Wordless

I’ve started to travel 3 hours a day again. Working from home obviously has its enormous perks but there something about being on the road that just thrills me like nothing else.

For one, there’s always something exciting happening on the road -travelling from one corner of Bangalore to another is in itself an adventure. But then there are days like today when instead of rolling your windows up and looking away, you look into the eyes of a homeless old lady and smile, even if you don’t give her any money. There is something about acknowledging the presence of a person that does more to their day than any other financial or material resource.

Homeless Lady Smiling

I know this because the old lady had a smile on her face, tears in her eyes and she blessed me – she held her hands up in a “Namaste”, told me she wishes God would bless me and make me happy as I had made her. She really sounded like she needed it. And it would be a lie to say I wasn’t overwhelmed. I did nothing but smile and yet, someones day was infinitely better for it and my level of energy shot up a 100%

The power of words is often overstated, don’t you think? Today, I’m campaigning for the power of a wordless zing.

It’s officially summer

I haven’t blogged in over a month – shocking? Not really. I’m the queen of procrastination when I’m in between travels but then, I have been busy this time. Not really trumping around the woods near Kilimanjaro, but just as exhausting and thrilling.

I was asked to facilitate a summer camp for 10-14 days for 40-50 teens, some of who were first generation learners in their communities, their parents having never been to school. More than that, they had just finished writing the big 10th Standard exam which has been a rarity in the villages from where they were coming. A few years ago, we had just 5-10. The numbers itself show that somehow, something good is being done.

It was the first time the children were getting out of their villages and experiencing this kind of freedom. They didn’t have to study Algebra and Math anymore. They could sleep in. The “lessons” were all activity based so they never had to take notes or try to take a nap subtly behind two other students which meant that apart from all the drama that comes when you put 40 teenagers in a room, there was a LOT of energy and fun to be had. I was given creative liberty so in typical fashion, I really went for it.

The activity was for the kids to draw how they saw themselves - things they loved, hated, what they identified with. Then we made a gallery to show them they're not as alone as they think they are.
The groups were given an egg which would be dropped from the highest terrace. This had the most innovative packaging
Making the longest line possible with the things they had on them at that moment
We opened a study centre in one of the villages. This is the village band celebrating
To celebrate, we treated everyone to ice-candy (for dessert)
The ice-candy man had a busy day
Back at the camp, an evening game of Kabbadi
Group Discussions under my favourite tree

Clay Modelling Day
Love how they used leaves for the keypad
Clay Modelling slowly turned into Zombie wars.
The boys making a vow in front of the girls that they will not take a Dowry.
The highlight of living in a village? Views like these.

What did I learn? That I’m more confused than ever. I love working with children and youth as much as I love writing. So instead of my life being a series of “Harry Potter > Hunger Games > Twilight” sort of equations, it’s “Travel = Writing = Art = Training = Social Work = Family = Mangoes”

Is this the balance they talk about in old Kung Fu movies? Needless to say, I’m in my happy place – instead of me whining about how restless I am to my friends, I get to listen to their problems in a Zen like fashion. It’s also a great opportunity pretend to be this wise old turtle

or this tea-brewing uncle

Or just call them “young grasshopper” . Oh yeah, I live for the cheap thrills

Maasai – The People & The Culture

This is dedicated to my mother who has been bugging me to write something … anything … because despite my conviction that no one needs to be tortured into reading my long (I mean, REALLY LONG) posts, she’s been trying to convince me that people have been waiting with bated breath for my next post! So with that little ego massage comes this Wikipedia-type post about the Maasai people – one of my most favourite tribes.

These are “facts” I picked up when Chief enacted his tribes’ history by the fireside. An experience I won’t soon forget. If there’s one think I will always remember the Maasai for, it is their intense story-telling talents.  By the way, this is a LONG, boring factsheet of sorts so be warned. You’ll feel like you’re in history class again.

They are nomads, pastoralists and have a reputation for being fearsome warriors (I had to rub down my goosebumps when the tribesmen enacted how they defended themselves against a lion). According to their own oral history, they originated in the lower Nile valley area and have been migrating south since the 15th century.

Soon they took over most of the Great Rift Valley area. The other tribes tried to push them away but the warriors were feared (and fear led the people to think they were magical and have some sort of superpower since they could throw a spear accurately for up to 100 meters). Then came the Germans and the English who tried to conquer and civilize them but then scared themselves shitless by believing that Maasai people were possessed by the Devil (Chief always giggles his toothless laugh at this part of the story). None of his people were sold as slaves – that’s saying something.

The British did manage to evict them to make room for ranches and then later to create wildlife reserves and national parts.  After freedom, the Tanzania government gave back the lands to the Maasai and gave them grazing rights (Mostly though because “Mzungus”, white people, will pay ridiculous amounts of money to see them)

Traditional Maasai lifestyle centres around their cattle which constitute their primary source of food. The measure of a man’s wealth is in terms of cattle and children. A herd of 50 cattle is respectable, and the more children the better. A man who has plenty of one but not the other is considered to be poor. A Maasai religious belief relates that God gave them all the cattle on earth, leading to the belief that rustling cattle from other tribes is a matter of taking back what is rightfully theirs

Many Maasai have now moved away from the nomadic life to big positions in commerce and government. Yet despite the sophisticated urban lifestyle they may lead, many will happily head homewards dressed in designer clothes, only to emerge from the traditional family homestead wearing a shuka, cow hide or tire sandals and carrying a wooden club – at ease with themselves and the world.

