Maasai Oral Histories
The Maasai Oral Histories Project aims to record and archive Maasai oral histories, myths, rituals, stories, laws, and beliefs, which are traditionally passed on by senior elders.
The Road to Mara Rianta
Bob Pearlman
01/12/2005, Mara Rianta, Kenya

The Road to Mara Rianta

Can you hear me now? Can you see me now?

The African silence that precedes a predatory encounter speaks volumes. The silence from students in America's schools is simply disappointing.

Teachers and students: We need your feedback!

We've visited two schools in the last five days and, like the proverbial parent asking their children "why haven't you called" - I'm asking, "why haven't you emailed"?

We sincerely need to hear from you. Your participation is vital if we're going to have an intercultural dialogue, albeit with a 12-hour time delay, even if you just say "hello" and click "send". Tomorrow we're moving on to a different school with an elder that looks a little like Danny Glover with incredibly expressive hand movements.
A natural storyteller. But before we do, I thought it might be helpful and informative to explain the logistics of what we're doing over here; how even the daily field journal entries, written by team members, requires up to seven hours of work - after three or four grueling hours of traveling to rural schools and back to camp.

First, the interviews with elders and questions from students need to be translated. The journal entries, based on our daily experience, are written and edited, the photos are downloaded, edited and selected,
and each component is then formatted for the Web Journal. When everything is ready for transmission the satellite dish is brought out, coordinated and set up to connect to the Internet. Special software allows us to access only the Field Journal page from a remote site. Sometimes it takes two or three attempts to secure the connection and send the material. All of the above, from loading up in the morning to breaking down at night might take as long as ten hours. A very labor-intensive process, but we think it's worth it.

What's your excuse? If I want to think negatively, I begin to wonder if American students think they already know everything there is to know about the Maasai. After all, they have Encarta, Google, excellent textbooks, television documentaries, video, DVD's, libraries, and many other sources of reference. Google alone has over a million entries on the Maasai. Maasai children have nothing and expect even less. American children have everything and expect even more. The disparity is mind-boggling. The students we've met this week might be seeing a computer for the first time. They've heard of America, but only have a vague idea where it is, and they know virtually nothing about how students in the United States live their lives. Based on questions they've posed to American students, they're obviously curious about even the most basic things; such as what do American children eat for breakfast. A glance at the list of their questions gives me the sense that there was something in each that would be worthy of five minutes of classroom discussion. After all, what is Maize?

Instead of being negative, I would rather think that what we need is some positive feedback from teachers and students, which was the basic premise of this phase of the project to begin with. Ask your own questions. Tell us what you think. Ask the elders and students a direct question instead of reading a textbook. If there is something that will make your class more involved and we can do, we'll do it.

Our primary task of recording Maasai oral histories was completed in December. It will require many months of translation, in English and Swahili, before that material will be available. In the meantime, we're providing a unique classroom forum that allows students in America and Kenya to connect with Maasai elders and students. It costs nothing to participate except, perhaps, a little initiative on your part to get the process started, or a little flexibility is your curriculum has African studies scheduled in March instead of January.

We leave on January 20th. After that date, the material will be archived chronologically and can be visited at any time, but the interactive sessions will be finished. In the meantime, we'll provide more on-the-spot translations on the Field Journal and less personal observations. Best of all would be to hear from you.

Robert Pearlman

Section II
Q&A with students from Mara Rianta.

Q. What do you understand about your (Maasai) culture?

A. They learn from the older people (elders) and from the rituals and ceremonies (rites of passage) they see at home.

Q. What is the future of your (Maasai) culture?

The culture is still strong and they like it -- but from what they see and hear it might gradually die out. However, they would not like to lose it. They would also like to retain the Maa language.

Q. What do you do during your spare time and for entertainment?

A. During their free time over weekends the boys look after the goats, cattle, and sheep, and play football. Footballs are made by taking plastic waste paper, burning it until it sticks together, then molding it into a round shape. Girls like to construct little houses and act like mothers, (play house). They also play a game called 'oldongi', a game of stones. Children make swings from bent tree branches, and slides from sloping places. During moonlight nights they all play "hide and seek" outside. They also walk to their neighbors to visit friends.

Q. What do you want to attain after your studies?

A. Most students, especially girls, hoped to finish their studies and become nurse, doctor, pilot or teacher -- rather than get married at a young age.

Q. Would you like to live in the city?

The collective answer was "no". They would prefer to live in their beautiful and cool environment.

Q. Who tells you stories? Can you narrate a story?

A. The grandmothers tell them stories.

A Story about a Hare and a Hyena
By Keen Ole Leperes, Age 12

Once upon a time there lived a hyena and a hare. They owned a great number of cattle and sheep. Looking after these animals was a task to them hence they had to share the duty. Taking turns, one went to look after the animals each day and the other stayed home to rest.

Whenever the hyena was on duty a cow or a sheep always disappeared. The fact is the hyena always ate it before he drove the animals' home.

The hare always asked why the cows disappeared when the hyena was on duty but no right answer was ever given by the hyena. She then had to find the reason why they disappeared. One evening they sat together and discussed it. The hare suggested that they both light a huge fire and jump over it. Whoever dropped into the fire would be the one that ate the cattle.

The hare was very clever and tactful. She jumped over the fire several times before it really lit up. When it was the hyena's turn to jump the fire was already red hot. He jumped over the first time and was successful. But when he tried the second time he trampled into the fire and started burning. His cry for help was ignored by the hare. What she said was, "Do you mean I should turn you over so you can get a nice burn"? The hyena ended up dying and all the property remained with the hare -- and she lived a happy life without the hyena.

End of Story

Lesson: The hare was the cleverest animal. When this story was being narrated, the children listening say, "Ee," or "yes," after every sentence to show that they are paying attention.