Tag Archives: culture

United Nations Day

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October 24 is “United Nations Day” and we, as an international school, were of course bound to celebrate it!  (Pictures by Heather PIllar…click to enlarge! )

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I have celebrated UN Day before, both in the USA and at my UK school…but it has never felt like this.  Our school has students from 53 different countries.  For UN day, everyone – from the 2-year-old “play school” students to the 18+ year old seniors, gathered in the gym.  Everyone was seated by country.  Many students were dressed in traditional dress from their country or had their faces painted in the colors of their flag.  Some of the elementary students had hand-made flags to wave; some had painted their faces.

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There was a parade of countries, similar to the opening ceremonies of the Olympics.  Selected students carried their country’s flag and everyone cheered as they walked into the gym.

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Finally, it was time for Zambia, our host country.  There was a huge cheer…and my little “orchestra” was ready.  We played the Zambian National Anthem as everyone sang with great gusto!  (That’s me on the clarinet.) The rest of the “orchestra” consists of a trombone, a violin, a snare drum, a rhythm  guitar and another clarinet. Hey, it’s a start!  We also had a vocalist.

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The student council president spoke, and there was some traditional Zambian drumming and dancing!

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We also had a surprise visit from the AISL mascot (a leopard!) as we prepared to host the upcoming ISSEA Volleyball Tournament.

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We left the gym to partake of a feast – an “international food festival.”  I have to say that the parents oputdid themselves…I have never seen so much food!  Each table was labeled with the country or area and there was plenty for all!

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It was a great way to start our October break!  I feel very privileged to have the opportunity to work at this school!

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Widows, water and a walk across the plains!

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In Maasai culture, women are traditionally not permitted to remarry.  Once they are married, they become part of their husbands family and their cattle and possessions belong to him.  Because many times young women (and girls) are married to much older men, it is common for a women to become a widow at a young age, often with several children and her options are few.

Salaton was encouraged by his mother (a  “medicine woman”) to do something about this – to help the widows and to discourage child marriage and female circumcision (or FGM – for female genital mutilation.) His mother, he told me, was a very strong woman, a very wise woman and he knew he had to do as she asked.  He has donated land for a “Widow’s Village” where widows can live together as a family, own their own livestock, build their own houses and make and sell jewellery.

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We were greeted at the entrance to the village by some of the widows, who sang a welcoming song, and then brought us into the middle of the group of houses; into an enclosure where they keep the cows at night.  This is the most important place of all, because the cows are so important.  There, they sang another song and had me and the other girl in our group join in the singing and the dancing.

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We were invited to see the inside of one of the homes – this is a very traditional Maasai house, with a low door and no windows.  Inside was a cook fire and two beds, one for the mother and young children and one for older children and any guests.  In addition, there was a space for the goats and young sheep.

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The women had spread all their wares out on individual shukas and we were invited to look and buy.  Everything was beautifully made.

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There is also a refuge center at the Widow’s Village.  This is for girls who are being forced into marriage or circumcision.  The girls can stay here safely and go to school.  After they have passed their secondary school exams, they are old enough choose their own husband and path in life and they can be reconciled with their families.

“I am not changing our culture,” Salaton told me.  “I am stopping harmful practice.  Many young girls are injured through FGM and some die when giving birth; and the babies die, too.  Far better for young girls to get an education that lasts forever than to be married off in exchange for a few cows that could die in a year.”

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Another project in the works is a conservation plot.  Many trees have been cut down and burned to make charcoal, which is a cheap source of fuel.  However, for the Maasai, many plants and trees have holy or medicinal purposes…not to mention that they hold moisture and keep the soil from eroding.  Salaton has started a small plot with seedlings and Coila is their custodian.  Although he cannot read or write and speaks only Maa, (and some Swahili) he is an expert at caring for the plants.  We helped with the daily watering.

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The next day, we packed for our walk.  Thankfully, we had several strong warriors to carry all the tents, sleeping bags, cookware and food!  It was hot and dry, but walking really gives you a great sense of the land and the surroundings.  We encountered other Maasai walking to get water, or caring for herds of goats or cows.   And we saw many small groups of mud houses…blending in with the land.

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After about 6 hours of walking, Salaton declared that we had reached our campsite.  We collapsed, exhausted, while our warriors pitched the tents, made the fire and prepared afternoon tea.  (Seriously, we had tea and biscuits!)  We saw evidence of elephant, warthog, lion and other animals and heard the sounds of the bush around us.  It was a beautiful evening…and we even got some rain to cool things off later that night.

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In the morning, we heard the distinct sound of a motorcycle…it was someone from the camp, with extra water for cooking and drinking.  I have no idea how he found us!  After breakfast, the warriors packed up and brought all the heavy equipment and supplies back to camp, while we walked on a bit further to a second camp, where we could have a proper shower and enjoy a night right on the plains.  This is a newer camp that also includes a widow’s village, again with land given by Salaton.  We had a delicious dinner and shared a bottle of wine, brought out by Hellen, an extraordinary woman with a hearty laugh who runs the camp, and also the school (which will be described in another post!)  I loved this camp – my little mud house looked right out onto the plains.  It was so peaceful and stunningly beautiful.

