July 10, 2013
It was our last full day on safari, and our itinerary was to be a bit different. The focus for the day was on the people of Tanzania. After a hot cup of coffee, we started with a long walk around the property. As usual, we were accompanied by armed escort.
Genene was the slowest one in the group, but the guides did not seem to mind. They stayed back with her while the others in the group raced ahead. Here is a photo of Genene with all her escorts: Head guide Hasheem, our support guide Simon, the kids’ mentor Tom and the other support guide, Harrison.
No one had to carry Genene too far. They called for a Rover, and Genene and I hopped in while Greg stayed with the rest of the group to finish the walk. We did not have to ride far to our surprise: breakfast in the bush! Our hosts had surprised us with a beautifully set table and all the fixings: eggs, cereal, pancakes, coffee, tea, fruit. It was a very nice treat.
After breakfast we went back to the nyumbas for a moment to gather our gear. These tents were designed exactly like the tents at our other two camps, but because we were on Thomson land, they were set up on foundations. It made for a nice vantage point from which to watch the sunsets.
We headed toward Sukenya School. On the way, we saw two giraffes banging their necks together. There is always something going on.
We rode to the school as a family, and our car picked up the Maasai translator, who used the English name Johnson.
Sukenya School is set in the Enashiva Nature Refuge and serves the Maasai people in the Sukenya area. The primary school serves seven grades, and I only saw one teacher. There must have been more. Thomson Safaris has a philanthropic arm known as “Focus on Tanzanian Communities,” and the charity provides some subsidy to the school. We were encouraged to bring school supplies and so we filled a duffel bag with boxes of chalk, notebooks, crayons, books, bookpacks, and so on. Their needs are so great and so basic. The teacher seemed very grateful for the bag of goodies.
It has apparently been an uphill struggle to bring education to the Maasai. They are a pastoral, semi-nomadic people and have enjoyed (or endured) their lifestyle for eons. Our guides had explained that the smart, industrious children of the tribe do not go to school. They are sent to the fields and the plain to tend the livestock and gather wood. If a child is considered dumb or lazy or incompetent at tending cattle, he or she is sent to school.
After touring the facilities, we were led into the classroom of seventh year students. They sang their national anthem for us and their school song. They told us of their ambitions. One little girl said she wants to be a doctor. I hope she makes it. Then they turned the tables on us and began asking us questions, and they requested a song from us. Our ambitious group tried to bang out the “Star Spangled Banner,” but we were pretty bad. I smiled as I remembered Tony Kushner’s line from “Angels in America”: “The white cracker who wrote the national anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word ‘free’ to a note so high nobody can reach it.” The kids loved our effort though. I can tell because of how much they giggled, pointed and laughed outright.
At long last, Genene got to meet her pen pal. When we signed up for this safari, Genene was given a chance to write a letter and get a pen pal, and she took full advantage. She and her new friend from Sukenya, Anjela Paulo, traded several pieces of correspondence. They shared their experiences with school, homework, housework, and all that goes into being a kid in Africa and America. At the end of our classroom visit, the teacher called Anjela forward, and she and Genene exchanged greetings. The safari consultants had encouraged us not to give any kind of extravagant gift that could create jealousies or problems for the children. Instead they asked us to focus on the cultural exchange and on homemade items. Genene gave Anjela a small painting that she had made of a giraffe (Anjela’s favorite animal). We also bought every postcard from Houston that we could find and printed several photographs of Genene doing typical American things: Christmas, Halloween, afternoon at the pool. Their meeting was a genuinely warm, though very brief, moment, and Genene now says it was a highlight of the trip for her. We will remember Anjela. I hope she will remember us.
We went outside for a few minutes, and the bell rang for recess. We were mobbed! Genene and her long blonde hair were an absolute sensation. The kids ran their hands through it, touched her ears and earrings, and played with her camera. Genene bore it all fairly graciously though it was a bit disconcerting. I guess it is probably disconcerting to the kids when we come in their classrooms and take pictures of them, too.
The Maasai people are smooth (not hairy), and both men and women shave their heads. Greg’s arm hair was even a hit, though he had to tell them to stop pulling it. At one point, I knelt down so they could touch and feel my hair. One little girl must have touched the bobby pin in my hair, and she recoiled, screamed and ran away. Perhaps she thought I was a cyborg.
A soccer game was arranged, and the Americans were soundly defeated.
The next picture shows the only bad moment of the safari for Genene. The ball was in play and came down right toward her. She instinctively reached up and caught it. Everyone was laughing good-naturedly, but Genene felt as if they were laughing at her and so she cried. It was her only melt-down of the trip. Tom brought her to the sidelines for a little time with me. I told her to rub some grass on it and get back in the game. She finally composed herself sufficiently to play the last two minutes.
