Author Archives: mytthumbs

Walking Into a National Geographic Magazine

All decked out and ready to go.  The men went, too, but we wore prettier colors.

All decked out and ready to go. The men went, too, but we wore prettier colors.

One of our Standard 4 boys in boarding is a young Maasai warrior. Well, almost…he’s fifteen. Youth notwithstanding, Emmanuel possesses the graceful elegance and proud carriage inherent in all Maasai. As his teachers, we were invited to a three-day wedding celebration in his village, Ifunde.* We decked out in our finest attire, climbed into the back of the pick-up and drove until the truck could go no further. Then Emmanuel led the way through theAfrican bush to Ifunde. There are no lions here, but even if there were, we had our Maasai warrior to protect us.**

Acacia Thorns.  Keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times.

Acacia Thorns. Keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times.

The road was pretty rugged.  This wasn't the worst of it.

The road was pretty rugged. This wasn’t the worst of it.

Emmanuel leading us to his village.  He's still wearing his school uniform.

Emmanuel leading us to his village. He’s still wearing his school uniform.

Cresting the top of some boulders, we found ourselves transported back hundreds of years to a time when the Maasai ruled this land. Resting in the shade of an acacia tree were 6 or 7 Maasai warriors clad in their full regalia: Red pattered shukas (cloth wraps), marungu (weapons) which included spears with 30 inch long iron heads crafted to kill lions, throwing clubs, and even some jewelry. These were not symbolic items. These were real. These were not merely the descendants of fierce warriors. These men are fierce warriors skilled in the warrior arts – and they are proud of it. I regret not getting a picture of this. But honestly, in spite of the fact that one spoke English fairly well and was very friendly, I was afraid to ask. The others were polite, yet aloof – and very, very serious.  In lieu, I’ve included a picture from my visit to another Maasai village in Kenya in ’05.

On the ground next to this warrior is a throwing club.  Sorry, no picture of a spear.

Kenya ’05.  On the ground next to this warrior is a throwing club. Sorry, no picture of a spear.

When we arrived at the village proper, the women greeted us warmly. The men and women remain separate during these affairs. While the men congregated around a fire across the village, the women relaxed on mats in the shade of a thatched roof mud hut. Children clad in hot pink or bright purple stole shy glances as they clung to their mothers.

This little girl glared at us the entire time we were there.  Yet she followed us everywhere.

This little girl glared at us the entire time we were there. Yet she followed us everywhere.  

Maasai Girl.  She was a real sweetie.

Maasai Girl. She was a real sweetie.

Others sent searing glares from their places on the mats. The young women wore maroon wraps with white trim and the married women wore blue or purple.

Male bonding happening on the other side of the village.  Glad I have a zoom lens.

Male bonding happening on the other side of the village. Glad I have a zoom lens.

The jewelry was something to behold indeed!  From what I could gather, the older you are, the more status you have.  The more status you have, the more jewelry you wear.  Ear plugs and metal hoop earrings with bangles longer and bolder than you can imagine circumvent the ears.

This woman wore the most jewelry of all.  Lisa took the picture, I cropped it.

This woman wore the most jewelry of all. Lisa took the picture, I cropped it.

Metal necklace upon metal necklace, upon metal necklace adorn the neck or are worn around the waist as belts. Elaborate beadwork is worn over the necklaces and on wrists and ankles. Shiny (brass?) spiral wire begin at the ankle and extended more than half way up the calves.  The jewelry provided musical accompaniment whenever they moved.

At first things were awkward. They spoke little English. We spoke little Kimaasai or Kiswahili.  Hamna shida, no problem.  We are women.  We will always find a way.  I decided to start with Emmanuel’s niece who was bouncing happily on her grandmother’s lap.  Emmanuel’s mother is a wonderful woman.  She always treats her son’s teachers in a warm and welcoming manner complete with handshakes and hugs. She had taught the little girl

Emmanuel's mother with the baby.

Emmanuel’s mother with the baby.

how to give kisses and encouraged her to kiss the wazungu (white people).  The next thing you know we are taking turns passing the baby around, blowing kisses and laughing, Maasai and wazungu alike.

The next obstacle to overcome was the clash between an ancient culture and an infant one.  On one mat were the Maasai, a proud people living as they have for centuries.  On the adjacent mat were the Americans (and one Belgian) with camera’s slung awkwardly over our shoulders.  The tendency is to want to start snapping pictures right and left because you can’t believe you just walked into a National Geographic Magazine.  But that is extremely rude.  Would you appreciate it if someone came into your home and treated you and your way of life like a photo op instead with respect?  No, and neither do they.  The women were especially embarrassed to have their pictures taken (another universality). Trust me, you don’t want to piss off a Maasai – male or female.

So…I should Emmanuel’s mother how to use the camera. I don’t think she has ever looked through a camera before because she was like a child receiving her first surprise gift. I showed her where to place her eye and how to zoom in and out. I changed to my zoom lens and let her play

The camera lesson.  Daktari Kristein got in on the action as well.

