Saturday, November 07, 2009

Maasai Homestay

This evening is our last night on safari. Although it has been awesome to see and learn about so many different cultures, animals, and areas, I am happy to be going back to civilization. We arrived at our last camp to find our tents already pitched and threw our belongings inside of them before heading off for an half hour hike to a waterfall. This ‘hike’ consisted of walking across the river in places and getting pretty wet, making the rocks that we had to walk on pretty slippery. I definitely slipped and fell a few times. One of these times that I fell, was when we were crossing the river. I freaked out because my camera was in my backpack which came down into the water with me. Luckily, my backpack is amazing and even thought I got soaking wet, my camera did not have a drop of water on it!

When we arrived at the waterfall, we stripped down to our bathing suits and ventured into the water. It was hot outside and we were all pretty sweaty so the water felt so nice. The waterfall was coming down quite hard so we couldn’t go right under the main part of it but we were able to go under other parts of it. After being in the water for awhile, it started to rain. We started to think about how much more difficult this would make the walk back because the rocks would be even more slippery. We hurried out of the water because we were informed that it might flash flood and walked back to camp.

As I am typing tonight, I have little, annoying insects flying around on my screen. I must tell you that I cannot wait to be in a place where there are no biting flies (tse tse flies) and million other biting and stinging creatures. I currently have a bunch of flea bites on my ankles which itch like crazy. Apparently they are from our most recent home stay with the Maasai.

The Maasai home stay was an experience different than anything I could have ever imagined. It is one thing to see pictures of the Maaai and to read about their lifestyle and such but it is another thing to actually be there, living with them, doing the things that they do on a day to day basis. The gender roles in the Maasai family are very clearly defined. The mother stays at home, cares for the children, fetches water and firewood, builds and cares for the house, and cooks. The father on the other hand is responsible for herding and caring for the livestock.

It is amazing how much responsibility the children have as well. One of my host brothers, about 11 years old went out with us to collect firewood and helped with preparing food and cleaning around the house. The children are also responsible for caring for their younger siblings and helping their elderly relatives. It was amazing to see the respect that the children have for people that are older than they are. I couldn’t go anywhere without hearing shikamoo or greeting someone else in that manner. This respect towards the elderly is definitely something that we are lacking in America.

Our host mothers arrived on the morning of November 3rd. Us students we each given a walking stick which we held along with our belongings as all of the host mothers sang together for us. In return, we sang Row, Row, Row Your Boat in rounds. All of us students were lined up and the mothers, all decked out in their Maasai jewelry and kangas with their shaved heads were maybe 50 feet away in a line facing us. In order to decide our home stay assignments, the mothers walked towards us and grabbed onto the student closest to her. Before this occurred, I had no clue that our home stay assignments were going to be random. It was awesome though cause I think everyone had a good experience and the staff didn’t have to go through and pair us up or anything.

We started walking, following the mothers, not knowing where or how far we would be walking. Some of the mothers, including my mother spoke Swahili and the rest spoke only spoke Maasai. We had been given a sheet with important Maasai words but those of us with mothers who spoke Swahili were able to better communicate with each other. As we walked, the mothers jingled as they wear a ton of jewelry…all the time! My host mother took one of her many necklaces off and put it around my neck.

As my host mother and a number of the other mothers lived quite far away, we were picked up by Habibu, our driver after walking for some time. As it was a pick up truck, we all jumped into the back of the truck and smashed together, standing up for the ride. It was quite frightening at times as the road wasn’t great and we would hit potholes or be on a slant which made it feel like the whole truck was going to fall over on its side.

We were dropped off and walked towards our ‘boma.’ As we approached, I saw some children come outside and stand there, just staring at me with huge smiles on their faces. I was happy to have host siblings and would later learn that I actually had seven host siblings. The youngest child, Naomi was about a year old and the children ranged in age to about 16 years old. I greeted the children in the traditional way, by placing a hand on the child’s head and saying ‘supa.’

The boma was made of cow dung mixed with water and mud and was quite dark inside. There was no electricity but there was a fire which provided a bit of light. My bed was a cow hide on top of some sticks. I was happy to have my sleeping bag as I had some major issues sleeping. And every time I moved to try to get more comfortable, which was pretty much impossible, the bed squeaked. The work was physically tiring and at the end of the day I was so tired which helped until I woke up in pain in the middle of the night due to the way I was sleeping.

