Friday, May 25, 2012

Kenya Diaries: Day 11, Part 5 - Visit to a Maasai Home

On my 11th day in Kenya, I spent well over an hour talking to a Maasai man named Sidney. After that, we hopped in the car, picked up a young man named Maya who would serve as our translator, and headed for Sidney's uncle's house. Sidney's uncle, Letuya Tawuo, is the real deal. He speaks only Maa (the Maasai language), lives in a traditional Maasai home, and has five wives.

Surprisingly, when we found him, Letuya was wearing a very nice business suit, not the traditional Maasai dress, which includes a shuka. But he did have the largest holes in his earlobes I've ever seen. As he approached us, he arranged them so that the hole in each earlobe fit over the top of his ear, holding it in place. I tried not to stare but really could not help myself as he did this to one ear and then the other.

His homestead was surrounded by a thorny fence:

Inside were several houses, one for each wife, made from sticks and cow dung. The houses were very short, so that one has to duck to enter them. In Maasai culture, the women are the builders, not the men. (In other Kenyan cultures, such as the Luo, the men build houses.)

As we entered, we greeted his children by touching them on the head. Maasai children are greeted like this until they are circumcised, the rite of passage they undergo around 18. Female circumcision, aka genital mutilation, was traditionally practiced but is now discouraged by many.

The manyatta. The round structure holds water, and the few animals here are the ones that are not strong enough to travel to get water. The calves here are one month old, some Sahiwal and some Zebu.

Letuya, outside a house.

One of his five wives, Noormejooli

My hosts encouraged me to enter Noormejooli's house. Once I was inside, a young man named Maya who was serving as our translator, told me that it's traditional to give a woman a gift of sugar if you enter her house. I asked what I should do since I didn't have any sugar. He told me to give her 200 shillings ($2.40) to buy sugar. Later, when I did this, she told me it wasn't enough. She wanted 500 shillings. Startled, I gave it to her.

The house was small and compact. In one area there was a bed the entire family shares and in the center was a firepit. There was a small window to allow the smoke to escape. We sat on a bench along the wall, and there was a stool next to the fire. Maya told me that the woman of the house sat on the stool. When I asked to take a photo, he said we should get Noormejooli to sit there so the photo looked realistic.

Firepit inside a house

Noormejooli on her stool

Letuya, sitting on the bed.

Thus, the interview began. For me, it was very uncomfortable, with flies constantly landing on me and flying in my face. My hosts insisted that it was so nice and cool inside the house, much better than standing in the heat outside.

Maya began by telling me that each of the five wives has her own house in this compound, and Letuya (who he referred to as Mzee, a term of respect for an elderly man) has a house of his own. After the interview, I found out that Letuya does not know how old he is, but it's somewhere around the age of 65. Then we started asking questions to Letuya.

JR: How many children do you have?

Maya: He has never counted, but over 30.

JR: Are some of them grown and some of them here?

Maya: Yeah, some of them are out and some of them are in school, secondary school, primary school, and the older boys are working, doing business.

JR: You keep cattle and goats?

Maya: Cows, goats, and donkeys.

JR: Can you ask him how many he has of each?

Maya: Goats and sheep are 50. Cows are 30.

JR: Does he own land?

Maya: Yes, he owns a lot.

JR: How many acres?

Maya: 325 acres.

JR: Can you ask him to describe what kind of food he eats in a normal day?

Maya: Milk from cows, meat, maize flour (ugali). Ugali, they eat with milk and meat. But meat is now once a week, they slaughter one goat.

JR: So usually goat meat?

Maya: Yes, and even beef.

JR: Is beef something they eat frequently or for a special occasion?

Maya: For special occasions, and goat meat they eat frequently.

JR: It's very dry now, so where are the cattle?

Maya: Like the cows we saw here, those are his cows and that is the land there. So they graze and they go for water there. So you know, something like cows, they go to the water. And sometimes the river is dry. But there is some water in the hole and they make wells. There is a trough so they will make a line down here, one person down, the other one, the other one, and fetch water and put in the trough and cows will drink it.

JR: During any part of the year do the cows move to a different place?

Maya: Yes. Like he said a long time ago he had many livestock but it go too much dry and they died, like more than 300. So they died all of them. So right now he has a big a family but now there are not as many cows.

