Tag Archives: masai

Say no to bad touch, and other wisdom from Watamu.

Considering I’ve got two weeks of down-time on tap for Lamu, it seems odd that I’d feel a need to take a break in Watamu. But here I am: lulled by the surf and the ocean breezes, shuffling around in board shorts, my linen shirt unbuttoned down to my navel. The routine I’ve slouched into is a cozy one. A light breakfast of Nescafe and chapati, the morning paper, a few smiles and “Buongiornos” for the pretty waitress at the Italian café. In the afternoon I sit on the beach and shoo away the guys selling hand-painted greeting cards and little carved hippos. At night I treat myself to wood-oven pizzas at a swank hotel just down the road. The owner – a dignified, snow-haired guy in a sweater vest – circles between the tables and makes small-talk with the guests. When a party leaves there’s a chorus of “Buon viaggis!” and “Buona seras!” and “Arrivadercis!” A few old men in orange pants gather with espressos in the lounge, where Italian football plays on a flickering, staticky screen.

Though I’ve passed a pleasant few days around town, I’m starting to feel hemmed in by the beach boys and souvenir stalls and hard-selling Samburu. I’d met a few of these young morans on my first day in town. They’d been happy to hear about my time in Maralal, and my stumbling attempts at the Samburu tongue. Each morning I’d smile and say “Soba” – the Samburu greeting – and politely rebuff the necklaces and bright, beaded bracelets they sold from a red blanket on the side of the road. Around town I would spot the morans from a distance – tall, lean, and upright, handsomely decked out in hoops and chains, loping with that peculiar bouncing stride of the Samburu and Masai warriors.

One day they take me back to their house, a crumbling, coral-walled building down the town’s back alleys. There are puddles on the floor and holes in the ceiling, and young Masai and Samburu guys loafing around outside. They’d set some mattresses out on the front porch: after part of the roof caved in a few months ago, some of the guys were forced to sleep under the eaves. We sit on the lawn and play bhao – an ancient African board game – while the sun moves behind the clouds. Someone brings me a primary school notebook – a little blue pad with a cartoon rabbit on the cover. Written inside is a list of names and figures:

Emma 1500
Charlie 1000
Scott 2000

The morans inch closer as a smooth-talking Masai makes his pitch. “We do not have the money, we do not have the power,” he says, gesturing to the dilapidated house over his shoulder. “But if someone did have the power…” He arches his eyebrows and looks suggestively at the notebook in my hands. I’m in a strange moral bind. That there’s genuine need here is apparent; I can see the first fat raindrops falling through the roof, the frayed hammock swinging limply from a couple of precarious bolts in the ceiling.

But the suddenness of the pitch has left me flustered – flustered and, oddly, betrayed. I recoil with that sharp, reflexive stubbornness so common to Westerners in the developing world; if pressed, I would’ve invoked some high-minded talk about “principle.” I wanted to be looked at as a friend, or something approaching it – not just another white guy with money. The broad, gray landscape between those two extreme poles is, after all these months, still a region I’ve struggled to chart on my moral map. I bury my hands in my pockets and say something non-committal; I’m almost as disappointed in myself as they are.

I’m starting to feel the grind of all these casual friendships I’ve picked up around town. Just making it to the supermarket or the Internet café is a marathon of handshakes and well-wishes. There are inquiries about my health and the quality of my sleep; men who have never so much as seen her picture ask if my mother’s doing well. It’s sweet and endearing and more than a little bit creepy. By day four, after a baroque monologue from a local shopkeeper on the perils of a stiff mattress, I decide it’s time to take a break from my break, heading to nearby Gede for an afternoon at its ruins.

After more than five months in the Middle East, surrounded by pyramids and coliseums and mosques trapped beneath centuries of smog and dust, I’ve set the ancient-ruins bar awfully high. And on the most basic level, Gede’s crumbled palaces and low coral walls are a disappointment. But there’s something to be said for an afternoon stroll through the forest, with giant, predatory spiders spinning their webs between the trees, and curious monkeys scrambling over the remains of mosques and ramparts. No one asks about my mother, no one wants to sell me a necklace. Stumbling through the heat, my shirt sticking to my chest, it’s the first time I’ve felt blissfully content here in Watamu.