I was lucky to be sleeping in the room furthest from the fire as other students who had beds in the room with the fire complained about the smoke. The smoke still bothered me, especially when I was helping to prepare meals. It got so bad at points that I had to walk outside and get some fresh air as my eyes were watering uncontrollably. On my second day in the home stay, I had my translator explain to my host mother that when I started crying, it was just because of the smoke from the fire and not because I was actually crying. She totally understood and actually told me at times that I should go outside when she started to see that my eyes were beginning to water up.

After arriving at the boma, Mama and I sorted through uncooked rice and picked out pebbles and even a piece of glass! This is an activity that I did at least once a day, depending on what we were eating that day. It is a tedious but necessary activity as I would hate to bite down on a rock or something worse. Mama, ready to cook the rice, blew on the fire to get it started up again. She told me to try so I did. The children laughed at me as I was not as good at it as their mother or even them.

While Mama was cooking dinner, I went outside with some of the children and attempted to help milk the goats. I didn’t realize how difficult it was and on this first attempt, I made no progress. The milk was brought into the house and added to the chai which we drank while waiting for dinner. Dinner was delicious and consisted of a rice, potato, tomato stew.

That evening, before heading off to bed, one of the translators stopped by to make sure everything was okay and to help with any translations. It was so nice to have the translators come by every day as it helped me express things to my family that I couldn’t express through hand signals or in Swahili. In addition, having the translator there allowed my host mother to feel more comfortable asking me questions about my family back home and life in America.

I was exhausted by the time I got in bed at 9:50pm but unfortunately this did not make it any easier for me to actually sleep as I woke up every few hours during the night.

Here is a piece of what I wrote in my journal on November 5th, during my home stay. “Mama is sitting next to me chewing on something that sounds like gum but isn’t. Every so often, she slurps it and then continues chewing. Naomi starts crying, signaling that she is awake from her nap. Mama carries her back outside in her orange in green dress which makes her look somewhat like a pumpkin. She also brings out Naomi’s bowl of rice and feeds Naomi as she chomps away on her gum like stuff. She calls Kokoyoi, one of her daughters to bring some water. She obeys and sits with us for a minute before mama orders her to do something else. Naomi stares at me, tears in her eyes still and her face covered in food. It’s nice outside today. Yesterday, the sun was so strong that I felt like I was burning even when I was in the shade. It looks like it is going to rain soon – the clouds are dark and grey and the sun is hidden behind them.

Mama drinks water, her jewelry causes her to jingle. She is adorned with beads – from her ears to her neck, wrists, and ankles. Her ears are gauged as are almost all the women’s ears and a majority of the men’s. Even Bibi, grandma, who is at least 50 years old has her ears gauged. Mama drops the spoon she was feeding Naomi with in the dirt. She tries to pour porridge into Naomi’s mouth but just makes a mess. She picks up the spoon and rinses it with the water remaining in her cup. I look up and we smile at each other. She continues chomping away as the wind picks up and the clothes hanging to dry start blowing in the wind. ‘Zach,’ she says and points in the directing from which Zach and his host mother are walking from. His mama is dressed in red and green cloths and of course, is adorned with beads. She jingles as she walks as does Zach as he has beads around his neck and across his chest.”

Later that same day: “It is evening now and although it is still light outside, it is raining. The rain is much needed here as the drought has really affected the Maasai. When we were driving here and even when just walking around, one sees dead cows all over the place. On the drive here, we saw Maasai men sitting and their cattle laying down next to them. The cattle looked dead to me but we were told that the cattle were not yet dead but rather, their owners were waiting for them to hopefully get up enough energy to stand up and walk.

I am listening to the rain hit our tin roof and Mama talking to some relatives. They are preparing dinner by the fire. I would be helping but every time I have gone in to help, I start crying uncontrollably. I am not crying because I am sad but rather because the smoke makes my eyes water a ton.”

On November 8th, we will briefly stop at Lake Natron before spending the entire day traveling back to Arusha. We will have one free day before our last portion of the program begins. At this point, the Biology group will be splitting from the General Culture group. Those of us in the General Culture group will be staying right outside of Arusha in Olasiti and doing our Independent Study projects. I will be working on the issue of orphans and researching, observing, and suggesting ideas about how to improve this issue. Other students are doing their projects on: water, family planning, and other important issues that effect Olasiti (and most other African villages). The Biology group will be traveling more – going back to the coast to do some marine studies and back to safari for awhile. During our last few days of the program, we will all come back together for a retreat in Arusha, where we will also be responsible for presenting about our Independent Study projects.

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