The camera lesson. Daktari Kristein got in on the action as well.

with that. I showed her how to press the shutter button and where to look to see the pictures she just took. She was laughing like a little kid in a pile of puppies and just having a ball! I even let the children give it a go.

Well now, the younger women were not about to be left out. Everyone was crowding around waiting her turn. We had great fun! Then one woman got the idea to have me take a picture of her and her children. That did it – all the women wanted a family portrait. In the end lots of pictures were taken and, even though I prefer candid shots, I am not disappointed.

Left to right: Emmanuel's mom, the woman I talked to (couldn't understand her name).

Left to right: Emmanuel’s mom, the woman I talked to (couldn’t understand her name).

Afterwards, I sat on the Maasai side of the mat. Using mostly hand signals I had a lovely conversation with one of the women. We managed to talk about many, many things. She was proud of the callouses on her legs made by the spiral wire and wanted me to touch them. She took off her handmade beaded necklace and let me try it on. I found it interesting that several times she felt my skin, then hers. She was obviously amazed at the fact that although we are different colors, our skin feels the same. She was particularly interested in my feet and the callouses made by my shoes. She spent quite a lot of time touching and examining every millimeter of them. I’m guessing that a callous is some kind of status symbol; I’m not sure. She was also very relieved to know that the freckles (alright, now they’re age spots) on my arms were not a disease, but just a wazungu oddity. In the end, she told me I was her daughter. Quite an honor, I assure you.

Later that night we walked back down the moonlit path and rode home in the back of the truck. As I gazed up at the Southern Cross, the warm night breeze on my face, the full impact of what had happened hit me. This woman from a culture that tenaciously clings to its traditional ways had intentionally reached through the crack in the door to touch my life and to let me touch hers.

No Difference

Small as a peanut

Big as a giant,

We’re all the same size

When we turn off the light.

Rich as a sultan

Poor as a mite,

We’re all worth the same

When we turn off the light.

Red, black or orange.

Yellow or white.

We all look the same

When we turn off the light.

So maybe the way

To make everything right

Is for God to just reach out

And turn off the light!

               Shel Silverstein, Where the Sidewalk Ends

*The traditional Maasai land spans the border between Kenya and Tanzania (includes the Maasai Mara), so many Maasai have a long way to walk in order to attend a celebration in another village. Due to our responsibilities at school, we could only attend the first day.

** The Lion Hunt is a Maasai rite of passage. http://www.maasai-association.org/lion.html

Future Warrior  with his water bottle "weapon."

Future Warrior with his water bottle “weapon.”

Future National Geographic photographer.  All she wanted to do was carry my camera - all day.

Future National Geographic photographer. All she wanted to do was carry my camera bag – all day.

The Future photographer's mother.

The Future Photographer’s mother.

The  photographer and a fierce little warrior.

The photographer and a fierce little warrior.

My Massai "mother" and her children.

My Massai “mother” and her children.

The small children get to eat first.

The small children get to eat first.

Young Maasai women.  They were shy, but still allowed me to take their picture.

Young Maasai women. They were shy, but still allowed me to take their picture.

Emmanuel's mother snapped this shot.  The fierce little warrior  was shocked to see her with a camera.

Emmanuel’s mother snapped this shot. The fierce little warrior was taken by surprise.

Having dinner in Emmanuel's hut.

Having dinner in Emmanuel’s hut.

Dinner

Dinner

Emmanuel's hut

Emmanuel’s hut

I'm not so sure yet how I feel about this.

I’m not so sure yet how I feel about this.

We literally stayed till the cows came home.

We literally stayed till the cows came home.

Music In The Dirt

Abraham, the budding little musician.

Abraham, my budding little musician.

This is Abraham. He is in my Standard 2 reading class and is one smart little cookie. The other day at lunch he noticed the music tattoo on my left wrist and asked me to explain it. I told him it was two music symbols combined into one design, and that I’d explain more later when there was paper and pencil available. I figured that would be enough to satisfy him for the time being.

WRONG!

He ran off and brought back a stick. Looking up at me with those big, puppy-dog brown eyes he said, “Show me in the dirt.”

Wow! Who could refuse such a child?

So, down in the dirt I sat (dress and all) and we had our first lesson in how to read music. I showed him the music staff, treble and bass clef and how to find the G and F, respectively. Today he brought me another stick and a group of his friends. He wanted to know anything and everything about how to read music. By the end of lunch he could tell me the name of each clef, the name of the notes on each line and space in treble clef and which note would have a higher or lower pitch compared to another. The other kids didn’t do to shabby either, but Abraham was drinking in every drop of information like a dying man at an oasis…and asking for more. He is begging me to teach him how to play an instrument. Okay, hamna shida, no problema. Today I took the recorders to school. Alas, Abraham’s little hands are just too small to learn bassoon.

Some day, little man…some day.

My music tattoo.

The tattoo that started a movement.

Intensity

Check out the intensity in Abraham’s eyes as I answer his music questions.

This was the first time Christina smiled in a very long time.  What a precious smile!!

This was the first time Christina smiled in a very long time. What a precious smile!!

Nasla and Pasco are also enthralled.

