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 celebration 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.
Early this morning, I started out for Oltepesi, a Maasai village some twenty miles away. We visit this particular place once a week and have a prayer meeting with the fifty or so people that gather on the appearance of my Land Cruiser coming in their direction across the plains. It is very dry place, although a single heavy rain can make it inaccessible because the ground is so hard under the dust, causing the rain water to stay on the surface for days.
A few miles from the house here at Olbalbal, we came upon a huge herd of giraffe. There must have been sixty or seventy in the herd. The distinctive way that they lean forward walking or running makes them visible for miles across the savanah.
It is interesting to note that more that half of giraffe calves die in the first few months of life. Hyenas and lions kill them. The mothers will stab these predators with their sharp hooves and this will often critically injure or kill a lion or hyena. Also, the kick of an adult giraffe is strong and is capable of crushing a lion’s skull or shattering its spine.
Even here on the edge of the Serengeti, where there are usually plenty of animals to be seen, the sight of such a great number of giraffes at the same time was arresting. We stopped the car and watched their slow progress across the landscape.
Our progress to Oltepesi village was marked by large herds of sheep and goats. Given that the desert is such a harsh place to live with the long dry season, it has always surprised me that the Maasai gravitate here with their herds of sheep and goats. The women must carry water and firewood many miles and the dust filled winds are unrelenting. It turns out that, together with all the difficulties of living here, it is the healthiest place possible for sheep and goats. The tick population is almost nonexistent and tics are the big source of various animal diseases in the highlands.
After our meeting with the people, we brought back an old man with a very high fever to the small clinic here at Olbalbal village.
Here at Olbalbal on the edge of the Serengeti we are in the midst of the deep dry season. Most of the cattle have moved into the hills and mountains of the Ngorongoro highlands where there is still grass to be found. Even the herds of sheep and goats that normally thrive on the particularly dry conditions of Olbalbal have been moved to places where there is more fodder to be found.
Here on the plains it is harder and harder to reach the widely scattered Maasai encampments for meetings and services. Getting there frequently requires four wheel drive to force one’s way through the often two feet thick layer of dust. Visibility is limited and one needs to stop and wait for the great clouds of dust kicked up by the car to settle before moving on.
The Maasai keep one eye on the sky anxiously awaiting signs of the coming rains.
Here at Ngorongoro a phenomenon has gained momentum in the last couple of years. Anyone with a halfway decent singing voice dreams of “cutting” their own music CD. Some few Maasai with outstanding voices have become very popular and their CD’s fly off the shelves of music shops in Arusha and Karatu. One of these is Augustino Laizer. He is a Catholic religion teacher of the Loongido area on the Kenya border. We have one of his CD’s and play it on our Land Cruiser CD player when we go to Maasai encampments for meetings and services with the people. This fellow’s music is very good and we have tried to buy more of the numerous disks that he has published but have so far been unsuccessful. There seems to be a run on any shop that stocks his music. I am wondering if one would have to sleep overnight on the porch of the shop to be first in line in the morning to get a Augustino Laizer CD, as happens in the US with the latest iPhone.
Here at Olbalbal a number of young people have made their own CDs, although none have become very popular among the wider Maasai population. To make a CD is a very expensive proposition and the young people who have produced them are among the wealthier. It costs well over a million shillings to make one, about eight hundred dollars. The vocalist travels to Arusha with his or her accompanying singers and goes to a studio to record the CD. This involves a stay in Arusha town for a number of days. One might ask where the profit lies in such an effort. How many Maasai people have CD players? The answer is almost none. So why make a CD that, except in the case of a really outstanding singer like Augustino Laizer, will never sell more that a few copies?
The unexpected answer is most don’t expect to sell large numbers of their CDs. The expected profits come at the celebration that introduces and announces the CD to the world. I have been very skeptical that the cost of making the CD including travel and lodging in Arusha could be covered by the generosity of the people who attend such a celebration. The feast last week that kicked off the “sales” of the CD of Naseku OleDooki changed my mind. I was astounded at the number of people who attended. Granted we’re in the midst of a serious dry season, but did all those hundreds of people come because of the food? Secondly, I couldn’t believe the amount of gifts that were given to Naseku. She received seven cows, 54 goats and sheep, and the equivalent of $1,000 dollars in gifts. I sat there dumbfounded. How is such a thing possible? Present were the other young people of the Olbalbal area that have “cut” their own CDs. Each one played songs from their disks on the loudspeaker system powered by a small generator. These local artists led songs for most of the afternoon. I’m trying to figure out where all of this is going.
Naseku received enough, together with the few cows that she already has, to make her self-sufficient and comfortable. This success story has been repeated among the other four young people of Olbalbal that have made CDs. A couple of them have done even better than Naseku. Naseku gave me a CD; she will sell them for about $3 apiece. Even if she sells only a few, Naseku has done very well, getting back all that she has spent and much more.
Almost 50 years ago Fr. Gerry Kohler began the evangelization of the Sonjo people. He met with the men, women and their children all-together. This new initiative was directed to
“Sonjo communities” as a whole, preparing them to be “Christian Sonjo Communities.” I accompanied Gerry a couple of times and I remember Gerry walking out from his small house carrying the distinctive forked stick of a Sonjo elder and greeting the people in their own language. Gerry was working in Sonjo valley at the same time that Fr. Vince Donovan was making similar efforts in Maasai country. This new initiative of going directly to Maasai and Sonjo communities was the result of Vince Donovan’s insights. His new way of doing mission signaled a dramatic departure from the old ways. Before Vince came along, much mission effort was directed at school children, often with little reference to their families at home.
Now after much time priests are taking up residence in Sonjo. Aside from a visit now and then by the priests of Loliondo, the nearest Maasai mission, little attention has been paid to the people of the Sonjo valley for over forty years. This lack of attention is hard to explain because in contrast, quite a lot of effort and focus has been directed at the Maasai people. Now three African priests of the Augustinian order have arrived to live in Sonjo. This development is long overdue and most welcome. Although Fr. Gerry has had to leave the missions because of health issues, I am sure that he is gratified that the work in Sonjo is now being stabilized and given new impetus, a work that he began so many years ago.
Last week also saw the celebration of 50 years of medical service of Wasso Hospital, located in the area of Loliondo on the Kenya border. Fr. Herbert Watschinger, a diocesan priest and medical doctor from Austria opened the hospital 50 years ago in cooperation with Fr. Tom Tunney and Fr. Dennis During. Fr. Durning later served for thirty years as our first Bishop of Arusha Diocese. Since many years, Fr. Pat Patton and his Flying Medical Service have provided clinics to the outlying areas of Loliondo every two weeks.