Education in Maasai Land

Giraffes in the Maasai Mara National Game Reserve, Kenya

Another report from my summer mission with Teachers Without Borders Canada (now known as Education Beyond Borders):

After another day of being bumped and jolted along the Kenyan semi-arid savannah (and an extension of the Serengeti), I am now sitting at my tent contemplating the last few days. It is difficult to call a structure a “tent” when it has a paved flagstone balcony with a hardwood floor interior. I am overlooking a lush gully and a tree with a mommy hyrax with baby on a branch not 12 feet from me. I blame them for my poor night’s sleep last night – hyraxes are incredibly loud nocturnal rodents!

In the last two days, I have seen many lions, lionesses and cubs, giraffes, wildebeest by the thousands (it is migration time from Tanzania to the Mara), wart hogs, cape buffalo, dick dicks, zebras, monkeys, baboons and even the very rare black rhino. The lions and wildebeests have been particularly fascinating – not at all shy in our presence. I have been within 20 feet or so (in a vehicle) of lions many times. They are completely nonplussed by our presence – even the majestic black-maned male who had no problem sharing his attempt at a love life with one of the females in the pride!

Our trip to the Maasai Mara is our TWB’s “break” after a grueling two weeks of workshops and visits to officials and schools. On Saturday, we experienced an incredibly memorable visit to a remote Maasai school near Naru, They invited us to share their environment day and we all planted trees to commemorate the event. Of course, this was first preceded by a long 3 hour ceremony of speeches (translated into 3 languages!) and some memorable dances and songs by the young people at the primary school where it was hosted. Can’t wait to post my videotape of the dances onto Youtube!

Imagine the pastoral Maasai planting trees! This tribe has been one of the most resistant to cultural changes of all the tribes in Africa. Even now, they are a migratory people who rely mostly on tending herds of cattle, sheep and goats for survival. But some of their people realize that the land is running out and it is time for the Maasai to make changes to their ways. We heard many many appeals on behalf of gender equality for Maasai women during the speeches on Saturday. Many are trying to find a way to prevent early marriages of the young women (at age 12 or 13) and to promote further education of the young men and women. The numbers of Maasai students drop significantly between Standard 6 and 8 (grades 6 and 8). The young women (still young teenage girls) are being given away in marriage and the young men are undertaking the responsibilities of minding the herds.

I think I witnessed a small part of history on that day when I heard passionate appeals by Maasai women for their young girls, trees being planted by a pastoral (not agricultural) people, and education being touted by the Maasai as a way to preserve their culture. The issue of female circumcision was barely touched upon, but the women serving on our team had a lively and heated discussion about its practice afterwards when we debriefed.

During our visit to the school, we were also shown the well which had not been dug deep enough (hence little water during dry season) and told that the drought this year in Kenya (which has hit the nation very hard) has resulted in no food being available for the students for their lunches. Imagine my discomfort when I was later served a bowl of rice, ugali, lentils and precious meat for lunch as an honoured guest.

Tomorrow we return to Limuru and travel up to Laikipia the following day in order to spend three days visiting schools in that region and laying the groundwork for another TWB team to work there next summer. We have a meeting with the District Education Officer in the area and will make a formal request to work in that region in a year’s time.

In the last five weeks, I have had the incredible privilege of meeting the most extraordinary people who have a heart for the education of Africa’s students and who have made incredible sacrifices and contributions to that end. I hope that their faces and names will remain seared upon my soul. Already I am going through a certain amount of withdrawal as I anticipate my return to Canadian society. Reverse culture shock is almost certain. I think it will take me some time to process the conversations I have had and the events I have witnessed. This trip has exceeded all my expectations and then some.

I have visited many places in the world; Africa hits one in the gut at an elemental level. It is more than just the people – it is the variety of cultures, the sights and sounds of so many languages, the give and take in trying circumstances, the creative improvisation when something breaks down or gives way, the sense of time not being a real pressure. And, of course, being a team member of TWB has given me access to real people in the culture living in real circumstances – not just a tourist who sees the nice parts of the country. Indeed, our “vacation” to the safari of Maasai Mara has placed us in the situation of being a “mzungu tourist” and it has been an entirely different experience for us – somewhat uncomfortable after seeing the grittier side of Kenya.

Somewhat like parenthood, I was not adequately prepared for Africa. One can read and be informed; living it is another thing altogether. I have picked up some literature about Africa by Africans when I have been here – I plan to be that much better informed for my next visit!

3 thoughts on “Education in Maasai Land

  1. “I have visited many places in the world; Africa hits one in the gut at an elemental level.”

    I spent 8 weeks in Southern Africa in 2006 and it was an experience that still sticks with me, close to the surface of what I do. You do a good job of explaining why… as I have often been at a loss to explain why exactly the experience impacted me so much.

    My quick transition back to the classroom after my return was a little rocky as I tried to re-acclimate to life and teaching. Wishing you and your daughter safe travels as you head back to Canada!

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