maasai as I did, I suggest a glance at the wikipedia entry at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maasai  for important background to appreciating our time with them.  We also tried to detail as least some of it in the captions of our pictures in the KENYA picture gallery.

The Maasai are one of the last tribes of Africa holding strong to its traditional customs and beliefs of ancient origin -- customs range from very distinctive clothing to highly ritualized rites of passage (some incredibly controversial, like female circumcision). Their deep spiritual beliefs include understandings about E'ngai (God) and their relationship with creation.  For example, they believe that E'ngai has entrusted them with cattle and they are to be deeply thankful for them, care for them lovingly, and that other methods for sustinence that disturb God's earth (farming; hunting) are not appropriate.

But over the past few decades, and especially in the past few years, various groups of Maasai (they span parts of Kenya and Tanzania) have started to find their customs and beliefs facing outside influences and new pressures for change. In Rombo, factors like the most recent deadly drought, increasing education and technology, the arrival of Christianity and Islam with not only their beliefs but also their customs, are just a few factors that have made for a complicated intersection: where their community meets the question of change. And although I cannot do justice to the complexity of what is happening, or the beautiful hearts and spirits of the people we met or the culture they have, I will try to write what I can here.

We arrived to see some families already well in movement, many with cellular phones, some wearing western clothing, or having introduced farming, no longer having as a sole livelihood nomadic cattle/goat/sheep herding. One talked to us about how practices like circumcision are likely to change in a natural way, with the rise of education changing the views of the children of the next generations.  We found various families, and even members within families with different opinions on what kinds of changes should occur and what should be resisted, what kinds of customs and beliefs should persist. As with most Africans, beliefs and customs from new religions have not replaced their ancient ones, but rather melded into them, with each person now having a particular mix. No matter who we met however, there was a common statement of pride in the "Maasai way." And the pictures we were shown and stories that were told as our week unfolded told the story of a proud people standing on the brink of a precipice, unsure but hopeful of its future, confident in its spirit. 

We arrived for our visit with the Maasai after some initial difficulties figuring out the route from Moshi, Tanzania, to Rombo, Kenya, and  enduring a one hour delay for our bus to escape a muddy dirt road that spun its tires.  At the Tanzania side of the border, we were greeted by Tumaina (our host) and Jacob (his friend, who brought his motorcycle to transport our luggage). A border crossing and a dala dala (mini-van taxi) ride later, and we were settling into Tumaina’s relatively modern home on the main road in Rombo (permanent structure built of wood with concrete floors, no electricity).  His compound included a small separate structure a short distance away from the house for a pit toilet and bucket bathing, as well as two other structures that served as storage and for cooking. 

Tumaina, himself is a poster-child for the complex interplay of ancient world meets modern age. On the one hand, he is deeply proud of his Maasai heritage, enjoys wearing traditional Maasai shuka at times (two or more sheets of bright fabrics worn over the shoulder), participates in traditional rituals (for example, he insisted on a fully traditional Maasai wedding), and is active in a small but thriving effort at careful community development (You can see more about their school project at: http://www.adeaafrica.org/Maasai_School.html). On the other hand, Tuamaina is a farmer (violating Maasai beliefs against digging in the sacred earth) and not a traditional nomadic cow-herder. He lives in a fairly modern home and not in a traditional boma complex of mud-brick/thatched dwellings. He insists on having one wife rather than engaging in traditional polygamy and believes in family planning - both of these he stated were because he wanted to be responsible provider. He wears a t-shirt and jeans most days. Tumaina is joined in this complexity by a village full of families, some on either end of the modern-traditional continuum or intersection you could call it, but many somewhere in between. 

...So began our week. It went on, packed full of events, meeting people and experiencing their days, hearing their stories. We watched several videos – some of Tumaina’s personal videos of life events, like his wedding and his ceremony for transition from warriorship to junior elder (two of several life stages for a male Maasai), and some media videos, such as National Geographic shows discussing the Maasai. We walked deep into the bush to visit two of the community school programs – both so new that they do not yet have second grade classrooms (there is a long history of no access to education amongst the Maasai). We visited with the local chairmen of each school – both uneducated traditional Maasai men dedicated to a new way forward. We met with a local doctor and his lab-tech brother to discuss community health issues. Miral was introduced to traditional Maasai cooking, weaving, and beading by local women. I walked back into the bush to purchase a goat. We visited the local Friday market, where Maasai people living deep in the bush in every direction make a weekly pilgrimage to Rombo to sell animals, buy supplies, and commune with one another. We participated in the traditional slaughter of a goat and the festive sharing of the meat it produced. Throughout it all, the week was threaded with conversations about the delicate balance between tradition and modernism with people of a wide variety of backgrounds, and especially with Tumaina.