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The next morning, I was picked up bright and early to drive into Masa Mara Game Reserve for my SAFARI!

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A week with the Maasai!

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Map of Maasai camp

 

Maji Moto Maasai Cultural Camp

The Maasai are an ancient people with ancient traditions.  I read an article in the New York Times travel section about the “Maji Moto Maasai Cultural Camp” and I decided to spend my October break doing something…well, a bit different!

Through the Eyes of the Maasai 

I got into Nairobi on Friday evening and was taken to a small hotel near the airport.  Nairobi is the capital of Kenya and a fairly developed city, with a number of sky-scrapers, a bustling downtown and huge traffic jams.  Tiampati, my Maasai driver, picked me up promptly at 9:00am for the 3 and a half hour drive to the camp, which is outside of Narok and just on the border of the Masa Mara game reserve.  We stopped at a viewpoint along the way at the Great Rift Valley, which extends almost 10,000 kilometers from the Red Sea all the way to Mozambique.

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There were many sight-seers at the rest stop…you could purchase crafts and souvenirs, tea or coffee and take pictures.  Some locals saw their opportunity and approached anyone who looked like a tourist (ie: any white person) to try to sell their wares.  One man kept appearing behind me and saying “Hakuna matata!” while pointing to the shop behind him.  Another man was selling roast corn on a stick (a very common road-side snack)  He would hold it up and shout “Yum yum!  Yum yum!” and was very persistent, even following me as I got into the car.  I politely declined, buying only a cup of tea.

We continued onward through the valley and past tiny towns and wide open spaces.  Cows, goats and sheep were everywhere.  Finally, we reached the town of Narok; a fairly large town by Kenyan standards and the main town for many Maasai.  From here we turned onto a dirt road, which became incredibly bumpy and dusty…we were heading into the Mara.  After about 45 minutes, we turned at a small sign that said “Maji Moto Maasai Camp” and the road became even narrower.  Small groups of mud huts could be seen here and there and there were many flocks of goats and sheep, usually tended by a small boy.  Finally we arrived at the camp and were greeted by a group of Maasai warriors.  They sang and danced for me and I was given a shuka (traditional Maasai shawl)

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The camp consisted of several buildings, all constructed in the traditional manner of mud, ashes, cow dung and timber.  These had been “westernized” in that they had windows, stone floors and a door you could walk through (rather than crawl.)  They were quite cool inside and very comfortable.

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There was a wash-station and a toilet and outdoor shower, which was filled from the hot springs of Maji Moto (which means, literally, “Water Fire”)  Everything was very clean and neat and it really felt like you belonged to the earth.

There were many plants and trees and animals around the camp and you could see the Loita Hills rising above you.  All the food was cooked in the outdoor kitchen on a wood fire and was simple and delicious.
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I walked down to the hot springs with Rose, one of the volunteers at the camp.  There is a large windmill that pumps the water for two communal showers there (one for men, one for women.)  The women come to fill their water barrels – huge plastic containers that they carry with a strap around the forehead back to their village (sometimes several miles away.)  Some people have a donkey or two to carry more water. Clothes-washing is done here as well, and there is a watering hole for the animals a bit downstream where the water is cooler.

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That night, the warriors demonstrated how they traditionally started a fire, using a stick and a piece of tinder.  They twirled the stick in their hands, rubbing it against a flat piece of wood with the tinder underneath and their machete under that.  When the tiny tinder was lit, they would carefully transfer it to a larger clump of dry cedar shavings and then gradually add wood until the fire was blazing.

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That first night, I sat around the fire with four Maasai warriors.  The stars came out one by one and the warriors sang traditional songs.  Most of the songs were a kind of chanting call-and-response and most were about cattle and women.

In the Maasai traditional religion, their god Enkai stretched a long piece of bark from heaven and all the cattle were able to walk down to earth on it.  Enkari gave all the cattle to the Maasai.  A jealous  god broke the bark and so young Maasai warriors often jump as high as they can to try to reach the cattle still up in heaven.  Apparently, high jumpers also attract young women.

The next day, Salaton, the tribal chief who runs the camp and another warrior named Coila, took me on a hike up Loita Hill.  On the way, the two warriors demonstrated spear-throwing.  A Maasai warrior almost always carries a spear.  The narrow end is for practice and the wide end for protection.  After they had thrown their spears at a tree and missed several times in a row, Salaton turned to me and said gravely, “You are not safe!”   He and Coila thought this was very funny.
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Loita Hills once were part of a vast volcanic range and the rock formations are strange and beautiful.

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There were many colorful trees and flowers…even in the hot, dry climate.

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There are over 40 varieties of acacia tree…this one is called a “whistling acacia.”  The hard, black bulb-like things on the tree are made by ants as a nest.  When the ants leave the nest, they make holes in the surface.  And then, when the wind blows, it whistles through the holes.

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On the way back, we came across a young boy looking after the goats.  In Maasai culture, when you meet a child, you touch their head and say “Supa.”  This is a sign of respect.  Most young children will come up to you and lower their head to be touched.

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When we got back down to the camp, I was hot and tired…I looked up to where we had climbed and felt like I had touched the sky.

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Next: Visiting the Widows Village, the Conservation Project, Warrior Training and a two-day trek across the Loita Plains.