Tag Archives: “maasai mara”

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.

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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.