Some of these conversations were with some of the other members of the community development program, each of whom is responsible for one of the program's several projects.  These include, among other initiatives, developing alternative income sources (especially for women, such as beadwork and other crafts), developing a cultural museum preserving Maasai artifacts, developing a homestay eco-tourism program, creating schools where now there are none and offering curricula that mesh with the Maasai cultural heritage. We were toured through the growing cultural museum. They also have efforts targeting local environmentalism - desperately needed for survival in the developing world first and foremost! Miral particularly was stunned - and told me it was one of the most impressionable experiences of the week for her.  She was stunned she said by the contrast in which uneducated or barely educated Maasai had more knowledge of how making thoughtful decisions and taking thoughtful action with respect to their environment meant the difference between life and death for them and for others who are affected by their actions, whereas many highly educated citizens of the US are so far removed from the immediate effects of cutting down trees, drilling in earth, polluting and damaging energy use, etc that they have no idea the damage they are doing to their futures, let alone their neighbors already suffering from it across the ocean, neighbors who aren't privileged enough to be able to escape from the current effects of environmental damage (at least we can for now).  I found her shaking her head in sadness, pondering the gravity of it all.  She told me she thought it was one of the greatest sins of wealthy men and women, sheltering themselves in their high standard of living and making decisions every day as though consuming to no end and at any cost to the environment God gave us to care for was a right that carried no consequences.  That we need not be scared by the effects of our actions, but that the world we were entrusted with would provide forever, no matter our greedy and glutenous and ingnorant behavior.  She said she realized how easy it is to remain ignorant when you grow up in a country that abounds in everything no matter the season - you are always sheltered from the facts, the harsh reality of natural cause and effect.  Why would you believe there is a problem, she asked, when there are constant flows of water from several taps in each home, 24 hour electricity, and supermarkets that never seem to run out of stock?  Money indeed buys naive consumerism.  She told me she was thinking about the first commandment - Watching the complex intersection that the Maasai stood in, she realized with utter clarity: Modernity has caused so many people in the western world to unknowingly stray, heedless of the many warnings most of us have received in the Bible or other religious texts. And I noticed her repeat to herself sadly and with anger: Consumerism has become our country's god! If new beliefs, education and modern customs have the potential to offer life to people, they also carry with them a severe risk to destroy as well....

As Miral was struck, I too felt enriched and educated from the specific activities which were in and of themselves such a gift – one that Tumaina worked endlessly to weave together for us. But more important than any of the specifics was the generosity, a traditional and holy generosity, woven into each one of them. The doctor and his brother treated us to an expensive traditional meal of ugali, kale, and meat for our discussion, and as we departed Rombo, the doctor gave us a gift of a traditional Maasai leadership stick (now a rare item, this one was owned by his grandfather). Tumaina’s friend Ann invited us into her one room home and spent her hard earned money on a delicious home-cooked meal for us to accompany a fun conversation. Another friend of Tumaina, Lamayan, invited us into the back room of his father’s small grocery store nearly every night we were there so we could watch the videos on his TV/VCR in a town with little electricity. We had to convince him to at least let us buy him a soda in thanks (embarrassed, he finally agreed). Indeed his selfless giving and embarrasment in trying to be gifted in return was shared by all we met during the week. Several women gave of their time to teach Miral about the ways of traditional Maasai women, cooking, jewelry-making, milking cows, cleaning and caring for their children, and told her stories through interpreters (we always needed interpreters, another gift we were constantly provided with!) Sankale offered us sweet conversation and yummy breakfast in his boma home and introduced his brother’s family to us (the wife wouldn't let us leave without a parting gift of a traditional necklace for Miral!) before guiding us, along with Mayani, through the Friday market. Teachers Tipapa and Mayani gave of their time to lead us through the bush to the schools, explaining life in Maasailand the whole time. The chairman of one of the schools invited us to his boma and served us a delicious lunch while the teachers served as interpreters for a conversation that helped us move beyond his infectious smile and begin to understand his very traditional life and his struggles as a community leader (not to mention his struggles with wild animals in the bush! Miral was totally taken by all the lion and elephant stories during the week... not to mention running across a troop of Zebra on our walk with the chairman to school!!). Jacob not only brought our luggage to Rombo for us, but brought us spinach from his garden for our dinner the next day, invited us into the home he shares with his mother for dinner and to spend our last night in Kenya, and then (along with his brother-in-law Albert), chauffeured us and our bags by motorcycle to the border to catch our bus south into Tanzania. And Tumaina – arranged EVERYTHING the entire week, spent nearly the entirety of the week by our sides, prepared and gave us all of the rest of our meals, single-handedly put together a large community gathering because we asked him to so we coul thank them all together, and somehow still felt the need to offer us traditional beaded bangles and (with the handiwork assistance of his mother) a traditional calabash (gourd) for holding milk. The Maasai nourished us with their food, with their gifts, with their heartfelt welcomes, and most of all with their honest conversations sharing their lives and their perspectives on being Maasai during these delicate and complicated times... we left them with so much more than we came with - and wondered to ourselves: How can we ever do justice to their generosity, and the generosity of everyone else we have met so far on this one year journey of ours??? Is there a way? 