I’m all smiles as I crowd into a matatu heading for town. We pass the Gede Primary School (“School Motto: Knowledge is Light”), a series of low, brightly painted concrete buildings. Beneath the motto are written cautionary slogans: “Abstain from sex,” “Say no to bad touch,” “Don’t accept favours.” On the wall is a colorful mural of hard-working Kenyans laboring in the fields: balancing baskets on their heads, waving off favours, and abstaining from sex at every turn. Back in Watamu I say a few goodbyes and hustle my bags into the nearest matatu. Two hours later I’m checked into my hotel in Malindi, overlooking a green-domed mosque that will, I’m sure, rattle with prayer in the pre-dawn hours.

I’ve left Watamu on a high note, and that’s left me direly unprepared for the grim reality of the resort town that is Malindi. Long a favorite of Italian holiday-makers peddling its all-inclusives, the place manages to make a casual afternoon stroll feel as pleasant as a walk over hot coals. I’m accosted in front of the hotel and outside the Internet café, on the streets around Uhuru Park and on the busy tourist drag of Lamu Road. Men selling water colors (“Elephant At Dusk (with Acacias),” “Woman Carries Basket on Head,” etc.); women hawking big, bulky necklaces strung from stones the size of Easter Island heads. Desperate for earnest human contact, turned off by the constant sales pitches and Sudanese refugee rackets, I’m turning into a total dick during my brief time here. I’ve found refuge in an Italian restaurant down the street from my hotel – a recurring theme here on the coast, it seems – and I pass my nights quietly mulling over thin-crust pizza and cold Tuskers, wondering what crippling inertia is keeping me from boarding the first bus to Lamu.

One night, watching English football on a tiny TV screen at a local bar, I feel a warm, familiar hand squeezing my shoulder. It’s Basilio, the sports agent I met at a soccer match in Nairobi. He slaps his head at this improbable meeting, and we quickly fall into conversation. We spend the next hour catching up on Kenyan politics and dissecting the play of Manchester United on the stamp-sized screen. In another strange coincidence, we happen to be staying in the same hotel, and for the next few days we’ll meet over breakfast, groggily waking up to our coffee and disparaging the headlines on CNN International. Basilio proves to be Malindi’s saving grace, and apart from some fine pizza and cappuccino, he’s about the only reason I wouldn’t want to see this town wiped off the map altogether. We say our goodbyes and make promises to keep in touch, and as my bus sputters and put-puts down the bumpy road to Lamu, it’s all I can do to give Malindi a half-hearted “Arrivaderci!” and not wish all sorts of ill will upon it.

Even the white man has found God.

Sunday, July 15, 2007.

From a sartorial standpoint, there’s a lot that a ragged traveler like me can learn from the developing world. Even here, in this remote Maasai village, where people live in cow-dung manyattas and crap in the bush, I’m woefully underdressed for Sunday service. David is hunched over on the edge of the bed, running a rag over his shoes with great gravity. Little Lanoi – his bald, bright-eyed eight-year-old – has put on a rustling skirt and a red gingham blouse. For my part, I’m wearing a pair of pants that look like they’ve spent the past week wrapped around a muffler. There’s dirt caked to the bottom of my hiking boots; David clucks his tongue with disapproval. Outside he breaks a leafy branch from a tree and thwacks at my pant legs, partly to get at the dust, partly, I suspect, to teach me a lesson about what is and isn’t appropriate in the house of the Lord.

It’s a three-mile walk to the nearest church; along the way, David points out hyena tracks and prodigious piles of elephant dung. “At night, this road is like an elephant highway,” he notes. We pass a few of the neighboring villages, where two or three huts sit in a small clearing, hemmed in by a fence of thorn-studded branches. Now and then someone will pedal by in a blue blazer and gray slacks, a Bible tucked beneath his arm, and he’ll exchange a few greetings with David as he passes, calling back well-wishes over his shoulder.

