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The Many Uses of a Maasai Meleleki, pt. 1

August 1, 2010 @ 9:41 PM | Permalink

I don't even remember why I wanted a walking stick. The first time I went into town in Kimana, I must have seen a lot of them. Maybe I subconsciously thought having one would help me fit in, but I hope not, because I must have been pretty subconsciously disappointed. This particular type of stick (or "fimbo" in Swahili, or "meleleki" in Maa, the Maasai language) is usually used by older Maasai men, so it would be a little like a young Maasai coming to an American suburb, feeling out of place in his robes and skin color, and trying to blend in by pushing around a walker.  An ineffective strategy.

            I didn’t know about the stick’s social associations at first, though – all I knew was as soon as I picked mine out of a crowded stall at the market, I felt more complete, more balanced (most things need three points of contact with the ground to keep upright, I always felt presumptuous claiming to be an exception).  I also didn’t know that the stick would walk ME, but it did, straight into a lot of situations I might have missed without it.  It then got me through them with impressive aplomb, considering that it’s technically an object.  At the risk of sounding like an infomercial, here’s a list of all the uses my stick found for itself over the course of my time in Kenya.

1.  As a walking stick – Best to get the obvious over with first, right?  Many Maasai spend most of their lives driving livestock from pasture to pasture all day and then back home at night, so they know something about walking and its related equipment.  One day a field lecture took us to the top of Oloisoito Hill, our longest trek up to that point and my stick’s first big opportunity to prove itself.  It did splendidly, catching me when I tripped over boulders, breaking through path-wide spiderwebs, and vaulting me over little trickles of ants.  It could not, however, protect me from Daniel, our Swahili professor, who I was starting to suspect was in the kind of midlife crisis that in the States would manifest itself through an unexpected motorcycle purchase.  In Kenya, it just had him especially invested in winning volleyball games (usually via a spike, delivered while he shouted about “destroying our political houses”) and beating us up any and all hills.  As he tore past me, war-crying and loosing a wake of volcanic pebbles, I comforted myself by thinking that while I was choosing to accessorize like an old person, soon he would have to (we later all reached a truce when we got to the top of the hill and he used my stick to point at his home village, a little green square far to the right).

2.  As a political statement – As soon as I brought the stick back to camp, an askari (guard) I hadn’t yet spoken to approached me and asked whose it was.  When I said I’d bought it, he laughed and told me it was a sign of changing times. He was the one who explained to me the demographic discrepancy between my stick and I, and it led to a conversation about women’s changing social roles and rights in Kenya, and how tourism had played into that.  It also led to me wondering about the potential implications of carrying the stick around – was I comfortable making a political statement, however vague it was?  It was no more of a statement than me wearing pants or being in the middle of a college education or not yet having children, the askari told me.  And though I couldn’t help but think that it was a little different, it seemed more of a slippery slope to assume that my decision could really have that much of an effect.  So I kept toting it around, and the reaction it inspired most in town ended up being laughter, which I could handle.

3.  As an opening conversational gambit – That laughter mostly came from the old Maasai men who were supposed to have fimbos.  They would approach me, let out a craggy or silent or unexpectedly high-pitched noise-of-amusement, and shake my hand.  And then, depending on whether or not we spoke the same language, we’d either have a figurative exchange (limited either by his English or my Swahili) or a literal one – he’d hand me his stick and take mine, and we’d weigh them in our hands and knock them against things and make appreciative sounds like a couple of grillheads swapping robotic spatulas.  Then we’d switch back and shake hands goodbye.  I don’t know whether those men would have approached me without a reason to, and I’m glad our shared interest gave them one.

4.  As a pretend gun – During one notably successful early-morning nature walk, Daniel leg us over to a troop of baboons, hanging all over their home tree like a bunch of furry, restless fruits.  My classmates and I, trapped between curiosity and fear, hokey-pokeyed forward and backward, our position determined by some inner calculation that pitted the decibel of the alpha males’ aggressive grunts against how cute the babies were being.  Daniel, amused, started antagonizing the males, imitating their calls and jumping up and down, until he had them in a frenzy and we must have looked like we were about to turn tail and run back to America.  “Watch this,” he said, and he took my stick, balanced it on his shoulder like a gun, sighted along it, and popped it off his shoulder in fake-recoil.  Immediate silence from the trees.  “See, they’re smart, and much more afraid of us,” said Daniel, making patterns with the stick in the mud at our feet, which was already beaded with dikdik tracks.  A good trick, and probably a useful one for farmers, although I don’t like thinking about what must have happened to teach the baboons that kind of lesson.

5.  As a measuring instrument – My stick is about a meter long from dirt-end to hand-end, and when we figured that out it became very useful for measuring transects and bolts of cloth and whether shrubby-looking things were high enough to be considered trees when we were surveying for elephant damage.  Even before then, though, it was a good reference point for all of us, American foot-ballparkers and African metersticklers, when trying to communicate lengths and distances.  “How high do you think that warrior jumped?” “How long was that mamba Daniel killed?”  “How far away are the giraffes?”  Two fimbos.

6.  As athletic equipment – I went running with my walking stick often on the trail around camp, which was constantly surrounded by every possible combination of human and goat adults and kids.  I already stuck out, so I figured I might as well make the most of it.  And I won’t pretend I didn’t sometimes swing it over my head like a propeller when not too many people were looking.  You would have, too.

7.  As an excuse for extremely sudden romance - It took us about half an hour to cross the border into Tanzania.  I spent that last Kenyan half-hour considering a marriage proposal from a man named Pious, who had spotted me from his post at the border crossing and yelled across the road, “I like your stick!”

“Thanks!” I yelled back.

“I’d like to buy it!”

“Sorry, it’s not for sale!”  By this time, Pious was making his way over to my side of the road.  He was not fazed.  “Give me your stick!” he said, between determined strides.  This had happened before, so I just kept smiling and shoot my head, and got ready to change the conversational tack, but he beat me to it.

“I’ll pay a good price!  I really want your stick.  I’d like to buy it.  I love you.”  His tone had not changed, so I assumed his message hadn’t either . . . it took a minute for the new one to catch up.

What followed was a back-and-forth rather different than other conversations I’d had in Kenya (or anywhere, really).  I got the whole courtship process in about ten minutes – I learned what had first attracted me to him  - he likes mzungus, aka white people, because he is interested in continuing education, and all mzungus are intellectually curious, even adults.  Although this may not be true, it probably was a characteristic of all the while people who had had a chance to meet Pious, who has never left his home country.  I learned what he liked now that we’d known each other a few minutes longer – my eyes (blue), my voice (probably pitched somewhere around incredulous) and my shirt (white with a picture of a seal shooting lasers out of its eyes).  I got a brief glimpse of my potential future – I’d go back to the United States and finish my education, and then return to live with him in his house in Loitokitok.  We’d have two children and I would be his only wife.  Once in a while we’d make it back to the US to visit my family and his cousin, who lives in Canada.

Pious wouldn’t let me cross the border until he and my friends had reached an agreement on my bride price (26 cows) and I’d given him an answer (I’d think about it) and an address (fake).  I did think about it, as our car rumbled out of Kenya.  I wasn’t going to accept this specific proposal, but a more general one – that I could have a much different life than the one I’d been led to believe was up ahead – rolled out ahead of me, weird dirt tracks splitting off the main highway.  If Pious thought I could do something like that, maybe I should reconsider my own limits.  Then again, it’s possible he was only after my stick.


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