Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Bling Bling and my Time with the "King": A Visit with a Maasai Warrior

John Tino and I at the 9/11 Memorial Pools in New York City

  I don't remember precisely at what point I became a little bit familiar with the Maasai tribe. I did, however, come to a point where I was able to recognize this tribe in photographs by their distinctive dress and physical characteristics. In a book I was recently reading, "Maasai" by Tepilit Ole Saitoti and Carol Beckwith, they are described as a beautiful people. That is my exact impression. There is something very striking about their red clothing, beaded accessories and figures which seem to be long and lean. I came across a website that claims the Maasai and Watusi tribes are among the tallest people in the world.

Recently, my knowledge of the Maasai tribe has increased. How? I had a Maasai warrior visiting me in my home. My retired father is now on the board for About-Face Missions (AFM), an organization that helps support indigenous pastors in various parts of the world. AFM arranged for John Tino, a Kenyan Maasai pastor, to visit the States for four months and speak at various churches. My parents and I had John as our guest for four days.

I was excited about his visit but had some concerns. Would we be able to relate? Would we find things to talk about? How would we entertain him? Would he like the food we gave him?

In spite of these concerns, everything went quite well. I don't have a photo of John when he first arrived at the house, but he arrived wearing his traditional Maasai clothing as well as beaded necklaces, headband and armbands, what later he charmingly referred to as "all those funny Maasai things." The only item of his clothing that was not quite so traditional was a pair of multi-colored striped socks which -- I guessed correctly -- he wore to keep himself warm in our comparatively colder weather.

 Although John is Internet savvy and owns a smart phone, coming to the States, such technology as flushable toilets and escalators were novel to him. His first experience on an airport escalator didn't go so well. "I fell on my back," he said.

We had no difficulty communicating at all. John's English was good, although he humbly insisted it was very poor. I did have less trouble understanding him than my parents did and sometimes found myself in the position of "translator." I'm not sure why this is, except that I have a knack for languages and have been exposed to the Swahili accent before. (Additionally, in a college linguistics class, we actually did a little study in Swahili.) At one point, John asked, "How come she understands my language?"

John Tino and I at breakfast
On his first day with us, he shared some videos about his culture and also brought out the big coffee table book mentioned in my first paragraph. Later, while the jet-lagged John napped, I dove into the book and learned all about the significant Maasai ceremonies and traditions.

Some Maasai songs and dances ...

Maasai life is centered all around cattle. Traditionally, the diet has consisted of milk, sometimes mixed with blood from the cattle, and only occasionally beef. The Maasai people are semi-nomadic and travel back and forth across the Kenya-Tanzania border, as the seasons change, and where the cattle can find grass. They also sometimes go on cattle raids, believing that all cattle belong to the Maasai.

John spoke at our church on Sunday. He gave a short sermon on integrity and then shared with us about the needs of his people. There are so many. A big one is a need for clean water and a well. There are children he knows who need specific medical care or sponsors to help them through school. Girls need feminine hygiene products so they don't need to miss school. You can donate to help with some of these needs through this website.

John Tino preaching at Chapel on the Hill in Cedar Grove, New Jersey

Display of Maasai items in the church foyer. At the bottom are calabash gourds for carrying milk.

Although we didn't expect it, John presented my entire family with gifts at the service. My gift was a traditional Maasai necklace with "bling bling." I was surprised and a little amused that John had learned this bit of American slang. He had picked it up from the AFM founder when he stayed with him in Texas. My necklace was crafted by his wife, Mercy, who was unable to travel with him. The "bling bling," the dangling metal medallions, are arranged in a V shape. Later, I wore this with a V-neck blouse and the shapes were very complementary.

John Tino presenting me with my "bling bling."

My mother's necklace was blingless but instead consisted of long twisted strands of beads. John guessed rightly that she would prefer a necklace without all that bling bling.

My father was given a shuka which, as John pointed out, was similar to what a Maasai elder would wear.

John Tino and Dad with his shuka

We had quite a lovely time over the four days. We found our guest to be warm and affectionate and, at times, quite humorous. Charlie, a friend from church, escorted John, my father and me into New York City on Sunday afternoon to see the Freedom Tower and the 9/11 Memorial Pools. This was an important goal of John's. He had been so saddened by the events of 9/11.

I've heard it said that New Yorkers are not surprised about anything, but I wondered if John's decorative dress would seem novel and surprising even in this setting. While in the city, we passed a billboard for Broadway's "The Lion King," and I teased John that New Yorkers might think he was a cast member from the play. John did draw a little attention, all positive. While in line to get our tickets for the Freedom Tower, one man, who had traveled to Kenya in the past, started speaking to John in Swahili. A little boy in the line behind us asked John if he was a chief or a king.

I could understand why the boy could look at John and think he was a king. At the time, he was carrying his highly decorated walking stick (which is not featured in any of these photos) and I could see that the boy might interpret that as a kind of kingly staff. John himself seemed highly amused by the idea that he was a king, and, teasingly, introduced himself that way to a couple of people later, including a waitress in a restaurant and a receptionist at my workplace.

Altogether, my time with the "king" is an experience I will not forget.