We stop to pay our respects to some local families. David conducts himself with great diplomacy, shaking hands and patting heads and generally carrying on like he’s up for office. We duck our heads into a smoky hut, where a small, bent woman is making rice over a fire-pit. She’s chattering away and laughing shrilly and stirring the rice with a long wooden spoon, dishing it out into plastic bowls that she passes around the room. A few grave old men come in and shake my hand. Everyone’s wearing jackets and neckties and their fancy Sunday shoes. The woman talks with great animation, turning to pour a mug of chai or rinse a bowl in a bucket of gray water without pausing for breath. There’s a boy sitting on a stool in the next room, dipping his hands into a wash basin and scrubbing his face. Thin bolts of light are coming in from a small window above him. The water is gleaming on his shoulders and his long, corded arms.

Outside an old man waits for us in the yard. He has fat yellow teeth and long, drooping earlobes; he’s wearing a blue blazer and gray linen pants that taper off above the ankle. David introduces him as a pastor from a neighboring village – I’ve met a half-dozen of these already – and he takes my hand, pressing it solemnly. He walks with us to the church, taking measured steps while they fall into conversation. The pastor speaks calmly, forcefully, for the twenty-minute walk. More bikes pedal past, more waves and greetings. We pass through a clearing and then down a narrow path winding through the trees. Birds chatter and chirp all around us. The sky is low and gray, and a cold wind is blowing.

When we get to the church a young mother is waiting outside with her two sons. The front door is bolted and padlocked, and we have to wait for someone to show up with the keys. The church is like a giant tool shed made from sheets of corrugated tin, about the size of a suburban garage. While we’re waiting David and the pastor pull a few branches from a tree and pick between their teeth. There are men pedaling bikes over bumpy dirt paths, some in their Sunday clothes and some with the red-checked blankets of the Maasai wrapped around their shoulders. Gazelles bound across a field nearby, and a dozen zebra are trotting and rolling in the dirt. More people gather: packs of kids clutching at their mother’s skirt, solemn old men on rickety bicycles.

A young guy pedals up and unlocks the door, and there’s a commotion of handshakes and greetings as we file in, taking our places on long wooden planks. Three men in smart blazers sit at the front of the room, crucifixes carved into their chairs. They take out their Bibles and lean forward over a table draped with purple cloth, bookmarking passages and conferring under their breaths. A calendar from Narok Bible College hangs on the wall. Beside it is a single, frayed length of garland – gold and red and green, shimmering dully and drooping toward the floor. David leafs through his King James, his forehead furrowed, his fingers moving busily over the pages. Someone gives my shoulder an affectionate squeeze and hands me a Bible of my own, giving me a look that suggests I know exactly what to do with it.

David asks if I might like to read a favorite passage to the congregation – sort of like asking a deaf man to sing his favorite song. I think back to my years of Sunday school, when I dutifully colored page after page of well-tended sheep and avuncular Messiahs and dreamed of a lazy afternoon on the couch watching football. Then inspiration hits me. How often had I seen those divine words scrawled onto posterboard, held aloft in end zones and carrying with them the collective longing of the sporting world’s faithful? Never mind the inscrutable message they deliver; I dog-ear the one passage burnt into the years of my youth: John 3:16.

A young preacher in a denim jacket stands up and flashes a broad smile of wide, evenly spaced teeth. There’s a joyous chorus from across the room, where the women are clapping their hands and stomping their feet and carrying on like the Second Coming should be waltzing through the door at any minute. They wear headscarves and bright red gowns and colorful, beaded jewelry dangling from their ears and necks. David’s mother, a tough old bird with knots on her smoothly shaven head, bobs and stoops in a dance football fans might recall from the memorable Super Bowl run of Icky Woods and the Cincinnati Bengals. Another woman in a blue skirt imprinted with orange blossoms has a look of fierce repentance on her face, her eyelids trembling as she wags the palms of her hands toward the ceiling. Then a girl marches in with a drum slung over her shoulder, beating it like she caught it with its hand in the poor box, and it’s at exactly this moment that I know high holy hell is about to break loose. A reasonable approximation of “rapture” ensues, with the women waving their hands and the men awkwardly shuffling their feet, and a certain American bobbing his head once or twice, as if the spirit of the Lord has come to him in rhythmic, 4/4 time.