The kids shook hands and showed traditional post-match good sportsmanship.
After the school visit, we stopped at a Maasai women’s collective to buy beadwork. The ladies welcomed us with a traditional dance.
The tables were set up in a large circle in a field. Johnson, our translator, explained that we were to make the rounds through all the tables and could pick up anything that interested us. When finished, we were to take everything to a spot in the middle, the “decision table.” All of the different artists would gather around and name their respective prices.
I find these women to be very interesting.
We took the short drive back to the nyumba for lunch and then had another delightful treat. A Maasai storyteller came to speak with us. Johnson told us her Maasai name, but it was difficult to pronounce and I can no longer remember it. Johnson had also explained to us the traditional Maasai greeting. They typically reach out to shake hands and say “Sopai.” (which sounds like sopa) Your reply is “Ipa.” (Ay-pa) Genene dutifully did so, and the old lady beamed.
Johnson was a compelling character in his own right, with a perfect command of English. He is about to start college in Arusha. I wanted to ask him what event of laziness or incompetence in his youth had led to him getting sent to school, but that would have been rude. I wonder….
The storyteller’s second effort was a fable about a jackal, a hyena and a lion. She claimed it was an “absolutely true story” and then began: Once upon a time….. The jackal had made a habit of feeding from the leftovers in the lion’s den. The jackal was careful to make no disturbance so that the lion would never know of his presence. One day, the jackal was striding across the Serengeti, all fat and full from the lion’s throw aways, when he came upon his friend, the starving hyena. The hyena begged to know where the jackal was filling up. The jackal finally capitulated and told the hyena about the lion’s den but begged him to be discreet and “not to break the bones.” Of course, the hyena went in there and pigged out, breaking bones and making a mess. The lion caught the hyena but decided to be merciful and give the hyena a job guarding the lair and the lion’s cub. The hyena proved unworthy of the job when he chowed down enthusiastically on some more bones. The bones broke, flew through the air and killed the cub, splitting his head in two. The hyena tried to put the cub back together. (This part was actually quite comical. The old lady made the motions with her hands of the hyena trying to put the two pieces of the cub’s head together.) The lion returned. The hyena tried to say nothing was wrong, but the cub’s head fell into two pieces. The lion killed the hyena.
At this point, the old storyteller stood up and sang beautifully. Johnson explained that her song was the song of the jackal to the dead hyena. It seemed a bit sorrowful, but mostly the jackal was saying “I told you so.” The hyena had been warned not to break the bones, and the consequence was death.
The Maasai use these stories as a way to educate their children. I am still pondering all the lessons in the fable. The hyena should have followed instructions better. The jackal probably should not have shared his secret food source. The lion should not have used a hyena as a babysitter.
The storyteller amicably answered all our questions about her life, and the session was over. She borrowed a cell phone and called for her ride. The cell phones do kill the romance a bit.
We finished our day with a visit to a working Maasai boma. A traditional boma is living place for the Maasai consisting of their livestock enclosures and several small huts. The huts are made of sticks, mud, straw and cow dung.
The livestock enclosures are formed from the limbs of the thorny acacia. The cattle are well-trained and probably would not need to be fenced in. The enclosures are to keep the lions and hyenas and other predators out.
This part of the boma is used to house the young cows, sheep and goats. They are brought inside with the family at night for protection from predators.
On the left side, the children’s bed can be seen. The parents’ bed is on the other side of the fire, out of the shot. As you may have gathered, the Maasai are polygamous. When the father is “visiting,” the children are sent to another hut to spend the night.
The lives of these people seem incredibly difficult. The ever-present flies were stuck to the children and adults, and no one brushed them away. Their homes smelled of earthy barnyard and smoke. The children work in the fields almost as soon as they can walk. We saw children that could not have been more than four years old, alone and tending to the cattle in the fields. We have all watched the late-night television programs which show human beings living in less than ideal conditions (I think of Sally Struthers). It is another thing entirely to visit them in person. These people are not starving, but they are leading a hard life. It made me both thankful for all that I have and shameful for all that I waste. I am not sure what else to say here. I do not want to trivialize or romanticize the lives of this proud and interesting people. They roam free with the animals–both wild and domesticated–in one of the most beautiful landscapes on earth; however, the toll they pay is a heavy one. The poverty is beyond description, but there is something to be admired about how much they do with so little.
After our visit, we returned to our nyumbas for the last time. We watched the sun sink over the Serengeti, and the new moon became visible as a sliver in the night sky.
Our chef fixed us a traditional African meal, with a beef barbecue, potatoes, spicy rice, and other delights. I was glad they chose to feed us their food on the last night, as a final way of giving us a piece of their place.
Stay tuned for the journey back to Arusha and the Amsterdam interlude……