With this big list of generous offerings, I am still only scratching the surface of what was offered to us. So I will share one moment that may have best epitomized the feeling we had the whole week. It happened during our visit to one of the schools in the bush. After a few community elders watched us interact with their children and teach a little about the US, we were introduced to the elders in the back of the classroom. We spoke with them through the classroom teacher interpreting for us. But one elderly woman (the woman in the picture above) put words aside, walked directly up to Miral and I, pulled two small traditional beaded bangles from her own wrist, grabbed our hands and rolled them onto ours (even though she had to fight to get mine over my wrist!). She looked deeply at each of us, and sat back down. No further exchange was needed. She broke both of our hearts.

Throughout the week, Tumaina made clear to us that what felt like royal treatment to us was typical Maasai generosity and community. Of course every community has its issues, its personalities and its clashes.  And traditional communities that generate this kind of generosity are often also the communities where obligation to others and conforming to the group precedes one's independence, no matter what the sacrifice to the individual's nature and spirit. But we realized that despite all this, the communal spirit of respect for and investment in humanity, animals, and all of God's creation meant issues are something to be solved together, that no one is alone but is cared for in the best way they know how, that working carefully together, nothing would conquer them as a people.  

Whenever we would explain how bowled over we were, Tumaina would simply respond, “This is how we live.” And he didn’t just say it. He lives it every day. When we arrived to his home, we found him to be the host of two local school children whose parents asked him to care for them because of their trust in his ability to structure their time and apply the discipline necessary for academic success. Also living at his home were a man from a distant area, his younger brother, and the entire herd of cattle of their family, rescued from the fate of wandering many, many more miles through the drought-stricken region in search of grazing land.  They were taken in by Tumaina to house their cattle and feed them on the maize stalks from his farm. I have read that when asked for a favor, a Maasai can never, ever say no. They can explain the obstacles posed by what is being asked for, but they cannot say no to their fellow human. The spirit of generosity and community also permeates life in Rombo in smaller ways. Like the fact that everyone is always free to stop by one another’s homes unannounced, to share a little while, some words, and a cup of tea or a snack. No one is ever too busy – and the visiting is frequent! And even the simple passing on the street requires a somewhat lengthy and somewhat ritualized exchange in which each person catches the other up on all of the details of life since the last time they met. It’s beautiful to watch, actually, as each small detail is responded to by the other with an “Aaaaye” (Maa for “yes.”). This is how they live. In such marked contrast to how we live.

And so, as they face the dilemma of today: how to ‘join the modern world’ through education, a diversification of occupational opportunities, and infra-structure development, without losing devotion to community and the selfless caring for one another, without losing their best values, they may be at a junction unlike no other they have faced before. Unfortunately, the sense Miral and I got was that they really don’t appreciate the risk they face.