JR: What year did they die?

Maya: 2009. It never rained in April. Like now we are hoping that in April it will rain. Sometimes we wait, we wait, and then it fails to rain in April so it will go the whole year. So all the cows died. They migrated to other places, past Nairobi, they went to Mt. Kenya, so they were mainly renting land. So if you don't have you rent, then you pay at the end of the month, but livestock died in that place because it was, there was a big famine, a long time for the whole year 2009. It never rained in April, it rained in December, but in 2009, they were waiting for the rain in April and it never rained again. So right now he hasn't migrated but he is planning to migrate if it doesn't rain. He has plans, he said.

JR: Will his wives come with him? And his children?

Maya: Yeah, they migrate with him, but now children are in school. But if he migrates, he migrates with a wife. He can't build his house.

JR: Do all of the wives migrate or do some stay here?

Maya: Some stay here. So some will stay here and he'll migrate with one because now they commit from here to school, and the other mother will look after the kids.

JR: Which jobs within the home are traditionally women's work and which jobs are men's work, and are there some things that both men and women do?

At this point, Letuya had gotten a call on his cell phone and he was shouting into it in Maa. Maya asked the question to his wife.

Maya: She has just arrived. She went to look for firewood and water. The mother fetches the water and firewood and all the work of the house. Even builds the house. She built this house. The man doesn't even know how to make tea. He doesn't meddle in women affairs. The man go to look for money and does business. He sells livestock and makes money so at the end of the day he comes with sugar and maize flour. All the boys are in school, but now they are in school, but after school they go and graze the livestock. At around they come here and then they go. That is mainly boys work to herd the cattle and to go and fetch water for the cattle. Girls cook, fetch water, and fetch firewood.

Letuya finished his phone call and Maya resumed asking him questions.

JR: Can you ask how his life has changed and the life of the Maasai has changed over his lifetime? What are the biggest changes?

Maya: He is telling me that things have changed. He is saying that a long time ago, nobody owned land. You live wherever you want. The cows will roam for pastures.

The land was owned communally before but it has since been divided into individual landholdings with titles. Many have sold their land making way for development to come in.

JR: Which way is better?

Maya: He say he prefer a title because now he can take loan with his title deed and he will pay the loan afterwards. Then the second thing is he said generally the lifestyle of the Maasai have changed. They are finding how that the government, the church, the leaders, they emphasize that there is no female circumcision. And according to him, they are now ruining that tradition. It used to be good for a lady to be circumcised. Now most people are getting intimidated.

Ladies, a long time ago, they never knew the value of money. They could not even count money. But now they do some business. So now everybody does business. Now everybody can go and work for money. You find a woman, every day she will milk the cows and take the milk to the shop. They are seeing education and the church. People are embracing Christianity and education. Every child has to go to school.

There is another issue. The Maasai culture, some other things have been forgotten.

In the past, he said, young men would become warriors, moran, but now they will instead go to college.

Maya: People are moving from their tradition and now they are going to school.

JR: Do many people finish with school and go to the city and not come back?

Maya: No, they come back. That is one thing with the Maasai. You'll find that even now, in Nairobi, the city, you know in Kenya we have these tribes, Maasai, Kikuyu, Luo... you'll find in the city, it's rare to find a Maasai. And if he works there, every day he comes home.

JR: What is the traditional role of the morans like?

Maya: The Morans, their life begin immediately after circumcision. So when a Maasai young man is circumcised, the one thing we change is the greeting. Then he now feel that he is a man. He'll find that he now collides with his father. Now he'll tell his father no.

In the village here, after circumcision, all those boys will become morans. They dress in shuka.

JR: So you do not wear that until you are a moran?

Maya: Yes. They will not be sleeping at home. They will sleep in the bush. They sleep under a tree. And every day they slaughter a goat, they slaughter a cow, and they feed on that meat and soup. They boil the meat and make herbs from the trees and boil that to make soup. They boil those herbs and then they mix. And you'll find they are very good. You don't get sick. And that period, the moran, takes like five years. And you steal... they mainly go out and steal livestock. Anywhere, in Nairobi, from anyone. And then you go and slaughter. Mostly they do that, the cattle raid. You steal from one, slaughter.

