Better in Masaailand: All about… Kenya {a cultural project}

“All about…” is a series of culturally-driven posts by guest writers who have lived, worked, or studied in a culture different than that of central Pennsylvania. These essays are not comprehensive cultural guides; rather, their purpose is to expose misunderstandings, clarify stereotypes, and highlight the similarities between familiar and unfamiliar cultures.
This week’s post is written by Heather Loring-Albright who is pursuing on a Master of Arts degree at the Chicago Theological Seminary with a focus in Women’s Studies and Black Studies. She has traveled to Kenya twice, most recently for two months in 2011. This particular reflection is from 2007 when Heather traveled to a traditional Masaai village two hours from Nairobi. The entire trip was “a painfully short 13 days,” which is why she went back years later. About Kenya, she recalls, “I learned a lot about simplicity and community there. I learned that I don’t need many things to find joy in spending time with other people. Togetherness is a real value for the family that I stayed with in Masaailand, and their community reflected that strength.”
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My safari at Masaai Mara. All rights reserved.
All too often for Westerners, the entire continent of Africa is envisioned in a series of generalizations that waft somewhere between sand, savannahs, sun, poverty, and violence. However, Kenya is, comparatively speaking, a well-to-do nation. Kenya’s economy is the largest by GDP in East Africa, although low infrastructure investment threatens their ability to grow. Kenya received its independence from the British on December 12, 1963, and today, much of the country is modernized with large cities that exist alongside smaller villages and towns.  Many people travel into and out of Kenya; safaris are the most well-known tourist attraction.
For the most part, Kenya is politically and economically stable. However, there was violence surrounding the elections in 2008, shortly after my first visit. In 2011, I visited an Internally Displaced Persons camp full of people who had lost their homes in 2008 and were still waiting for the government to grant them new plots of land. Government corruption, such as bribes, nepotism, and tribalism is rampant here, but this is not unique to Africa; with Hurricane Katrina in the United States, we saw how all governments tend to take advantage of the powerless and voiceless condition of the poor.
The following reflection is about the Masaai people who live simply and traditionally as nomadic herders within this modernized country. A semi-accurate metaphor would be to say that the Masaai are the Amish of Kenya, for they work hard to protect their tribal lands as well as their way of living. I’ve chosen to focus on how I feel life is better in Masaailand, Kenya, because I think people already have enough negative misconceptions of Africa as a whole, regardless of the country. I’d rather provide a positive and unexpected window into a place that many people will never visit to show what we can learn from Kenya opposed to what we feel must be changed.
Nairobi skyline.
Nairobi skyline.

In Massiland, I most appreciated the following:

1. Patience. When our car broke down — for the second and third time — while driving through Ngong, my host mom would just laugh and say, “No problem.” During one of the breakdowns, we pulled over by a concrete wall which acted as a gate for a nearby business, and as cars whizzed past us amid bright billboards and throngs of people, the driver patiently attempted to fix the car. A tape played over and over again in the tape deck, but eventually, we got going again. Nothing seemed to faze my host mom. In Masaailand, time revolved around our needs instead of the other way around.

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Friends from the village. All rights reserved.

2. Dancing. Unlike the States, where people feel that they need training or copious libations to make it onto the dance floor, folks in Masaailand are avid dancers. I noticed this at a cultural festival attended by over 1000 people, where soccer and volleyball, food, and time brought people together to talk and laugh under the sun. When a fun tune would start, everyone would begin moving, even the little kids! I was holding a small baby who bopped along to the beat. Back wraps held other children close to their mamas as they moved. It was amazing to see so much movement and appreciation of music by all ages.

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Gifting me a lesso, a traditional, loose-fitting garment used to provide color and to allow wind to cycle around your body and cool you down. All rights reserved.

3. Community. Because they are a distinct ethnic group, the Masaai have close ties with their family groups and larger clans. People often drop by uninvited. In fact, that is the custom. It is considered rude (or at least unconventional) to schedule an appointment to visit someone. Additionally, if you don’t make house calls, people will begin to wonder why you refuse to stop by and say hello. Visitors are to be treated with the utmost respect and hospitality, so one must always be ready to host.

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Adorable goats. All rights reserved.

4. Chai. Kenyans love chai. It is usually 1 part water to 1 part milk, with “Kericho Gold” or some other type of black tea (grown in vast tea fields in Kenya) plus mountains of sugar. When someone serves you chai, you must drink the entire cup. This becomes an issue when you are making numerous home visits in a row. Chai is highly caffeinated.

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The Maasai are herders; these are cows resting by a tree. All rights reserved.

5. Stars. Although plumbing is typical for the average Kenyan, in Masaailand, it is not, and I loved walking to the outhouse at night. I would regularly turn off my flashlight and gaze up at the night sky. There were so many beautiful stars, big and small, that I could hardly make out all the constellations I learned in school! Being in the southern hemisphere gave me a different view too. It was breathtaking.

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Leaving the Masaai valley. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “Better in Masaailand: All about… Kenya {a cultural project}

  1. Just saying, I absolutely love your “All About. . .” articles!

  2. Emily! Thank you! Here’s a potential future project for you… would you be interested in brainstorming/writing about Pennsylvania farms? I may need a writer for that article…. I’ll email you more info.

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