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The Woes of a Son-in-law

OleTajeuo, our catechist and song leader, married Neema about eight years ago. Shortly thereafter, Neema’s mother suffered a stroke, paralyzing her left side and turning her into an

Catechist OleTajeuo
Catechist OleTajeuo

invalid. The task of nurse fell to her only daughter. Neema has remained at home taking care of her mother all these years. This situation left OleTajeuo on his own, except for infrequent visits to his family at the village of his mother-in-law. Some time ago, the old lady agreed to come and live here on the mission, enabling OleTajeuo to be with his family, Neema, Lekumok, his son of six years and their two-year-old daughter.  After a couple of months, the pull of her home village proved too much for the old lady and she prevailed on OleTajeuo to take her back to her village at Nainokanoka. Neema, her daughter and “nurse,” had to go with her.

Over the years, OleTajeuo has used most of his salary each month to supply Neema’s mother with medicine and fruitless trips to one hospital after another. Along the way, he has slaughtered any number of goats from his small herd to provide rich “soup” and meat for his mother-in-law.

Among the Maasai, in-laws take full advantage of a son-in-law, demanding endless gifts and expecting him to bear the financial burden of dealing with any difficulties that may come along. This is especially true of a son-in-law that has a salary, no matter how meager, and it doesn’t get much more meager than the salary of a catechist.

Neema and her daughter Tumaini
Neema and her daughter Tumaini

Recently, the mother-in-law died. Due to the stroke of years ago and other ailments, her health has deteriorated steadily and she passed away. OleTajeuo had been with her for many weeks, first at home and then in the hospital. He has slaughtered goats to give her strength and bought medicines that might be helpful. During her final days, when the old lady had ceased to respond to any medical or traditional Maasai help, he stayed with her in the hospital helping in any way that he could. The long ordeal ended a couple of weeks ago and OleTajeuo returned here to Olbalbal to resume his work as catechist and song leader, but not with his wife.

The final time in the hospital was costly, and after her death the body needed to be transported in a rented land rover back home to her village of Nainokanoka. All this was very expensive and OleTajeuo had no more money. The brothers of his now deceased mother-in-law “lent” him the needed money – about $80 – and now will not allow him to take his wife until he returns the money to them. The total responsibility for their sister fell on OleTajeuo. The irony is that they have a decent sized herd of cattle and goats, whereas OleTajeuo has his very minimal salary equivalent to $40 a month and a few goats. Along with all of this, he already takes care of his own mother and unmarried sister – heavy burdens, all.

This story exemplifies the nature of a Maasai marriage. In Maasai country, marriage is more than a union of two people. One marries the whole family of in-laws. A son-in-law must

OleTajeuo's son Lekumok
OleTajeuo’s son Lekumok

shoulder all their troubles. For example, if an animal needs to be sold to enable a father- or mother-in-law to travel to a hospital and get treatment, it is the cow or goat of the son-in-law that will usually be sold, seldom would it be the animal of the in-laws.

OleTajeuo’s ordeal is not over yet.

Naponu’s Fat Goat

Naponu lives here on the mission with her children and watches the place during my daily trips to villages for teaching and prayer meetings. She was silent this

Naponu and her five month old son Moses
Naponu and her five month old son Moses

morning. Her normal smiling face was suffused with sadness. She was clearly preoccupied with something. Whatever had happened, it wasn’t good.  It developed that the fat goat she was preparing to exchange for a heifer had died. Naponu was depending on the hoped-for heifer to provide her children with milk. She has no cattle, not even one. The heifer would have been the beginning of a herd for her family.

It seems that the unfortunate goat had strayed a distance from the rest of the flock into the bush and there was bitten by a snake. A small band of passing warriors came upon the dying animal, slaughtered it and enjoyed a feast. Naponu doesn’t believe it. She says that the warriors came upon the strayed, temporarily unattended goat, and took advantage of the situation. In fact, she has sent her brother, a warrior himself, to find and confront the goat-stuffed warriors. He left early in the morning and hasn’t yet returned.

Generally, the Maasai tend to take this kind situation philosophically. They say that the warriors are the protectors of Maasai country. If there is any threat to a village from cattle thieves or from other tribes, it is the warriors who mobilize and address the threat. If a child is lost, it is the warriors who search the countryside for the missing child. When lions or leopards attack the Maasai herds of cattle and goats, it is the warriors that respond, tracking down and killing the offending cat. They do this, at the risk of being permanently maimed or even killed, something that happens all too often in encounters with lions. So people feel a disappeared, or a snake bit one now and then, is a small price to pay for the level of protection provided by the warriors. Of course, it is usually somebody else’s goat that goes missing.

Some months ago in the middle of a moon lit night, going outside to answer a call of nature, Naponu spotted a leopard just a few meters from our front porch. She made the unique trilling sound that the Maasai make in the face of danger. That sound travels great distances and within a short time a number of warriors had awakened and came running from the nearby villages. They chased the leopard away and stayed around for most of the rest of the night in case the cat returned.

