Preparing for my work of evangelization at Olbalbal, I’ve been looking back at the work done by our “founding fathers” here in Maasai country. One of these, Fr. Vincent Donovan, gave us one of the key premises on which to build our work of establishing the church in Maasai country. In his letter of April 1969 published in Missionary Letters of Vincent Donovan edited by J. Bowen, Vince writes:
“… I do not think it is fair to a person to approach him or her on behalf of Christianity outside of and apart from his or her community. If you should succeed in “converting” an individual apart from his community, what you have succeeded in doing is separating him from his community, making him forever an outcast, an outsider to the structure of the tribal community. And this thing that made him an outsider — Christianity — will be abhorrent to the community. You have probably cut off forever the possibility of bringing Christianity to that community. As for him, poor man (or imagine if he is a child), he has two bleak choices: either to struggle and fight against the structure of the tribal community as an outcast, or to give up the Christianity in which he might well even believe. Historically, he has most often chosen the latter course”.
This is one of the insights that Vince offered his fellow Spiritan Missionaries over forty years ago. Since that time in Maasai country, we have done our best to implement his approach and I will do so in my work at Olbalbal.
Traveling down Ngorongoro Mountain to Olbalbal, I came upon Olendoiye waiting by the side of the road for a lift. He, his wife Nasha, Seina his daughter of ten years and four year old son Lekosan were returning from their “boma” in the highlands of Ngorongoro near the crater rim to their temporary cattle camp in the Olbalbal area. Olendoiye told me that large numbers of Maasai, while leaving a skeleton crew, mostly old people, at the main village in the high country, trek their herds out onto the plains for three or four months during the rainy season. He explained that in the Ngorongoro highlands salt is scarce, and without salt the cattle will become sick, no matter how good the grass is. In the high country, the cattle must be driven into Ngorongoro crater to lick the dried salt on the shores of the salt lake and then driven back out the same day. This is a difficult trip of many miles for cattle and herdsman since Conservation does not allow the cattle to stay overnight on the crater floor. Down at Olbalbal and at other places out on the savanna, salt licks are plentiful and constitute a major reason that many Maasai, who normally live in the highlands, choose to spend the wet season out on the plains. Olendoiye told me that also, tick born diseases are much less of a problem in the low country. This elder had first driven his cattle down to Olbalbal, built a thorn bush “boma” and then left the herd in the hands of a younger brother. He had then returned to Olairobi in the high country and was now returning with his two young children and their mother to join the cattle herd below where there would be plenty salt for the cattle and milk for the children.
Today, Christmas eve celebration at Ngoile, another small community in the Olbalbal area, was special. The gathering place at Ngoile is a thorn bush fenced circular chest high area. The people have constructed their “church” from Acacia tree branches. Within the sanctuary are two circular rows of flat top stones serving as stools for the thirty some Christians that make up the community. Central is the altar that is woven of stout branches and reeds. A black cloth (joyful rain cloud color) sewn with sacred cowry shells covers the altar on which stands a cross. The people sang a lot during the service, frequently singing two or three songs where the “book” only calls for one. They also insert extra ones a seemingly random places during the liturgy, making the service was very lively and happy. Our church songs are a mixture of Maasai traditional sacred songs and others having more recently composed words set to Maasai traditional melodies. An elder, the leader of the community opened and closed the service with long traditional antiphonal prayers. Others, both men and women and sometimes children also get their chance to lead their own petition prayers after the Gospel reading and homily. The traditional antiphonal praying of the Maasai provides the pattern for all the prayers of the mass. After the very enthusiastic liturgy, there was plenty of time to meet and begin to become acquainted with the people. I was welcomed into the main village of Ngoile community with curdled milked that tasted wonderful after being away from Maasai country for half a year. I wrote down a lot of names since my memory went south many years ago. As time goes on, I’ll try to associate names with faces.
On the way to Olbalbal on Tuesday I met a woman returning from the police station. The Ngorongoro police arrested her husband for growing some potatoes at his “boma” at Olmunyi in the hills above Olbalbal. Some time ago all cultivation was forbidden here in the Conservation Area of Ngorongoro.
Tearfully, the women, an infant on her back, talked of her meeting with the authorities at the police station. They demanded the equivalent of $150 to free her husband, a sum she does not have and has no hope of getting. If she doesn’t come up with the money in a few days, the man will be taken to the central police station at Loliondo a five-hour land rover trip to the North. There the cost of his release will jump to $300 or he will do some serious jail time.
It is claimed that the small plots of the Maasai interfere with the wild animals. Few remember that but for the presence the Maasai, who do not hunt or eat wild meat, the animals in Ngorongoro and the adjacent Serengeti would have gone extinct long ago.
I’m here at Ngorongoro mission with Fr. Joe Herzstein. At the new mission, we are putting up a small building with three rooms, one living and sleeping, a store room and an inside bathroom. In the meantime, I am staying at Ngorongoro mission and doing the work at Olbalbal from here. Fr. Joe’s mission is on the lip of the crater and about an hour and a half by car from Olbalbal.
The new place is some six thousand feet lower and out on the plains. I’m expecting to begin living at Olbalbal in a month’s time. This past Sunday was my first Sunday with the Christian community at Meshili, Olbalbal. After the service, there was roasted goat and a little time to get acquainted. Today, Tuesday, I’m off to another Maasai village at Olbalbal, Ngoile. There will be a service and time with the people there.
I opened the front door this morning to find a giant forest hog on the doorstep. They are very large wild pigs, black in color and standing three feet tall at the shoulder. He (or she) stood looking at the apparition in the doorway, snorted a couple of times and ambled off.
Since returning to Maasai country a week ago, three Maasai girls have asked me for help with secondary school expenses. Nasinyari, Sinyati and the daughter of Neyeyo each need about a thousand dollars for the school year starting in January. I responded that we would try to help depending on what is donated through the website.
It’s good to be back home in Maasai country. It has been raining and everywhere the fields and hills are covered with rich green grass. The cattle are giving milk and people are no longer frequently hungry as they were during the recently ended dry season. Today I’ve bought a battery and wire to use with the fold up solar panel that I brought from the states. My shopping also included a two burner gas powered hot plate, packages of dry soup, packages of pasta, coffee beans and cans of tuna. Tomorrow I’m off to Ngorongoro and Olbalbal.
Joe Gaglione, my classmate brought me here to San Diego today where I’ll catch my flight to Tanzania tomorrow evening. We just had lunch at the sandwich shop of his three nephews. Joey treated us to what the menu designates as “The Father Joe”, a gargantuan cheesesteak on a huge hot dog bun. I’m all set for the trip…won’t be looking to eat another thing till I’m back in Maasai country.
Lenkangu completed his junior year (Form 3) at Arusha Modern Secondary School just a week ago. He is now home in Endulen visiting his family. In January, he will begin his senior year. Lankangu has done well in science subjects and hope to study medicine and eventually work as doctor in Maasai country. Doctors that are genuinely sympathetic to the local people are few in Maasailand. Most doctors prefer to work in towns where life is easier.