We carry on like this for ten minutes, and then the preacher wrings his hands and says a few words, and then he sits down and we burst into song again. Little girls are clapping their hands and little boys have snot all over their faces, and it’s a beautiful, joyful day all around. When our praise and thanks have been exhausted, the preacher again rises to address us. Beside him is a young, effeminate kid in a neatly pressed shirt, who’s translating into English with little flourishes of his hands. They thank the Lord that we’re all gathered today (Amen!), and thank the Lord that we’re all in good health and high spirits (Amen!), and thank the Lord that we have visitors who have come from so far away to be here today (Hallelujah!). Then the preacher gestures with his outstretched hands, that maybe the visitors would like to say a few words to the congregation. And suddenly there are fifty pairs of eyes fixed on my dusty pants and bewildered grin, wondering what words of faith and wisdom I’ve come all the way from America to share.

I smile a beatific smile and David claps my knee, as if we’re both in on a dirty little secret that involves the salvation of a certain two you-know-who’s. I stand and give a little wag of my hand – either “’Allelujah!” or “Gee, it’s hot in here,” depending on your point of view – and offer thanks to the pastor and the congregation for having me. I gesture to David’s beaming mug and offer him as exhibit A-number-one of the goodness of the Maasai people. There are a few nods and Amens. Then I point indiscriminately around the room, implicating others in the veritable smorgasbord of kindness I’ve encountered since coming to the area. I thump the Bible once or twice and wave it, as if to say, “We all know I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for this book.” But when it comes to the reading, I waver. Instead I offer a strange benediction – “You’ve all been so good to me and thanks for everything and good luck” – which practically rends the air like a thunderbolt. There are more “’Allelujahs!” and a few rapturous “Amens!” As an afterthought, I add, “Um, God bless you,” and a few faces are puffy and glistening with inspiration.

Emboldened, some others get up to follow my lead. They’ve come from villages five or ten or twenty kilometers away, and they offer thanks and well-wishes to the congregation. A stout woman heaves herself toward the front of the room and testifies that she’s fine and her husband’s fine, and her children – thank the Lord – are all doing fine, as if she’s just popped in on the neighbors for coffee and danishes. A kid in a big, boxy jacket gestures in my direction, noting how happy he is to see that “even the white man has found God” – a curious bit of revisionist history, if ever there was one.

The pastor gets up and nods solemnly and shuffles forward a bit. He’s wearing a crisp olive suit and spiffy brown loafers, his pudgy stomach testifying to the fact that the work of the Lord is gratifying in more ways than one. His voice rattles the rafters, an honest-to-goodness clarion call of spiritual whoop-ass.

Before long he’s picked up such frightful momentum that the translator can’t keep up, and with a few apologetic words to the congregation, he squeezes onto the bench beside me, whispering, “I will write down what he says and give you the notes later.”

Later, after a fiery sermon full of thunder and brimstone, after we’ve jangled through our purses and dug into our pockets and dropped our modest offerings into a cloth sack at the front of the room, Evans, the translator, corners me outside. He hands me a sheet of ruled paper torn from a notebook. At the top he’s written, “Topic: Spiritual circumcision,” and what follows is a hastily improvised summary of the day’s lecture.

“Just as we circumcise the body the spirit is also circumcised,” he begins. “Circumcision on the body helps to remove dirty parts and makes one clean and acceptable. The spiritual circumcision also helps to remove things regarded as dirty in the spiritual world.” These things include immorality, adultery, idolatry, and – in one quizzical, illegible scrawl – what seems to be the world “halva.” How that sweet treat could offend anyone – including the Lord – is lost on me. But I fold the notes into my pocket and thank Evans for all his help, and he’s still bless my backside as I collect the girls and start our long trudge home.

