Outside Inside

Bed in the house
A bed inside a house

elders outside a house“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

A floor plan for a Maasai house
A floor plan for a Maasai house

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.

Plastering the wall of a house with cow dung
Plastering the wall of a house with cow dung

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.”

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