NEVER SAY BREAD SAY
by Cara Giaimo
The Many Uses of a Maasai Meleleki, pt. 2
(HEY EVERYONE: you may want to read part 1 first!)
My stick continued to prop open actual and metaphorical doors for me while I was in Tanzania, and during my post-semester travels back to Kenya. It became an even constant-er companion, but it was as though the less I thought about bringing it places, the more it tried to make itself known. Here are some further ways it came in handy.
8. As a (bad) pool cue – One weekend (or weekend equivalent . . . it got difficult to keep track of days), we went on a hike up a mountain overlooking Lake Manyara. From high up, the lake stretches out over the parks like a cat and glints pink with flamingos. We made it to the top (my stick was once again helpful) and then started a much more gradual and less rocky descent through sunflower fields and farmhouses. We made our way as politely as we could through several groups of cows out for strolls, and then the path turned a corner and led us past a Tanzanian mountaintop block party, featuring a brick-stopped motorcycle with a little boy in a Batman shirt on top, what appeared to be the whole neighborhood, and a pool table propped up in some corners by overturned bowls. A fierce and mostly silent game of pool was going on, and we joined in. I couldn’t figure out how the table had gotten up the mountain, or how we’d had the good fortune to show up right when the party hit its peak, or where the crates of Fanta appeared from halfway through, but I figured whatever magic was responsible might carry over and turn my stick into a decent pool cue. It didn’t, but that was ok.
9. As another fake gun, and a real weapon – Early on in Tanzania, I met a man with whom I would share a very important (and largely stick-based) relationship. Askari Bura first introduced himself to all of us as “security guard no sleep.” Fair enough – he had the night shift, I tend to give myself the night shift; I figured we’d run into each other eventually. We did one night in Serengeti, when I was walking around the campsite late one night and I felt a tap on my shoulder. There was Bura. He asked for my stick, and I handed it over semi-reluctantly – sharing is important, but it can be hard to know what you’re agreeing to when every conversation is in at least one participant’s second language. Bura then performed a complex drill routine with the stick and ended in a cold-eyed salute. I decided he could have it for the night.
Bura and I soon worked out a system – he found me in the evening and I gave over the stick, and then he left it for me in the morning, camouflaged against some wooden pillar. One night in Serengeti, during the trial period of our stick-trading deal, the camp heard noises that were strange even for where we were – a metallic crash, a weird squeal, and a laugh. All that was missing was a synthesizer and we could have had something great, but instead it was punctuated by what turned out to be the sound of wood coming down hard between spotted ears. A hyena had raided the kitchen during the night, and Bura had gotten a crack in before it fled. The stick was a hero (Bura too).
10. As an identifier – In Kenya, I lived within a Maasai group ranch, so everywhere bristled with fimbos. There are over a hundred tribes in Tanzania, so Maasai men were a rarity (though a noticeable one, always tall and thin in bright robes, bicycling through town like migratory birds, sticks balanced on their shoulders). So the stick was a way of identifying myself (“I come from Maasailand!) even as the rest of me contradicted that (“. . . sort of”). In this way I met friends in Mto wa Mbu, at the check-in desk of a new resort we toured in Karatu, and in Lamu, an island off the coast of Kenya. I also got to play the villain at an Iraqw cultural boma – Maasai and Iraqw used to pitch constant battles; Iraqw even started building their houses underground to keep safe from Maasai raids. Each time I got to feel greeted like a long-lost neighbor, and they got to laugh at the mzungu girl with the meleleki, which made me feel strangely at home.
11. As a musical instrument – There’s a rock in the middle of the Serengeti that’s made of some chalky material that, when you hit it with a smaller rock of the same material, makes a dully intoxicating ringing sound. When you hit the rock with a wooden stick, it makes a similar sound, pitched slightly differently. When you have people armed with both types of mallet, you can make a band, and if you play long and softly enough perhaps you will call the elephants toward you rather than driving them away.
12. As a guide through the dark – For some reason, while I was in Lamu, the electricity didn’t feel like staying on. One night my friends and I were out late and the island snuffed out, as though the water around it had finally caught up with the light. One friend and I volunteered to brave the narrow alleys and illusionist cats and go back to our hotel to get flashlights. Without my stick, I’d be dead of a sudden step down, or a wet patch of road, or a collision with a rusty storefront grate. As it was, we made it find, although we’re a little too proud of ourselves about it, so it must have been pretty scary at the time.
13. As a dhow-saluter – In shallow windless water, close to the beach or in the mangroves, dhows (the wooden boats that, along with donkeys, form Lamu’s public transit system), need to be poled along like gondolas. Fimbos don’t make great poles, or masts, or flagstands, or fishing rods, or spare planks, or rudders, or leakstoppers (they also don’t float). But a stick is are the perfect thing to salute a dhow captain with after you and he finish heaving the boat out of a gritty spot.
14. As a last hurrah – Shipping out of Nairobi, I had a lot of bags already. When the airline employee told me I’d have to check (and pay extra for) my stick, I didn’t know what to do. The solution turned out to be having the stick shrink-wrapped to my largest suitcase while much of the terminal pointed at me wrestling with the shrink-wrap machine and laughed. I’m still convinced that the lady at the counter had enough of a good time watching that she made up a rule about not charging extra for certain types of bag so that the rest of my things could get through cheaply.
And so my stick and I made it to the states. It’s been harder to properly take it for walks here – it doesn’t have the same implications, or practical value. I just get dirty looks on public transportation and on the steps of the library (they’re marble; it clatters). I will keep trying, though, with the hope that someday I’ll again be walked into something great and unexpected.