The reason they are still such a thriving race/culture is because they resist change – they marry within their own tribe and they’re always moving. Never staying in a place long enough to find home or learn anything that is considered “normal”. The way they see it, they LIVE what is being taught in the “jails” (what they call schools) and practical knowledge serves much better in knowing one snake from another rather than learning their Latin names.

Of course the society is patriarchal – they have a council of elders who are the lawmakers and keepers. If someone has an issue, he brings it up with Chief who calls for a meeting with the whole tribe. They hear both sides of the story and then pass judgement. There’s never any “death penalty” and the normal “fine” is exchanging cattle. If you do happen to have killed another human (does not usually happen but there have been rare accidents), they are sent far away from the tribe and are only welcomed back after 14 years. For a Maasai, being cut off from their society is as good as the death penalty.

I know the legends about them are scarier then they actually are. Fear makes us all exaggerators and despite what I assumed, the Maasai are monotheistic and they call their god Engai – who is a single deity with dual nature. Engai Narok (Black God) is the kind, benevolent one and Engai Nanyokie (Red God) is full of anger and is vengeful.

I lived near Ol Doinyo Lengai, the “Mountain of God”, which is an active volcano and is seen as the Mecca of the Maasai. They have a person called Laibon who is like a Maasai chief priest who does freaky things like shamanistic healing, divination, prophecy etc. It’s not so much what he does but how he does it that’s scary – with painted face and fevered dancing.

So the society is divided into four.  1) Shepherds (Male) 2) Warriors (Male) 3) Elders and Priests (Male) 4) Women (In the Maasai culture – it’s the woman that builds and repairs the house, farms, raises children while the husband is out with the cattle) They fear hospitals and western medicine and prefer homemade remedies and so the mortality rate is high, especially of infants. And so children are not recognised as part of the society until they reach the age of 3 moons. Once you are dead, you are left out for scavengers. The corpse that is rejected by hyenas is considered a disgrace and to stop that from happening, the Maasai cover their dead in the fat and blood of a slaughtered ox. Only the great chiefs get buried but they have stopped that too because they can’t stand the thought of being harmful to the soil.

The central unit of Maasai society is the age-set. Young boys are sent out with the calves and lambs as soon as they can toddle, but childhood for boys is mostly playtime, with the exception of ritual beatings to test courage and endurance. Girls are responsible for chores such as cooking and milking, skills which they learn from their mothers at an early age. Every 15 years or so, a new and individually named generation of Morans (warriors) will be initiated. This involves most boys between 12 and 25, who have reached puberty and are not part of the previous age-set. One rite of passage from boyhood to the status of junior warrior is a painful circumcision ceremony, which is performed without anaesthetic. This ritual is typically performed by the elders, who use a sharpened knife and makeshift cattle hide bandages for the procedure. The boy must endure the operation in silence. Expressions of pain bring dishonour, albeit temporarily. Any exclamations can cause a mistake in the delicate and tedious process, which can result in life-long scarring, dysfunction, and pain. The healing process will take 3–4 months, during which urination is painful and nearly impossible at times, and boys must remain in black clothes for a period of 4–8 months. (YIKES!)

One myth about the Maasai is that each young man is supposed to kill a lion before he is circumcised. Lion hunting was an activity of the past, but it has been banned in East Africa—yet lions are still hunted when they maul Maasai livestock and young warriors who engage in traditional lion killing do not face significant consequences.

Young women also undergo excision (“female circumcision” or clitorectemy) as part of an elaborate rite of passage ritual in which they are given instructions and advice pertaining to their new role, as they are then said to have come of age and become women, ready for marriage. These circumcisions are usually performed by an invited ‘practitioner’ who is often not Maasai. The knives and blades which make the cut are fashioned by blacksmiths who are avoided by the Maasai because they make weapons of. Similar to the young men, women who will be circumcised wear dark clothing, paint their faces with markings, and then cover their faces on completion of the ceremony.

The Maasai music though is something else. At the end of a long day, by the fireside, the group start beat boxing in rhythms that take you to a whole other world. It’s like their creating an ocean and when you start floating on it, the song leader joins in (usually chief and his first wife). The song begins by singing a line of a song. The group will respond with one unanimous call in acknowledgment, and the lead will sing a verse over the group’s rhythmic throat singing. One exception to the vocal nature of Maasai music is the use of the horn to summon the warriors.

Both singing and dancing sometimes occur around their houses, and involve flirting. Young men will form a line and chant rhythmically, “Oooooh-yah”, with a growl and staccato cough along with the thrust and withdrawal of their lower bodies. Girls stand in front of the men and make the same pelvis lunges while singing a high dying fall of “Oiiiyo..yo” in counterpoint to the men. Although bodies come in close proximity, they do not touch. It’s an entirely fascinating ritual.

Aah man, 3 pages. The rest about clothes, mythology, guardian spirits, drinking blood etc – you better be asking me in person. Buy me a pitcher and we’re all set! J Got to go to work now. Until next time!

Acrobatic Heart

I am now going to be working with the children born in prison – those of the people convicted of the Rwanda Genocide. I don’t know how my heart is going to handle this. Knowing that you will read this has already given me some semblance of the strength I know I will need. Big HUGS!

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I may be reading too much into this … but looks like my family is trying to tell me something! Traffic Signals – you have found me again! Blast you!