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Fire and Bizarre Culpability

A family here at Olbalbal has lost their home to fire. Early in the morning, Napuri went off to herd their flock of goats. Her son Mepuro, who usually does the herding, was away at an age group fire 1celebration with his fellow warriors. Napuri had left her infant son in the charge of her older daughter for the day thinking that all would be well. The ten-year-old Sinyati became hungry late in the morning and thought that she would cook up a pot of uji, corn gruel. With the infant on her back she lit a fire under her pot of water in the cow dung covered house with its grass roof. Somehow a tuft of dry grass from the roof caught fire and in seconds the fire was spreading. Sinyati was out of the house in a flash with her little brother clinging to her back.

Everything burned, the soft skins that provided mattresses for the two beds, all the thin tin pots and bowls that Napuri used for cooking, worst of all three newly born baby goats were dead, too young to go with their mothers to the nearby fields where Napuri had taken her herd of goats. Lost too was the equivalent of $170 dollars hidden between the layers of skins on one of the beds. Fortunately, Sinyati and her tiny brother got out of the house that became an inferno within a couple of minutes. That afternoon Napuri returned home to find her house a smoking ruin and all her possessions ashes together with the three baby goats. A Maasai woman carefully collects the soft skins for her beds over the years, some inherited from her mother and others that she prepared herself. Given the vulnerability of Maasai houses and the fact that there are usually at least the glowing coals of and open fire in the house, fire is an every present danger and often enough houses burn down. The nightmare is when a house would catch fire at night when the family is sleeping. In such cases, it often happens that a child is lost to suffocating smoke and spreading flames.

There is no fire insurance in Maasai country. The best that Napuri can hope for are gifts of a cooking pot or two from a neighbor.

A weird corollary to this story is the fact that Napuri is blamed for the loss of the $170. In the eyes of the Maasai the loss of the money is her fault and her husband is demanding that she return the money to him. Maasai custom dictates that she must somehow come up with the lost $170. The money was in her care when it burned up so it is her fault that it was lost, strange but true. Napuri, together with the other losses and trouble that resulted from the fire, must now go to family and friends begging their help so that she can return the money to her husband and avoid a beating. At the same time, she needs to build herself a new house.

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