Today has been almost as exciting as Thanksgiving was…LAST DAY OF FIELD RESEARCH AND INTERVIEWS ! Although completing this component of directed research felt extremely satisfying, today was a day like no other. Going into Maasai bomas (synonymous for a little community, usually with 3-4 huts holding multiple families) defines being pushed out of your comfort zone. During any ordinary interview, it is not uncommon for a goat to give birth, fathers to be brushing their teeth with frayed sticks, mommas to be completely exposed and breast-feeding, and children having flies literally crawling all over their faces to point you may witness 1-3 crawling up their noses and they will not even flinch. It is a tough reality to take in while attempting to get an accurate idea of their perceptions regarding the surrounding land without too much getting lost in translation. Today during an interview, another little boy I fell in love with (Emanuel) spent this 30 minutes playing “connect the dots” with the freckles on my arms. Anyone that knows me is familiar with my pretty distinct freckles I have all over my arms. Emanuel spotted them also…which was fine…until he had spotted the newly acquired “beauty marks” (oh euphemisms) on my nose. I Iooked very interesting after this interview. To make matters even more exciting, the momma milked the cow in front of me, poured the fresh (understatement) milk through a strainer, into a mug, and then handed it to me. Note: I hadn’t consumed real milk since being in the states…and usually I just drink soy milk. However, milk is a delicacy for these people, I really couldn’t say no. This would have been an okay happening maybe once…but I was lucky enough to get offered milk 3 times . I pray I don’t get sick tonight. Told you I would get my calcium intake mom! Additionally, the momma that I interviewed was 16, her husband 17, and they already had 4 kids. The momma was one of 22. The human population level here is both exponential and honestly sickening. It is the foundation of all problems: poverty, conflict of pasture and water, spread of disease…everything traces back to it.
The drought of 2008 also added to the elevated level of destitution here. Long story short, the Maasai have always been pastoralists…for as long as their culture has existed. What exactly is pastoralism? In a nutshell, cattle are the Maasai’s pride and joy…or in other words, their bank. Cattle provide them with beef, milk, and secure them a spot in the cattle market (trading and selling desired breeds of cows). Up until 2008, this way of life adequately complemented the ASAL (arid and semi-arid) rangelands that exist here in Africa (the grazing of the cattle would keep the growth of the grasses and other forage food in check). However, today I interviewed a man who had 400 cattle and lost 370 during the drought. He currently has 30 livestock left. He also has 16 kids. Finally, he waits in line at the water hole for as long as 19 days just to get enough water for all of his kids and cattle. He said his life was now in the hands of god—he had nothing left that he could do.
While we’re on this topic, I must elaborate. Whether you are religiously affiliated or not, the ubiquitous faith here, I know, would amaze anyone. It is unlike anything I have encountered in the states. Story #1: Reggie, the staff member I was closest with in Tanzania, would talk about his faith to me often. He explained to me that he had had a near-death experience. Somewhere between here and the heavens, he met god. He described his god’s face to me in detail. He then proceeded to say that god had told him that his life’s purpose had not yet been fulfilled so he sent Reggie back down to Earth to satisfy his intentions. Hearing someone 110% confidently explain their god’s features was one of the most moving experiences. Story #2: I have had the same guide for the past 3 days now, Gidison. On day 1, after introducing myself, he told me that my name meant Grace. He rattled off countless biblical references. I asked how he knew all of this information. He informed me that his girlfriend’s name was Hannah. I then unfortunately asked him why they broke up and he notified me that she had died in a car accident 4 days ago. I’ve never seen someone talk about death so stoically. Frankly I didn’t know how to react to his overly tolerant behavior. He explained that he was in the car with her and she died next to him…in his lap. They were on their way home from Uganda after completing their University studies. He had planned the next phase of his life with her; he was going to ask her father for his word this week. On day two, upon entrance into a boma, one of the Maasai mommas started screaming and crying when she saw Gidison. She thought Gidison had died in the car accident also and that god had sent him back down to Earth. He, for the 20th time, accepted her condolences about Hannah and we carried on. I couldn’t keep it in any longer. I asked him how he was so accepting of these events. I immaturely rattled off that I don’t cry that much either and whenever something sad happens I just get super standoffish so I understood but…he interrupted thankfully… “God works in mysterious ways. You cannot question his decisions no matter how tragic and unexplainable they are to you. Because of her death, another was born 5 days ago also with purpose…maybe carrying on Hannah’s. It is the natural cycle of life.” It really was and still is hard for me to wrap my head around. Gidison was the most perfect guide to have on my last day.
Besides being grounded by his pure faith, he also helped me see a little bit more clearly regarding the ambiguity within the revered Maasai culture. Long story short, many cultures here in Kenya have lose almost all of their traditions due to modernization; however, the Maasai have not. Anyone who has read National Geographic has probably seen the vibrant color of the Maasai beaded jewelry, the drinking of their livestock’s blood, and the lifestyle of sole pastoralism ways. After learning so much about cultural tourism (tourists paying a price to see the culture) taking away from the authenticity of the culture, it was drilled into our heads that preservation must be implemented! Nevertheless, after these interviews, I was left questioning that. With modernization of the entire world happening, is it really feasible to 100% maintain their traditional way of life? I completed 35 interviews over the past week. The only 6 homes that stated that their household income had increased were families that went to get an education and were currently employed. It is sad and a brutal reality, but pastoralism cannot exist in a world of climate change. With global warming, the rains are limited and the dry seasons here are even drier and hotter. In a market where product depends purely on precipitation, one can understand that the Maasai’s way of life is just not possible anymore. Gidison told me, “Change is part of life. Most of the time people associate change with bad, because it involves people to be uncomfortable initially. But change is a sign that we are still alive. In order to support your family with food, you need money. In order take care of your own basic necessities, you need money. In order to outsmart the droughts, people must realize that they can no longer rely solely on cattle. We have a rich culture…one that will be rightfully preserved in many history books soon enough.” I didn’t know exactly how to feel after hearing Gidison speak like this. To be honest, I felt this way for the past 2 months but “Preserve the culture!” was always the motto. The Maasai culture truly is beautiful but I just don’t think it is a viable option anymore. Sometimes I wish I could just turn my mind off because this type of wonder regularly consumes me completely (e.g. 3:00 AM contemplations in bed). Anyway, after quite the week of learning, we took our final Wildlife Ecology field research picture. Take 1: success. Take 2: Emanuel spotted us and was not happy that he was not invited . Take 3: yet another African family .