When I was growing up I learned from my earliest years that one must look at the person who is talking to you. Both at home and at school this received great stress from teachers and parents. In fact, I remember one teacher who would become very angry if my eyes were not fixed to her face when she was reprimanding me. No one that I know ever questioned this requirement of American society. I remember that it was considered at best impolite and at worst evasive and shifty not to look at the person who is addressing you.
Given this Western or maybe just American custom, I have had a hard time getting used to the Maasai take on the same situation. Their way is exactly opposite of the American way. Here in Maasai country, one does not look for any length of time at the person addressing you. One looks at the person, especially when making a point, and then looks away. To nail one’s gaze on the one you are conversing with is very impolite and makes the other nervous, leaving him or her wondering what is going on. “Why is this person staring at me? Is he or she angry at me?”
This is true also in meetings. In the States when all eyes are fastened on the speaker the conclusion is that everyone is very interested and enjoying the talk. This is not true here. In fact, if all eyes would be fixed on the speaker during a Maasai meeting, the speaker would become very nervous and apprehensive. “”Why is everyone hating me OR WHAT I HAVE TO SAY?'” Hating what I have to say?
For a long time I couldn’t figure out why people were not looking at me during my homily on Sunday, a brief look and their gaze went elsewhere. My offerings must be boring, boring, boring. Only quite recently, after many years here in Africa and among the Maasai, did I realize that people were being polite, not uninterested. Of course, on days when there are snores coming from different parts of the congregation, the message is also clear.
August 14th marked the celebration of Anniversaries here in the Province of Tanzania. Nine celebrated 25 years of Spiritan life, Renatus Assenga 25 years of priesthood, and 50 years of priesthood for me. Many Spiritans, relatives and friends gathered for the celebration at our Spiritan Center near Arusha. I traveled with Maasai from Olbalbal for the feast.
“This morning I came to see you but you were sleeping.” Maasai people often tell me this. For years I never figured out why people would, on finding my door closed, presume that I was sleeping at ten o’clock in the morning. Why wouldn’t they think that I was working at my desk, preparing a homily or studying their impossible language? No, they always presume that if I’m inside the house during the day I must be sleeping. Thinking that I’m taking a nap or not feeling well prevents most people from knocking at the door. But then, Maasai don’t knock at your door; they make a polite cough and push right in. Their own houses don’t have doors to knock on. On entering a house, the men make the polite cough and the women say something equivalent to “hello” and walk right in. Their presumption that I take frequent and long naps during the day has bothered me for a long time. They must think that I am the laziest person around, taking all these long snoozes during the day. Why doesn’t this guy get up and do something like other people? The fact is that, at least some of the time that I’m alone in my room, I am doing something that I, at least, feel to be important.
It turns out that their presumption of consummate laziness on my part is based on the Maasai way of doing things. Put simply, the realm of the Maasai woman is the house and the realm of the Maasai man is the great outdoors. Men don’t spend time inside their houses except at night when they have their evening meal, sit around the fire for a while and then go
to sleep. Early in the morning, they are up and outside, seeing what is happening with their herd of cattle and goats. A man might go back inside to drink a gourd of milk, but even this often takes place outside. A man who spends time inside the house of his wife during the day is presumed to be sleeping and is designated a lazy lout. If he is sick of course, he can rest comfortably inside without fear of being talked about, otherwise he stays outside in the man’s realm. Women don’t want their husbands hanging out inside the house. This is the place for women to hang out. Men need to stay outside where they belong.
This then explains why people think that I am sick or asleep when I spend time inside my house. The idea of a person alone quietly working at his desk is not in their tradition. A man can, from time to time, go off by himself to sit and sort things out, but it is not something that happens frequently and is normally done outside the house.
After writing this on my computer at my desk alone in my room, I went outside for a break. On opening my front door, a man sitting on the front porch said: “Oh, I have been waiting here to talk to you. I saw that you were sleeping and have been waiting for you to get up from your nap.”
Recently there took place the funeral of Fr. Moses OloDonjolalo, a Maasai priest and a good friend of many years. Moses contracted an especially virulent form of TB and, following months of treatment, succumbed to this disease that claims the lives of great numbers of African people every year. Moses died in hospital and his funeral took place at Emburet in the Simanjiro area of Central Maasai country, the home of his family. A good number of the priests of the diocese came together with Spiritans that knew and worked with Moses over the years.
The reason that I call this doubly sad is that in addition to our sadness at losing a friend, was the fact that at the funeral little notice was given to the huge number of Maasai, family and friends of Moses that had gathered to say goodbye to Moses. The church at Emburet was packed. Many people were standing outside, unable to get a seat in the fair-sized building. Except for a few non-Maasai that had traveled the three hours from Arusha town and beyond, the vast majority of those present were Maasai.
Very few Maasai are sufficiently fluent in our National language of Swahili to carry on a conversation of any depth. They do just fine going to the shops at the various trading centers in Maasai country to buy necessities like corn meal, sugar, tea, rice, cooking oil and other things. But generally, the Maasai are not comfortable when it comes to dealing with extended Swahili conversation.
For this reason, I was surprised and saddened at how the church service was organized and conducted. There was little effort to make the Maasai feel at home and to participate in the rites. The ceremonies were in the Kiswahili language, and a small Kiswahili choir from Arusha sang Kiswahili hymns. The full church of Maasai was left to watch a spectacle that was foreign and not understandable. It was their son, brother and friend that had died. The leaders of the service were more than capable of doing the rites in the Maasai language and organizing Maasai hymns, but none of this happened. Although the readings from the bible were read in Maasai after the Kiswahili version, it was clear to me that the Maasai leader who read the scripture passages in Maasai was somewhat embarrassed and even reluctant to be doing that. The sermon was long and in Kiswahili with no one translating. Most of the congregation didn’t understand a word. I suppose the thinking was: Kiswahili is our national language the Maasai should learn it. If they don’t understand, it is their own fault. This is the attitude of people who at the same time, no doubt, automatically speak in their own home languages when they visit their parents and relatives.
To speak to God is at least as intimate a situation as speaking to one’s parents. Shouldn’t people be offered the opportunity to pray and worship in the language in which they feel most at home?