Women’s Group and Circumcision Ceremony

The two biggest happenings around here (besides a marvelous potluck Thanksgiving dinner with traditional foods) are with the women’s group I plan to sponsor, and a scheduled circumcision.

The women’s group is exciting. Last week they invited me to a meeting to discuss their plans. Their name is Naretisho Women’s Group and they seem very organized. They took me to see their aloes, and they’ve collected and are raising 370 of them. They’ve got a fence built around them for protection. About 16 of their 25 or so members came to meet with me, which is really pretty good given all the constraints to getting there (kids and animals to watch, looking for food, walking a long distance). They also pulled together 5,000 Kenyan shillings as their contribution to the project. That’s about $65, which is large given that these people are collecting famine relief and live on a couple dollars a day.

We also talked about their expectations for how much money they will make and they were very pragmatic. They said of course they’d like to make a lot of money, but they know this is a first attempt and they’ll be happy even if it only yields a little pocket money.

Now the hitch is that the consultant they know about only wants to come train them if I hire him for 3 days of training (they only need one day) and if I buy $300 worth of supplies from him. Total cost would be $650 dollars. That’s not really in my ballpark, and more to the point, it’s not quite what the women need. So I’ve got another person to get in touch with at a local NGO, and if that fails I’ll try to negotiate with Mr.Six-fity.

If you are interested in making a small loan or donation to the women’s group, please let me know.


Regarding the circumcision, the ceremony will be for 3 boys and a girl in the same family, all of them in early adolescence. The female circumcision — or genital mutilation depending on how you feel about it — is illegal in Kenya. I was originally asked to help hold down the girl during the procedure, which is considered an honor. I declined partly because I don’t want the moral responsibility to the girl. If I helped hold her, I would be considered her godmother. Also, it would be a sort of approval of the procedure. I was also afraid I might faint, or that I could be held legally responsible if something were to go wrong with the procedure.

One of the boys in the family is mentally impaired, and his parents have elected to have his procedure done at the local clinic rather than at home as is usual. I think this is very smart of them, since the procedure as done at home is partly a test of fortitude and this boy can’t be expected to show the same amount as his siblings. It seems to me a reasonable compromise: he will be initiated the same days as his brothers, and in the same celebration, but his surgery will be done more quickly and professionally, and hopefully with less pain.

I had originally planned to spend tonight near the home where the ceremony will be performed early tomorrow morning. However, after discussion with some others here, they felt I ought not to. There is a lot of drinking involved in the celebrations, and possibly other substances, and there are strong undercurrents of sexuality and conquest in the rite of passage. In brief, there was some concern that I could be raped in my tent during the night. Needless to say, I decided not to take the risk.

And on that rather scary note, I am headed back to my river camp for a few days. The everyday and the surreal are so mixed together here.

Thurs, 1 Nov 2007

I have been spending a lot of time in camp and really needed to get out today. Lizzie taught me the basics of how to use my GPS device, so I traced my route to N’s house, marked the manyattas (homes) of several of her neighbors, and then followed my route back to camp.

Using longitude and latitude I can also transfer the points I visit to a paper map so that I can see where everything is located visually on a map of all of Koija. So I feel good – it’s a way not to get lost and way to keep track of where people and physical objects like water holes are located, which might be useful for my research.

The driving is also going great. I feel a lot more confident and am up to driving a relatively normal speed, approximately 35 mph on a good road.

I also spent time with N’s family today. The 6-year-old who had polio seemed happy and chatty. N’s “second mother”, which is to say her father’s 2nd wife, showed me a cow that was born last night. The second mother laughed a lot when I asked if the cow was a boy (layioni) or a girl (ntito); apparently these terms mean girl-child and boy-child, and there are different words for male (laché) and female (nkaché) animals.

We spent a good while inside the house of N’s mother as well. I should stop to explain: a manyatta is a large fenced homestead that has multiple animal corrals and multiple houses inside of it. There is usually a house for each wife, a house for the father, a house for any mostly-grown children, and also for any other relatives living there.

N’s mother is the first wife, has borne 6 children, and has a very nice house. Anyway, it is always interesting to be inside people’s houses, especially those of nice people who make me feel at ease. N’s mother is one of these people. She served us tea, gave baby J. a bath in a plastic tub, and laughed along with 2 friends of N’s who came to visit.

Tuesday night I was alone in camp… For the first time that night I heard lots of voices all around our camp, just outside our (very thin) fence. They sounded relaxed, but what do I know? I asked the guard what people were out and about, and he said “watoto” (children). So I figured that was ok. The next morning when our English-speaking cook came to camp, he explained that they were out hunting dik diks (a tiny antelope, about the size of a cat). As Lizzie said when she returned to camp, it’s not like there’s much else to do around here when you’re a 12-year-old.