The porcupine is a clever animal, and other tales from the bush.

Saturday, July 14, 2007.

After a few restless nights in an overcrowded dorm room in Nairobi, I was convinced that things would get better before they got worse. Then I learned to sleep like a Maasai. It’s been a sobering introduction into the life of these hardened plains peoples. The fire pit is still smoldering as we tuck ourselves into bed, the air thick and acrid with the smells of roasted cabbage and scorched meat. Our bed – fashioned from a thin foam mattress and a bunch of sticks – creaks and groans each time I shift for comfort. David is sleeping beside me, breathing heavily, making hoarse noises in his throat. On my first night, while our dinner was still settling in my stomach, he stretched, coughed, then promptly dropped his pants and said, “I think we will go to bed.” It’s a ritual he’ll repeat nightly, which is how I’ve come – after just ten days in Kenya – to find myself getting into bed with a black man.

In the morning his wife gets the fire started early, boiling water and dressing the kids. The days start cool and overcast; there’s a flat gray light coming in through the window. Beside me David is sleeping soundly, turning and yawning and stretching his limbs like a housecat. Really, these Maasai men have got it all worked out. The goats are whinnying and making animal noises in the yard; the donkey is braying like a real jackass. It’s just after eight when I finally rub my eyes and sit up in bed, guilt-wracked by the sight of eight-year-old Lanoi – wearing a red sweater and her blue-checked school blouse – hauling a sack of flour into the kitchen.

We start the day with a modest breakfast: two slices of plain white bread and a cup of tea. Afterward David pats his stomach and makes soft sighs of contentment, making me wonder what sort of feats of nutritional endurance will be asked of me in the days ahead. He takes me for a walk through the bush, stooping now and then to point out an animal’s tracks – elephant, impala, hyena – or explain the excretive habits of the native dik dik. “A dik dik will spend his whole life where he goes to the toilet,” he says, pointing to the mounds of black pellets that mark the animal’s territory. Later he’ll tell me the usefulness of each tree we pass, breaking off the fragrant leaves of a perfume tree and rubbing it against my forearm, then cautioning about one of its neighbors. “This tree is very dangerous,” he notes. “Very, very dangerous. If you rub the leaf on the tip of your arrow and shoot an animal, it will not walk 100 meters before it dies.”

There’s poetry in how the Maasai read the land around them: each tree and bush, each track in the dirt, has its own story to tell. For a foreigner, the differences might be too subtle to see; but for the Maasai, this encyclopedic knowledge is a matter of survival. The bush is a drugstore and supermarket; it can be a source of great wealth or brutal hardship. At eighteen Maasai boys are sent into the bush as a rite of passage, returning after two years once they’ve emerged as men and the earth has yielded its secrets. Before marriage they’ll be forced to kill a lion in the wild. David rolls up his sleeve to show me the scar left by a lion’s claws, a long, angry tear where his arm joins his shoulder. When I ask if he eventually killed the perpetrator, he snuffs, fixing me with a look that all but says, “I wouldn’t be standing here if I didn’t, white boy.”

We visit some of the neighboring villages, where David checks on his sheep, on his beans and corn. He hears complaints about the elephants that arrive in the night, tearing the cobs from their stalks. A young boy – the brother of his wife – makes agitated gestures toward the brown, bending stalks of a cornfield nearby, where a few local porcupines have been feasting.

“The porcupine is a clever animal,” David notes, with a trace of admiration in his voice. He points to a pile of silvery quills lying in the dirt. Nearby there are empty sheaves, green and yellow and white and frayed around the edges.

