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?