Nasla and Pasco are also enthralled.

Why my hair looks gray.

Why my hair looks gray.

Carried on the Sunday Morning Wind

The church is one of the rooftops on the hill. This is the view from my back porch.

The church is one of the rooftops on the hill. This is the view from my back porch.

It is a lazy Sunday morning. I am sitting on the back porch, sipping my tea and watching a beautiful rust-colored rooster and his hen scratch the ground.  A large, black bumblebee drones amongst the magenta blooms of the bougainvillea. In the distance cows are lowing, roosters crowing, goats bleating. A myriad of birds add to the Sunday morning symphony. The warm wind carries the whine of an occasional motorbike and the private conversation of two men from across the gully.

Best of all, the wind carries the singing.

The singing from the Catholic church on the next hilltop has been going on for at least an hour with no sign of finale. There is an electronic keyboard that sometimes accompanies, sometimes prays on its own. The melodies are colorful and smooth. The rhythms make you want to sway and dance. Some songs are bold. Some are peaceful. But there is mournfulness in the sounds, a longing. There is also joy. Strength. Hope.

On tour this summer, we sang a medley of Spirituals called “Songs of Strength and Hope.” I am finally beginning to understand, if only just a little.

Another great porch view.

Another great porch view.

Bougainvillea

Bougainvillea

Rusty the Rooster

Rusty the Rooster

Mama

Mama, Liz and I getting cozy on the boat to Zanzibar.

Mama, Liz and I getting cozy on the boat to Zanzibar.

There is no such concept as “personal space” in Africa. Sitting at the harbor in Dar es Salaam waiting for the boat to Zanzibar, we are closer than shoulder to shoulder. We are front to back, back to front, nose to arm pit…eye to eye. We are, Muslim, Christian, Massai, Tourist. The morning air is electric and vibrant with the anticipation of the day. The energy present is an entity in and of itself, created by the mingling of people who are shoulder to shoulder, front to back, back to front, nose to arm pit…eye to eye.

Having resident status, Liz was first on the boat and secured for us a couple of bean bags on the upper deck. Being winter here (which means its blazing hot, but not quite hotter than Hell) the clouds rolled in and brought some rain. Hakuna matata. We covered ourselves with our scarves and watched as the river of humanity slowly sludged its way onto the ferry. In the end, there were people in the seats, on the floor and some standing for the 2 hour passage. Every mode of public transportation here has people on top of people on top of people. It drives home the meaning of the phrase “the unwashed masses.”

And then we met Mama*.

Mama was one of the last people to board. She looked at us, we looked at her, I gave her two thumbs up and the 3 of us burst out laughing. Then, we got “the look” as she sized us both up. “Sogea.” “Move,” she said, flashing us this wide, broad-toothed grin. She was very polite, but it was not a request. Then this fat**, laughing woman shoved us both over and cozied right on up. Karibu! Welcome! I mean, seriously, what else can you say? Mama’s English was about as good as my Kiswahili, but most of our communication was woman to woman eye contact and laughter. We all enjoyed a fun, cozy, relaxing and comfortable voyage on the Indian Ocean. In the end, although we went our separate ways, we had bonded. Our two disparate cultures had interfaced. May that spark ignite a blaze of peace. Salama.

* “Mama” is a respectful designation used to refer to any woman with, shall we say, a few years experience in life.

** This is not an insult here, but rather a compliment. It means you are one of the fortunate who have enough to eat.

Little School Girls

Little School Girls

Education is better in Zanzibar than on the mainland.

Two Boys

Two Boys

Children love to get their picture taken – if you pay them.

Boatman

Boatman

Karibu!

Karibu! Welcome to my blog. Those of you who know me probably have a good idea what to expect, so no need to tell you to enter with an open mind and a sense of humor. For you delicate, tender types, you might need to buck up some.  A bit of caution and a grain of salt probably wouldn’t hurt either. I attempt not to offend, but I also don’t censor too much of myself when I write.

You have been warned.

I will write about the joyful, amazing, fun things. I will also write about the bizarre, sad, and devastating things. My goal here is to help you journey with me to experience Tanzania and her people through the eyes of a teacher, a musician, a biologist, a seeker, a woman, and whatever other part of me that happens to emerge at any given time. Perhaps something I say or some picture I post will one day cause you to step a little out of your comfort zone and follow that dream inside of you. You know, it’s the one that has been whispering to your heart as far back as you can remember.

A Zanzibari woman

A Zanzibari woman

We met this woman when we stopped in a small town in Zanzibar.  The Zanzibari hate having their picture taken, but we had been playing with her little son, Osman.  She graciously allowed me to snap her picture.  I wish I could remember her name.

The son of the woman in green.

The son of the woman in green.

This is Osman.  He wasn’t so sure about these 2 wazungu (white people) women.

Men preparing their nets in the small fishing village of Nungwi on Zanzibar.

Men preparing their nets in the small fishing village of Nungwi on Zanzibar.

Traveling to Zanzibar is like going through a time portal.  The men on Zanzibar fish with old fashioned nets in old fashioned boats.  Yes, the water is truly that color.