We stop to see his wife’s father, who invites us inside; David hands two cobs of corn to one of the boys to roast for an afternoon snack. Minutes later he returns with the cobs – blackened, hot to the touch – sandwiched between two plastic bowls. We’re sitting in the store room, tearing the corn off with our dirty fingers. There are sacks of beans piled on the floor; a few flies are buzzing around my legs. If Sally Struthers could walk in and see me now, the scene would undoubtedly break her heart. David’s father-in-law – tall, lean as a bean post, with two knots protruding from his forehead – sits on the couch across from us and regards me with playful eyes. He lifts a pant leg and scratches at his bony shin. He tells me I look like George Bush, and wants to know if we’re related.

There are other visits to be made. We stop in on his sister, who lives with her five children in a nearby village. Her husband is a local official; there are picture frames on the wall and upholstered chairs in the living room: signs of domestic prosperity. Her sons and daughters and the neighbors’ kids have all gathered on the couch, staring at me with bright, beady eyes. When I smile, they smile; when I wink, they make anxious little twitching movements. I take out my camera and show them the pictures I snapped earlier – clouds, wide skies, a lone acacia – and they’re soon scrambling to gather around me. I take a few snapshots of them horsing around on the couch. They grin broadly and have a hard time sitting still; in half of the pictures, some restless figure appears like an apparition in the background.

David takes me further into the bush: he wants to check on his cows. We find the herd being led by two barefoot boys in tattered t-shirts, who are so stunned by the sight of a mzungu that David has to all but corral the cows himself. For twenty minutes we shepherd them home: the boys whistling and shouting, David making low grunting noises, as if he’s clearing his throat. I try to give it a go – “Hrmph! Hum! Ahem!” – but it’s a sad performance, and even the cows seem to regard me with pity as they swish their tails and chew.

When we get back to the house, dusk is falling. Jeremiah – an old, mirthful man with hooped ears that could fit a hard-boiled egg – is squatting against the fence, scratching his scraggily chin. The women are coming back from the field with jugs of water. The boys are practicing with their bows. They point to a blackened tree stump in the distance and fire arrows that sail long by a hair or send up puffs of dirt on either side. They show me how to grip the bow with one hand and pull the string taut with the other. My first shot lamely flutters to the earth after ten feet. There are smiles all around. I try again, but my next two arrows don’t even leave the bow. This leaves everyone in stitches.

“Ha ha,” says Jeremiah.

“Ha ha,” says David.

“Ha ha,” say the boys.

“Ha ha,” I say, thinking: Let’s see you find your way around a Mac OS, fuckers.

That night, sitting in bed while our dinner simmers on the fire, we listen to the radio. David adjusts the dial – American pop songs, local news – and settles on a weekly church sermon. The preacher has a rich basso profundo that rolls like thunder gathering strength. He’s lecturing on the value of wisdom – “WEES-du-umm,” as he pronounces it, with a melodious roll that stretches for three syllables – but after ten minutes he hasn’t gotten us any closer to the nature of the thing itself. We need wisdom, he says, to “get promotions at work” and “deal with the issues” – which is sort of like saying we need faith to find a good head of lettuce at the store. After thirty ponderous minutes he says,

“Have you seen how a cow lies down at the end of the day, and it brings up the food it ate that day, and it chews it again?

“You need to do that to the word of the Lord.”

David leans forward and switches the radio off. We lay back in weighty silence. His daughter rolls from bed and bolts the front door, shutting out the cool night air and the barnyard noises. There are a few ragged coughs from across the room, and the bed creaks and settles beneath us, and we drift off to sleep, certainly spent, but probably not much wiser.

Twelve kilometers from the middle of nowhere.

Friday, July 13.

Laid low by a cold for much of my first week, I’ve managed to spend a full ten days in Nairobi – an accomplishment that, I’m certain, will warrant a commemorative t-shirt before I go. Back on my feet at last, shaking a metaphorical fist at the gray winter skies, I pack my bags for a week in the bush – a stay with a Maasai chief who, incidentally, has a profile on CouchSurfing. When I tell Khadija, the receptionist at my hostel, that I’m heading to Narok in the afternoon, she shakes her head and says, “You’re going to the middle of nowhere.” When I tell her my final destination is actually twelve kilometers from there, a strange silence passes between us: a moment that snugly fits into the space between ominous and foreboding.