Lizzie and I were also talking about S’s son who died several years ago. Lizzie helped take him to the hospital right before he died. He was misdiagnosed with malaria[…] and given some powerful anti-malaria medicine that poisoned him because he really had Hepatitis B, which meant his liver was unable to process the anti-malaria drug. Lizzie told me Hepatitis B is contracted through blood or sex, but the boy was 9 when he died. This begs the question, had he been circumcised very early (unlikely) with a dirty implement? Had he been raped?

N. has told me in a different context that there is a problem with rapes of young women here. It is hard/impossible to know the scale of the problem at this point, and whether it is better or worse than other places.

I have also heard of at least 2 different instances of children in groups wounding themselves. In the first case, they made cuts on their own thighs. In the second case, very young kids were rubbing gravel into the backs of their hands until they bleed, creating large scabs. I wonder if this is an instance of kids being bored that can happen anywhere, or a sign of more serious problems.

Tues, 30 Oct 2007

Today I visited the home of my friend S. S. has a daughter my age, V, who is away doing a tourism/hospitality program, and S. is taking care of V’s 20-month-old daughter. S. does the best beadwork of any of the women I know here. N. and I drove to her house, which is not too far away, which is the first time I’ve driven here without an experienced driver sitting next to me (it went fine).

All the neighborhood kids gathered when they heard the car – there were 9 of them total, I think – and so N. and I had tea with S. with lots of little kids watching us. One of the neighbor girls looks to me like she has Downs Syndrome. N. told me (without me asking) that the little girl “wasn’t right”. I asked, “Do you mean she thinks slowly?” and N. said yes.

I told her I thought I knew what was wrong with the girl, and was able to get N. to confirm with S. that in addition to being slow, the girl is also very gentle, has difficulty talking, and that there is something wrong with her heart or breathing. If I recall correctly, those are all symptoms of Downs Syndrome (maybe I’m wrong about the heart part?).

There was also a very bright-eyed little girl named Benié, age 2, who S. told me she cares for she’s an orphan. My first thought was that it might be AIDS that killed her parents, but I didn’t want to ask directly, and Sabina might not know anyway. I did ask if Benié is sick, and S. said no, so I hope she is all right. I would like to keep an eye on her.

N. has a little sister who is six years old and one side of her is paralyzed because she had polio. Another of her little sisters, 7 months, was taken to town to see a doctor yesterday because of a fever, and it was diagnosed as malaria (which may or may not be a correct diagnosis considering malaria is rare in this area and not all the “doctors” people see in Nanyuki are real doctors).

C., the nurse’s daughter who I wrote about previously, is also sick and will be taken to a doctor in town tomorrow. Her mother says her whole mouth and throat are infected and she is unable to eat. Going to the doctor in town is a multi-day event because no one here has a car.

Sun, 28 Oct 2007

Today I am hanging out on B’s veranda. He is the mechanic at a fancy ranch near our camp, and so has a real house. Lizzie has gone to another ranch where she is working on a batch of honey wine. Tonight Loisaba’s hot air balloon pilot is holding a party where he plans to deep fry a turkey, and Lizzie and I decided we couldn’t pass that up.

Last night I was homesick. Figuring anything out here seems both pointless and hopeless; I am unconvinced there’s a pattern to communities’ behavior, and the language and cultural barriers are so high. But I won’t know if there’s a pattern until I go out to look for one…

The rain yesterday caused a zillion bugs to hatch, and the bugs were landing on the table in our mess as though it were raining nasty little black flying beetles. So Lizzie and I ate dinner in her tent, and that was nice.

The number of years living here that it could take to gain competence is daunting. I am to the point of taking the car on tolerably long drives, but I would be scared to cross deep gullies (imagine descending 15 feet in a Range Rover to a dry, sandy river bed and then climbing out of it) without Lizzie in the car. There are also rivers to be forded when I want to drive further. And never mind if the car were to break down.

But I am improving, and I’ll just take it a day at a time. I don’t drive without a radio, and with it I can call Lizzie no matter where I end up. That is a comfort, and yet being completely dependent on another person to come retrieve you is humbling. (More later on how humbling it is to be so obviously less hardy and competent, and yet so much better fed, than the Maasai all around me). Also, even if Lizzie isn’t there, I’ll always have a local person with me to direct me, seeing as I can’t tell apart the different paths through the scrub.

I think my Swahili is getting a little better; my Maasai is going essentially nowhere. The sum total of my Maa is as follows. You can see there’s no grammar yet, but it is helpful to be able to tell people that they have beautiful children, and they get a good laugh when I point at myself and say “kachumbai”. Some of them also call me by my Maa name, which is Nagira (“the quiet one”).

  • Kachumbai = white person
  • Kesidai = beautiful
  • Ntitai = little girl
  • Layioni = boy
  • Enkang = house
  • Lapa = moon
  • Damesi = camel
  • Nchan = grass
  • Esserian = hello (plural)
  • Sopa = hello
  • Lesere = goodbye
  • Ashe oleng = thank you very much
  • Nabo = one
  • Aré = two
  • Dey = my friend (as in “Eva, dey”, which is what my friend S. calls me)

Fri, 26 Oct 2007

I spent the last two days at a meeting run by the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) for Koija to form a Strategic Plan for community development (meaning business, health, education, and government improvements) for the next 3 to 5 years.