JR: What happens if you are caught?

Maya: The village elders will sit down and make judgement. For every cow stolen, if you eat the meat, you pay six cows. So if you are ten and you steal one cow, each one pays six cows.

JR: Can you ask him about the climate, if there are more droughts recently?

Maya: You find in this period, the environment is very warm during the day and cold during the night. The grass are getting much drier and the cows are dusty. Even the goats. Every day you wonder where are my cows going to drink water. But this man, he has his own well.

JR: When did this begin? When did it begin to get warmer and dusty and dry?

Maya: December. To March or April. He has told me according to statistics, like two years backwards there was a very big famine.

JR: In 2009?

Maya: It was two years. 2008 and 2009. It never rained the whole of two years. So people migrated and cows became much weaker and in 2009 they died. So they bought hay, they bought animal feeds, but in 2009 they died.

JR: How frequently does a drought that severe happen?

Maya: He has said that after five years, like the 2009, there was a famine, another five years back, another famine, another five years back, another famine.

JR: In his whole life or just recently?

Maya: You find that now, a long time ago, it was just good and life was good. But now, life has changed. In the early 90s to now, it has been that famine after five years. But a long time ago when he was a young boy, there was no famine.

We then turned to ask his wife some questions. I felt terrible, sitting there talking to the man as the head of the house and ignoring her as if she were a houseplant the whole time. I wanted to ask her questions more privately, preferably with a female interpreter, so she could speak more openly, but that was impossible. So we asked her a few questions in front of her husband.

JR: Can you ask if she can think of any other way her life has changed?

Maya: She has said that life has changed because in their time there was no education. So one thing you find that little girls are going to school, but when they were little there was no education and schools were far, but now schools are much nearer.

Then she is saying that Maasai culture is changing because now you don't find Morans. In their time, Morans were in the bush. You go here and find Morans. So that thing has now gone.

The other thing is Christianity. There is church, and church is influencing education. Now she goes to church.

JR: How old was she when she was married?

Maya: She was a young girl when she was married. She was very young, she was 12 years. But he [Letuya] said in their time, you find a girl will grow, develop.

JR: So you marry a girl when she is very young and then she grows?

Maya: Yeah.

JR: He has five wives. Are the other wives her friends? Does she likes them.

She said the other wives are her friends, and they even take care of the children of one wife who died.

JR: How many children does she have?

Maya: Eight

JR: How old is the youngest and how old is the oldest?

Maya: The older boy is 23 or 24 years old and right now he is a teacher. He teachers in a small Maasai school but he is being paid by parents, not by government. He has a very small salary. But he has not gone for teacher's training. And the youngest child is 7 years old.

Wrapping up, I asked her name. This prompted a lot of discussion. First, they said her name is Saayioi. Then they said Noormejooli. As it turned out, her mother named her Saayioi, but when she married Letuya, his age mates (the men he was circumcised with) named her Noormejooli, and that is her married name. It means "Nobody can overtake you." Nobody calls her Saayioi anymore.

Maya: When he married, he was a moran. All other morans came to the house, they sing, they sing, they drunk, and they gave her the name.

After the interview, we went outside to look at the livestock. Letuya was very eager to have a photo together with his bull, only the bull wasn't feeling equally interested in having a photo with Letuya.

The bull.

The landscape outside of the manyatta.

A few goats, checking out our car.

Goat close up

Letuya then insisted that we visit where he gives his animals water. He wanted me to give him the money to drill a borehole (well) and he figured that showing me this water hole a mile away might convince me, despite my firm answer to him that I could not give money to anyone I was interviewing as a journalist.

Here's the waterhole:

The water levels can get down very low in here, and they will have several people climb into it and then pass buckets of water up to one another to pour into a trough for the animals.


Here are some cows grazing nearby. Letuya seemed concerned that they wanted his water.

With that, Sidney and I dropped his uncle back at home and then went back to Sidney's place for lunch - a Maasai beef stew. I ate a little beef to be polite but after being veg for so long, I don't like it much. The stew itself was delicious.

Sidney's son serving the stew.


Lunch - meat veggies from the stew with ugali. We drank the broth separately out of a cup.

And... here's a pic I took on the drive back to Nairobi:

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