The warriors were and remain today the militia that guards Maasai country, responding to emergencies of all kinds. Their role, as we have seen here at Olbalbal in the cases of lost children and lion attacks, is an important and necessary one. But Naponu is anything but philosophical about her loss. She is happy that the warriors are around and respond to emergencies, but strongly feels that they shouldn’t take advantage of that by randomly catching and eating her goats. She was depending on that goat to get big and fat enough to exchange for a heifer that would develop into a cow and provide milk for her children.

Land Fever and A Gold Rush

A fever to acquire land has captured the collective imagination of Olbalbal Maasai. The village elders have opened the way for the local people to request plots of land in our small

OleWandai is building a shop
OleWandai is building a shop

village.  The process is to write a letter to the town elders requesting a piece of land to build a house, a shop, a teahouse or whatever. Since the number of plots is limited, a fever to prepare letters of application that cannot be refused has possessed many. In the past few weeks the beginnings of structures have popped up in many places around the village. Many don’t seem to know why they want or need a plot, but the fever has gone viral and numerous people are putting in requests. It is clear that the majority of petitioners don’t plan to live in the village, nor do they have the wherewithal to open a shop or teahouse. But this doesn’t seem to make a difference or to slow the hunger for land. The fever is upon us and we need to get a piece of land.

Traditionally the Maasai don’t own land. Their country is the property of all and is freely used by everyone to build their “in-kang’itie”, their villages, and to graze their herds of cattle, sheep and goats. It is a new phenomenon for a Maasai man to “own” a plot of land, something previously unheard of. Maybe this is part of the attraction. Of course, a Maasai woman, having no rights over material wealth be it cattle or land, is conspicuously left out of this frenzy to get a hunk of real estate.

OleSarupe is building a Tea House

A related story is taking place some three hours drive to the east of us. There are reports that a “gold rush” is taking place in the Sonjo valley. The word is that over 4,000 people have descended on the Sonjo village of Samunge tearing up people’s gardens and most any other place that is dig-able in their manic search for gold. No news has so far reached us that any of the precious yellow stuff has been found.

The prospectors hope to find something like this
The prospectors hope to find something like this

Samunge in Sonjo is the same place that saw huge crowds a few years ago. People flocked to Samunge in their thousands.  Drinking of a cup of brew boiled from a local plant promised miraculous cures of all ailments. The perpetrator of that fiasco was a man called “Babu.” Many people stopped taking their medicines, even those essential for survival, in exchange for the magic drink. Numerous people died and the “brew” was found to be worthless.

Fr. Gerry Kohler, a Spiritan missionary to the Sonjo people for many years, writes: “Back in the 1930s some Brits were looking for gold in the hills behind the Indians shops near Loliondo town.  One of the children subsequently wrote a book about life there in those days, before the World War and well before independence”.

So the land rush continues here in Olbalbal and Gerry’s comments leaving me wondering where I might get a copy of the book that he mentions. It would be fascinating to read an account of what our area of North Maasailand was like in the “30’s.


Wife Robbers

A Bride
A Bride
A Bride
A Bride

The warriors have been holding meetings the past few days on the unlikely subject of “wife stealing”. It is time for the Korianga, the older warriors, to start families and become independent of their fathers and older brothers. They are marrying in large numbers these days. The poorer among them lack the means to give their prospective fathers-in-law the traditional cattle to secure wives. Many shepherd the herds of richer men and in exchange, are promised a daughter of the family after ten or even fifteen years of herding. Others are lucky enough to have a sister of marriageable age to exchange with a family that also has a daughter and is looking for a wife for their son. Still others muddle through by offering a few goats now and more sheep and goats to follow later. In these latter cases, close friendship between the families helps the in-laws overlook the fact that the young man has little or nothing to offer for a wife.

Korianga1All the above situations have a couple of things in common, the prospective suitor is relatively poor and the father-in-law is not getting much material recompense in exchange for a daughter. This situation provides fertile ground for the abuses that have prompted the recent series of meetings of the Korianga. A man with cattle to spend and unwilling to go through the long process of negotiation for a wife in the normal way, swoops in with his wealth in cattle and “steals away” the wife of a newly married age mate. He approaches the father-in-law of the newly married warrior and makes him an offer of cattle that is hard to refuse. The avaricious father-in-law then takes his daughter away from her husband and gives her to the richer age mate.

The Korianga are reacting strongly to this phenomenon that is becoming all too common. They have gathered from all over the Ngorongoro highlands and are meeting not far from the mission. Since they can do little to stop the practice short of mayhem and murder, they have opted for an equally extreme Maasai solution, “The Curse.” In extreme cases their spokesmen, the “ileguanak,” can resort to cursing an offender, who will not listen to reason after many warnings. The Spokesmen of the age group have agreed to curse the wife robbers. Also, the Witchdoctor has agreed to curse the rich wife hunters. Each age group has it’s own Olaiboni, witch doctor, chosen at the inauguration of the age group.

This now has taken place. The Korianga chose nine of their number, including a couple of their “Spokesmen”. These nine have publicly and solemnly put a fearful curse on any man who would offer a father-in-law a bribe of cattle to break up a marriage and take another man’s wife.

This solution is likely to have some good results. People are very afraid of being cursed, especially by a parent, an age group spokesman, or worst of all by a Witch Doctor, the Maasai Laibon.