I’ve crammed my bag into the back of a matatu and crammed myself into the back row, sandwiched between two guys who give off a scent of whiskey and body odor that packs quite the Folger’s wake-up call. We sputter into the middle of the road, the engine faltering, while five guys rush up to give us a push. The matatu pitches and tilts over a couple of massive potholes; there are shouts of encouragement from the rear. A man in a weathered baseball cap is rapping on the window, trying to sell a few newspapers, and he’s still thrusting a bunched-up Nairobi Star our way as the engine wheezes to life.

The sky is gray, low, troubling; a light rain starts to fall. On the outskirts of the city we pass sprawling shantytowns, rows of tin-roof shacks squatting on muddy lanes. The roofs have rusted orange, and they’re receding down the slopes of garbage-strewn hills like a poor-man’s Dubrovnik. There are makeshift markets on the side of the road: piles of tomatoes and oranges; bunches of bananas, bruised and blackened and dangling on a string; pairs of cheap loafers and sandals and white running shoes. Men are squatting and sitting on stools and hitching their pants up at the knees. Meat is grilling everywhere, plumes of smoke twisting toward the clouds.

We drive for an hour over a smooth, four-lane highway; then we turn onto a bumpy road that’s swallowed by clouds of dust. There are gazelles loping along beside us, and giraffes bending the long, slender stems of their necks. Now and then we slow in some nameless town where boys rush up to the window, selling roasted corn on the cob. There are shops built from corrugated tin with names like “Good Blessing Video” and “Mama’s Place Pub,” and one-room, mud-brick shacks with the word “Hotel” improbably painted on the side. The matatu bumps along; the sky is clearing. A husky woman fans herself with a newspaper, shifting her plump legs in the aisle. The man beside me, who’s been taking long swigs from a bottle he keeps tucked away in his coat, shakes his head bitterly at each bump in the road and says, “This is Kenya, man.”

We reach Narok, a busy market town, by mid-day. There are colorful, painted storefronts advertising hair styles and cuts of meat; Maasai men and women – lean, upright, their earlobes looped and dangling and festooned with beads – hustle around with bags of groceries tucked into the pits of their arms. David is waiting to greet me at the gas station. He’s wearing a blue-checked shirt and a gray fisherman’s vest, his long, smooth walking stick the only concession to the bushman within. He presses my hand warmly and takes me to a nearby restaurant for lunch. He eats his beef with his shoulders squared and his head lowered, breaking off bits of ugali from a gray brick and scooping up bits of stew. Now and then he looks up, wipes his mouth, and asks about New York.

After lunch we go shopping for supplies, stocking up on flour and rice and a few slabs of yellow cooking fat that look like candle wax. Somehow we’ve managed to fill an entire shopping cart – a week’s worth of food – with nothing I’d want to see on a dinner plate. At the check-out there’s a hapless guy trying to squeeze everything into a single box, scratching his head and rearranging jugs of water and looking for a sturdy length of string to wrap it with. Nearby we buy some bruised onions and a browning head of cabbage at the market. A preacher in well-worn shoes and a tattered sportsjacket paces the dirt road behind us, thumping on a Bible and shouting until his voice cracks.

We catch a taxi to David’s village, a half-hour’s drive into the bush. The driver whirls the wheel and takes us over broad, grassy fields where two thin ribbons of dirt curve and swoop in parallel arcs. A flock of birds with graceful, slender necks beat their wings and fly beside us; there are bright flashes of wings in the treetops: rose-red, lemon yellow, electric blue. We stop in a field where a dozen zebras regard us with curious eyes. I snap a few pics and they start to scatter. In the distance, two skittish gazelles dart into the bush, stopping and pricking their ears and then disappearing into the trees.