They spoke openly that there is a challenge, and that their hope is that they will be able to gain all the benefits of development, without having to change their worldviews, beliefs or values or "old" customs. As a child of two immigrant parents who left the developed world to go to a place where life customs, values and traditions are replaced by the suburban life, customs and values of the United States, Miral told me she felt in a very profound way the struggle that was to come in the next generations for the Maasai.  Development, modernity, higher standards of living, they bring life giving things (like clean water, advanced medical care) and help you realize the harm of some of your "old" ways (such as the harm inflicted during some initiation rites). But they also force you to change in ways you can't possibly foresee. And the changes you anticipate may not be the ones that your children foresee. No one community has individuals who all think exactly alike. Each person will argue for or against different changes. Already this is happening between Maasai children and their parents... Some conflicts will dissipate in several generations, as seen with third and foruth generation immigrants to the Western world. But some.... 

The Maasai talked to us about not losing the "Maasai way." They do not want to give up the old traditions when bringing in new ways - they seemed to believe that the "old" Maasai way can survive any and all of that. But which is the "old" Maasai? Is it the one that wears traditional clothing? The one that only marries in the "Maasai way?" Is it the one that practices the rites of circumcision? Is it the one that herds but does not farm?  Is it the one that does not intertwine Christian or Muslim beliefs within its traditional religious beliefs and practics? Is it the one where the wife works only at home?

Today, changes in some of their beliefs and traditions have already come to the Maasai, some of these new beliefs and traditions have life to offer, but some.... And as they continue to open up to the world, more will come.  And although they talked openly – hearing their words, Miral and I both felt that as members of a society that didn’t see its own social disintegration coming, we might contribute to this point in their community's journey through conversations about the reality and risks of development. The developed world may have some privileges and advances to share, but it also has much to learn from the values found in societies like those of the Maasai. In mutual conversation, maybe we can gain some of what they have to offer us.  And refrain from exporting to them what will cause them harm (although we will all have differing thoughts on what that is as well of course!).

A discussion of these issues started to occur during our farewell gathering, through a touching and educational exchange of speeches. For example, they were completely shocked to hear even the basics about how cattle are treated so poorly by industry in the West, where torture and poison have become a necessity for profit. The Maasai dearly and deeply care for their cattle, treating them truly as a gift from God, not as a manufactured product, and details about the sickening realities of our chicken, pig and cattle industry deeply disturbed them - they seemed relieved to hear about care and cleanliness of local free-range practices, but also understood when we explained that most people in the US could either not afford to buy the meat from these animals, or were not educated about the sinful practices committed by the big companies.  We asked them: Could they understand how development and modernization carries great risks? Such as how the desire for monetary profit can crush spiritually sound practices toward neighbor and creation?  How there is a need to be extremely vigilant as you start incorporating the helpful things from development and modernity? It was a start. I think more is going to be needed.

I am about to leave for a month of participating in a program that for over 15 years has been trying to do just that with the “developing culture” of Ladakh – help them to steer clear of the pitfalls we have discovered in the West. Even within this devoutly Buddhist traditional society, it is a huge uphill battle to fight the allure of Westernization. Maybe some of what I learn in this next month will be something we can use to be of benefit to the beautiful people of Rombo. I leave for this next adventure with them in my mind and my heart.

To end, Miral wishes to let you know that she "took advantage of Ivan's initiative write about Rombo and just went ahead and added my thoughts right in and throughout... for easy-reading, I wrote my contributions in Ivan's voice. I also wish to close this entry with a simple request: Please keep us in your hearts and prayers, as the two of us take separate roads this month into our new worlds (Ivan to Ladakh and Mi to Kolkata).  You are in ours always; we miss you. Namaste.

Ive ("and a bit of mi!," she adds). 




hi guys!

Didnt have much time check your site. busy busy.. anyways....
Those are some amazing stories you got there!!

Especially the massaai story offcourse. Since that hits my field of interest a bit to much a decided to stop reading half-way through because there have to be some suprises left.
You think it's possible for me to go there?

Should I try contacting the school or do you have some contact info for me?

I hope you have a blast on the rest of your trip and that miral will finally learn folding those indian PJ's the right way!

Thanks a bunch!

  Jan (Kabira, Uganda) Aug 6, 2009 10:14 PM


Hello Ivan and Miral. I hope your trip to India was good. I am inschool still and i will be finishingmy exams on the 19th. I will send news when i go home in a weeks time.


  Tipape Loomu Dec 14, 2009 7:07 PM

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