Wednesday, March 15, 2006

In My Tribe

March 12, 2006, 11:13pm. Sunday.

Back from a little hiatus known as safari time in the Maasai Mara. Patrick
is visiting from the States and as I speak he is making his way up Mt.
Kenya. Why do people always climb mountains after visiting me? Anyway, just
a little plug for my safari guides, Paul and Joseph, who are fun and great
cooks all in one. And big points for Paul who wasted no time correcting the,
uh, missing vodka incident, which saved me the trouble of going around to
all the Maasai warriors who were guarding our camp and smelling their breath
to identify the guilty party. Paul and Joseph are also Kikuyus, which means
they have a little problem with their r�s and l�s. So for the first two days
we thought our driver�s name was Roland. It was actually Lawrence. Also I
kept wondering why Joseph kept talking about going back to the roach. The
itinerary didn�t say anything about roaches being part of the wildlife tour,
and I was upset that no one told me there was a roach problem. It turns out
we were going back to our lodge.

We visited a Maasai village as part of our tour, which we knew would be a
total sterilized tourist trap, but curiosity got the best of us and we
coughed up the ten bucks entrance fee. Yeah, like we were entering an
amusement park. It turned out to be not exactly sterile, and more disturbing
than amusing. The Maasai are one of the few tribes in Kenya who have
preserved nearly all of their traditions, from their dress to their diet,
although most of them are now Christian and most communities are not as
nomadic as they once were. But practices like female genital mutilation and
polygamy are still very common. The Maasai, unlike nearly all other tribes
in Kenya, are not farmers; they are pastoralists. A family can have hundreds
of cows, sheep and goats, which are their main source of food. The Maasai
diet, I am told, consists of meat, milk (often mixed with cow blood) and
ugali. Because they don�t farm, the Maasai traditionally don�t eat

The stereotype of the Maasai is that their cows are everything. A Maasai may
be wearing rags and have no shoes, but as soon as he gets some money, he
will buy a cow. I asked a guy how many wives he had and he said, �Just one.
I will get more wives when I get enough cows.� The going rate seems to vary
� some people told me five cows for a wife, some people told me ten. Other
tribes joke that the Maasai love their cows so much that even if a cow is
dying the owner won�t get rid of it.

Anyway, this village is a single family � a man, his wives and all their
children, in-law children and grandchildren. The mud houses are built by
women so they tend to be just too short for a Maasai man to stand fully
upright inside. Each house has a room where the goats and sheep stay, which
makes for a pretty vigorous case of methane poisoning. Also, the village is
wall-to-wall carpeted with cow poo, and the kids, most of whom run around
completely commando, seem to enjoy snacking on it. Choos are non-existent;
why dig a deep hole to prevent potentially toxic human waste from
contaminating your scarce water supplies, the bottoms of your feet, and your
kids� fingers when you can choose any spot in the bush where you feel
comfortable? Aren�t we all one with nature anyway? These villagers certainly
were; every one of them smelled just like pee. Everytime we drove past a
village the smell of cow poo and human pee wafted into our vehicle.

My interaction with village Maasai has been extremely limited so I really
don�t know what to make of all this. Anita, a British woman on my tour,
asked me what kinds of projects I would try to initiate if that Maasai
village were my assigned village. I said, �I�d dig them a bunch of choos.�
It struck me that the lack of choos was probably just another of the many
ways that this village had chosen to preserve their traditional way of life.
And in a purely objective sense, that�s fine, just as it�s fine to
circumcise girls if they truly want it, and it�s fine to have a polygamist
culture if its consensual. The problem is that the line between what someone
really wants and what someone thinks they want because their culture tells
them they�re supposed to want it is completely unclear and easily
manipulated for political or social purposes.

Aside from the poo and pee factor, the Maasai are beautiful people -
statuesque, dignified, adorned in intricate beaded jewelry, often carrying
spears and clubs for fighting off lions and other hungry animals who wander
into their village at night (�To protect your family?� I asked. �To protect
our cows,� they said.) I spent way too much money on the beaded handicrafts
that are ubiquitous in all the Maasai curio shops. I�m just as intrigued as
any other tourist by the sight of Maasai wrapped in their signature red
blankets, grazing enormous herds on the savannah. They are more than
slightly intimidating in their stature and rather hard but handsome facial
structure � high cheekbones, narrow nose and jaw, and piercing eyes. It�s
unfortunate that the name for their warriors � young, good-looking and brave
men in the tribe � is moran. As Margaret Cho says, that�s like naming your
kid Asshill. You�re just asking for him to be tortured on the playground.

As part of the village tour, our Maasai guide took us to visit the village
primary school, which he said was built from proceeds from local tourism.
One of the teachers, Beatrice, took us to meet her second graders, who
obediently jumped to their feet and recited, �Good morning, we are happy to
see you.� Then the teacher hit us up for money to build more desks. I asked
her if she had tried writing a proposal to CDF, government money that is set
aside for every constituency in the country, which is supposed to be
distributed to community groups requesting funds for whatever grassroots
projects they have started. CDF is notoriously corrupt because the funds are
distributed (or more commonly, not distributed) by the area MP (member of
Parliament) who often selects projects based on favoritism and political
motivations (or just pockets the money). However, schools tend to receive
CDF funds more frequently than other types of projects (such as boring water
projects), because they are high profile, glamorous projects that make the
MP look good. I told the teacher all this and to my surprise she said she
had never heard of CDF. If this was true, it was just another example of how
unaware people at the grassroots are about what resources are available to
them locally, and therefore how easily these communities can feel
disempowered and hopeless. This particular village was relying on tourism
revenues, which is not such a bad thing since the tourists won�t be
disappearing from the area anytime soon. But they are the lucky ones; there
are hundreds of communities out there who don�t have the benefit of tourism
and may not know about CDF and other government money set aside JUST FOR
THEM, should they be so inclined to ask for it.


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