On January 30th I left Tanzania for Kenya, by bus. What was to be a 5-6 hour journey turned into 11 hours. “This is Kenya” as they say. I then spent two weeks living in a Maasai village where I was to be “volunteering” at a “safe house” for girls rescued from female circumcision and early marriage. I lived in the village of Ilngarooj, two hours south of Nairobi, splitting my time between Jonathan’s family home, (my host who came to Cape Cod this fall) and his uncle William’s traditional Maasai mud and stick dirt-floored “manyatta”.
I’m now back on Zanzibar Island for my last two weeks in Africa. After two weeks in the Maasai village I was ready to get back to the sea and traveled 9 hours by bus to the Kenyan coast to Diani Beach….traveling with a young Brit and Ethiopian couple who showed up to “volunteer” at Jonathan’s as well. Unfortunately, there was not much time for any volunteering as there were changes in plans, a Maasai wedding (see photos at the bottom) and a funeral all in one week. After two weeks of dealing with an enormous amount of flies and dirt, and to top it off, fleas in my bed, (and a gazillion flea bites) and dealing with a bad sore throat and head cold, I decided to head out with this couple to rest and recoup by the ocean at a backpacker’s lodge, where life always seems easier. It was a good place to decompress after our interesting and challenging time in the village.
During the two weeks I was at the village I only had the chance to take two trips to see the girls at the “safe house” which is supported by Jonathan’s organization, Maasai Youth Outreach Organization. I met the 25 newly sponsored girls and got a tour of their dormitories.
I met the matron, Beatrice, who shared her personal story of having been circumcised as a 9 year old. Her sad and tragic story struck my heart and brought tears to my eyes.
I got a feel for how the “safe house” is run and how it is helping the girls in the community to stand up for their rights and say no to FGM. For those of you who have sponsored a girl, know that your donations are doing great things to help your sponsored girl.
Originally, Jonathan agreed to come to the Tanzanian border to meet me and bring me to his village. Unfortunately, when I got there we discovered that he was at the WRONG border crossing!!! I continued onto Nairobi on the bus and met him there luckily, as I would never have found my way to his remote village. A few “matatu” rides later and a private taxi for the last stretch, we made it home by midnight.
I met his 22 year old wife, Eunice, and 2 yr old son, Moses, in the morning, then his adopted niece named Milka after school let out that day.
They live in a tin-sided, tin-roofed house with four rooms and one window. There is a separate “kitchen” where they cook over the fire and wash dishes in buckets. The outhouse is in a tin sided, cement floored structure and for the first week there was only “traditional toilet paper” (leaves). Cold water bucket baths are the means for getting clean, at least for a few minutes before the relentless dirt situation returns.
Jonathan had recently obtained two large water tanks to place at his house for the community to share. While I was there he paid to have a water truck come fill them since the only available water was gathered from a very small and dirty rain-filled pond. The funds raised recently to pipe water to the village has helped but I now discovered that the community has to pay a fee every time the tanks are filled to help cover the cost of the pump maintenance. Eunice was using the dirty pond water to cook and wash dishes and clothes and I was just hoping I wouldn’t get sick again! The clothes get so dirty, as they live surrounded by red dirt, that it is hard to get them clean. Washing and rinsing clothes in muddy water seemed odd to me but because of lack of water, they don’t rinse their clothes as thoroughly as we would, leaving a large amount of soap residue and dirt. They hang them on the thorny acacia bushes to dry. The area is so arid and hot that the laundry dries in no time.
Needless to say, spending time in this Maasai village gave me many opportunities to notice and let go of my judgements and just try hard to accept another culture and deal with “what is”. Such things as the “selling” of young daughters to older men as second wives, removing their external sexual organs (without anesthesia or sterilization, and with razor blades!) before marriage as a “rite of passage”, beating the animals and school children to control them, stories of wife beatings and forced and arranged marriages. There were many things that would make it easy to disrespect these people yet as hard as it was, it was a lesson in accepting another’s traditions. FGM is such an unfathomable practice and luckily because of Jonathan’s work and the fact that he has a permit from the Kenyan government to rescue these girls from this tragic practice, which was outlawed 30 years ago in Kenya, things in this particular village are changing for the better.
One morning however, we awoke to the sound of a girl crying incessantly. When Eunice investigated the situation she found it was Ester, the 14 year old neighbor who recently gave birth to a baby and was told that morning by her father that he was going to sell her (marry her) to a man he chose because he could no longer care for her and the baby. The mother was distraught and didn’t want this for her child and came to the house to consult with Eunice. Jonathan is working on getting her into the safe house now but will need a sponsor. She seemed happy the day I left and I gave her words of hope that perhaps things will work out for the best for her and the baby.
Our diet consisted mainly of starches, rice cooked with potatoes, spaghetti cooked with potatoes, ugali (white maize meal) with the occasional greens on the side. I bought my own mangos and avocados and bananas and shared them with the family. The big beautiful mangoes and avocados were a mere .20 each!
Because Im an animal lover I tried my best to suggest more humane ways to treat the puppy instead of whacking it with a stick whenever it did something wrong. It’s sister got killed by a large bird the day after I arrived and the puppy was really looking for lots of attention now from the humans. I tried to lead by example, petting the puppy and talking to him, which seemed like foreign idea. Soloman, the 15 yr old son seemed interested in learning how to train him, as he had spent time in America around families with dogs. I showed him some techniques and offered suggestions of gentle corrections, using the voice instead of a stick, and lots of praise. I hope it sinks in. As for the beating of the children at school, I’m not sure that will stop.
I decided to voice my opinion about their practice of burning plastic garbage in the kitchen cooking fire, letting them know how toxic the fumes were and told them not only is it the worst thing for the environment but breathing the fumes is known to cause cancer. At that they perked up and seemed surprised but listened and thanked me for mentioning it. They have nowhere to put the garbage so they just burn it. I offered the alternative of digging a hole. Lesser of two evils!?
All in all it was good to experience another culture that is so radically different than my own, as difficult as it was. It’s given me a greater appreciation for my life back home but I’m so glad to have had the opportunity to be hosted by the Maasai people. I saw a bus the other day in Mombasa which was painted in red, white and blue with a picture of Obama’s face on it. They love Obama here (“oh you’re from Obamaland?” they say when you tell them you are from America). I’ll have to say that seeing the bus made me homesick and made me smile too.