When we get to his house the family is waiting in the yard: his wife with sturdy legs and arching back and steady, muscular hands; the three daughters – aged eight, four and one – staring with big white luminous eyes. They approach their father and bow their heads; he touches each one lightly in greeting. They offer their heads to me, too, and I give them each an affectionate pat. David plants his walking stick in the ground and marches toward the house while I offer to bring in the groceries. He brushes the gesture aside with an effete wave of his hand. “It’s okay,” he says, “the women will take care of it.” Behind us his wife and one of the neighbors are squatting and stooping and heaving the boxes onto their shoulders. His oldest daughter, Lanoi, is carrying a jug of water across the yard, lilting far to the side and trying to keep her balance.

The house is squat and brown and the light inside is smoky. There are two main rooms – the kitchen and the bedroom – with a tiny alcove tucked into the corner. A fire is simmering in the kitchen, where a metal grill is laid across a stone pit; smoke is billowing toward the door and the lone window punched into the opposite wall. The temperature is a couple of notches shy of inferno. David kicks off his shoes and reclines on the bed: a thin foam mattress laid over a bunch of branches. There’s a commotion by the door, where the women are arranging the groceries, and David lifts his head to tell his wife to make us tea. A certain recurring theme here is quickly becoming apparent. We sit on the edge of the bed and David tells me about his plans for the house: adding another window, moving the fire-pit to the opposite side to improve the airflow. He talks about the work that went into building the place, staking branches into the ground and padding the outside walls with dried-up cow dung.

“It is very good for the wind and rain,” he observes. “My wife laid cow dung on the roof, and it keeps the rain out very well.”

We drink the hot, sweet, milky chai that his wife pours for us and sit in silence; I can hear singing in the yard. David explains that a few pastors have come to lead a church service for the local families. Outside the women are clapping and stomping, wrapped in red shawls and skirts; the men – grave in their pressed slacks and blazers – are rocking back and forth on their heels. There are a dozen people singing and each seems to have a separate part. The women tip their heads back and fling their high notes at the sky; the men make low, rumbling bass sounds with their chins pressed to their chests. There are chickens clucking everywhere and the kids are half-naked and rolling in the dirt. I make a few ambiguous, throaty noises and squint up at the sky, an earnestness on my brow that, I hope, these God-fearing Maasai might mistake for piety.

As the songs die down, the pastors step forward, Bibles clenched to their chests. Since the first missionaries arrived two decades ago, David later explains, the Maasai have hitched their fervent hopes to the back of the Christian bandwagon. One by one the pastors give their sermons, their voices, in turn, as soft as lamb’s wool or as hard as brimstone. They jab their fingers in the air and make plaintive gestures with their eyes – a sort of Good Cop/Bad Cop routine that seems to imply we’re the worst sorts of sinners, but would be welcomed back into the fold all the same. Now and then one will lapse into English – “You must follow the path of the Lord!” – a sweet gesture, in its own way, apart from the implications. The men are saying “Hallelujah!” and the women are trembling with a ravished, awe-struck devotion, and the pastors are taking turns on center-stage, as if they weren’t a bunch of Maasai in the barnyard but The Temptations at the Apollo.

Afterward David introduces me to some of the boys from the village – tall, slim, wary kids with small tufts of hair on their heads and legs like furniture posts. They practice their halting English on me, then we kick around a soccer ball they’ve made from plastic bags, dirty rags, and a couple of old shoelaces. They want to know about America.

“Do you have any cows?” they ask.

I tell them I have none. They nod and consider this.

“Do you have any sheep?”

I don’t. The sun is moving behind the clouds. There are cow bells jangling in the distance.

“How many chickens do you have?” they ask gravely. I can see where the rest of this is heading. I try to describe my father’s humble tomato patch in the yard, the prickly little cucumbers and stout eggplants, as if that might somehow bridge the cultural chasm between us. They nod thoughtfully and agree, a clear sign that my efforts are entirely wasted. We sit silently and watch the sun dip in the sky, the shafts of light puncturing the clouds, and they gather around as I take a few shots with my camera, their big, beady eyes moving from the immense canvas of sky to its digital reproduction, spellbound by the miracles of the modern age.