A Dangerous Game

Growing up in America, one learns very early the importance of saying “thank you.” Kids that don’t learn this lesson are constantly being told to say thank you. It is so ingrained in us that a child who doesn’t say thank you is sometimes looked upon as badly brought up,

Here in Maasai country a person that says thank you is suspected of trivializing the gift or gesture of the giver. One doesn’t hear the word “ashe” spoken by one Maasai to another. The word itself is not originally a Maasai word and seems to have come from the Arusha people living on Mount Meru, who speak a dialect of Maasai. I am told that the word may be a corruption of the Swahili word “asante.”

Anyway, the Maasai seldom use it among themselves. Any gift or act of kindness triggers a relationship rather than being rewarded by a voiced “thank you.” Consequently it can be problematic to accept the gift of a sheep or goat from a Maasai person or sometimes even a gourd of milk. In the case of the gift of an animal, the giver and the one that received the gift will, from then on, call each other by the name of the gifted animal, for example “pakine” in the case of a goat.

A Maasai elder gave me a walking stick some years ago and for the last ten something years he has been calling me “engudi ai”, “my walking stick” and I call him by the same name. Years ago, someone gave me a goat and ever since, when the family has a problem, they come to their “pakine”, meaning me, for help with school fees, food or whatever.

The Maasai don’t say “thank you” but rather respond by acknowledging the relationship set up by the gift. For this reason I try to avoid receiving gifts, something that it is often difficult to do. Gift giving in Maasai country can be a dangerous game.

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