Tonight Lizzie and her friend B. and I watched the full moon rise over a nearby hilltop. It was huge and glowing and very beautiful. I’ve been very happily taking a hot shower every night and continue to sleep pretty soundly.

For lunch yesterday I ate roasted goat meat (very, very fresh; the goat was alive at 8:30am and we ate him at 1pm) over rice. The meat is very tough and fatty and a bit much for me. Today I just had rice with goat broth over it. It has rained a little bit every day since I’ve arrived and been a very livable temperature. I was wrong about Koija’s altitude; we’re at about 5,800 ft, not higher as I had been saying.

I’ve run into my two favorite toddlers here already. They’re my favorites because they aren’t afraid of me. Before six months and after 3 years or so, the kids aren’t frightened of white people, but in between they generally are.

Weds, 24 Oct 2007

I drove ‘my’ vehicle today for the first time, and the first time I’ve driven in Kenya except for about half an hour that I did two summers ago. I am not a good stick driver, but I’m going to be awesome in a couple months. There is a lot of down and up shifting to do on the unpaved roads. Today I drove N., my translator, home (Joseph came with us after I had some false starts in the car), but I successfully drove her the 45 minutes home and 45 minutes back. When I improve, it shouldn’t take nearly so long.

Lizzie and I went walking in search of cell phone coverage close to our camp this evening (rather than a 20 minute drive away where there is known to be reception). We were thrilled to see reception bars on our phones up in town, which is just a 20 minute walk up the hill, except that none of our attempts to phone out connected. Not only that, but the reception bars literally rose and fell with the gusts of wind that were swirling around us.

N. translated a document into Swahili for me today, my opening statement for interviews. She says it’s too difficult to write it in Maa, but that she can say it to people easily enough. I couldn’t get a better explanation from her. Lizzie speculated that this may be because Maa is so unsuited to the Latin alphabet.

In camp we have a Maa grammar guide that is so full of linguistics symbols and accents that the words look as though they are written in Greek letters. A priest named Father James also dropped by camp to find out what we do. He lives about 75 minutes away in a barren little town called Kimanjo.

Getting There – Feet Down in Kenya

Getting to Nairobi from England went fine, and so did the flight from Nairobi to Nanyuki (with a stop at Lewa Downs to deposit some other travelers). Lizzie (the Princeton post doc) and Joseph (a Kenyan conservation biologist who also lives in camp) met me at the airstrip and we did the weekly shopping. I did not end up having to drive “my” new Land Rover back to camp because both Lizzie and Joseph had come to town. They were picking up a new trailer to bring back to camp and Lizzie wanted to follow Joseph as he pulled it for fear it wouldn’t drive very well and it would get stuck. It turned out to be a good plan because it poured rain while we were still in Nanyuki and the unpaved roads were in terrible condition as we drove back up to Koija, where our camp is. A drive that normally takes 2 hours took us 3 and a half, with the trailer bouncing around behind Joseph in his 4×4, occasionally fishtailing out, and me and Lizzie with two Koija residents following behind him in our 4×4 watching him almost get stuck in the mud or slide off the road every few minutes. This morning when we tried to open the back door of the trailer for the first time, the beautiful shiny green metal trailer turned out to be an old rusty one all painted over, and one of the metal hinges sheered off. Which is all to say you have to inspect everything here. And in case this sound like a dramatic arrival, it’s not; just par for the course even in my limited experience of two prior trips to Kenya.

It is just me and Joseph and Lizzie in camp, so it’s very quiet. We bought lots of little plastic free-standing shelves in Nanyuki, which makes my 10’x10’ tent feel very home-like. I also have a locking trunk and an army cot and some linoleum on the floor of the tent. We still have our night guards (‘askaris’), named Simon and Kididing, who I like very much. Kelly is our cook, and Sainai, his sister, comes three times a week to do our wash. My translator Njelina also came today and will come six days a week. I find I am more used to the night sounds this time around (birds, crickets, jackals, singing from the young Maasai adults, and the omnipresent and unidentifiable rustlings). I’m helped in my so-called bravery by the fact that the elephants aren’t around right now, and I haven’t heard any lions. I am also so far less bothered by the dirt than I was at the start of the summer trip here.

Joseph hauled water from the river today in a plastic ‘bladder’ that holds hundreds of gallons. He made 3 trips to the river to fill our (I believe) thousand gallon water tank. He fills the bladder by siphon and empties it the same way. We have so far had meat at every meal, which is a gift after this summer’s trip, when I came back to the States ravenous for meat because our then-camp manager was vegan and fed us all the same way. I am lonely at night and nervous about work, but during the day I am okay and I really enjoy seeing all the people here again. The landscape has also grown on me; it is stark but pretty, and turns from brown to green just a few hours after it rains.