There is a residential area near my high school in Hangzhou, China where many young African students live. Every time I ran into them at the bus stops, grocery stores, and print shops, we greeted each other shyly. Over time, I became interested in their cultures.
As I learned more about various ethnic groups on the African continent, I became interested in the Maasai, an ethnic group that was internationally known to maintain their culture, traditions, and lifestyles. However, my experience with the African young people in the neighborhood made me wonder if the Maasai still completely followed the traditional Maasai lifestyles detailed in my history textbook.
However, the more I read online about the Maasai, the further from the complex reality of the Maasai and various living conditions on the African continent generally. On the one hand, hostility and prejudice against the African people dominated the Chinese mainstream media. The African continent was often assumed to be a primitive, backward, and unsanitary land where people are passively waiting to be rescued, treated, and fed. On the other hand, articles in academic journals provided information that focused on very specific aspects of the Maasai life, but failed to present a complete picture of their current living conditions.
I decided to explore the reality of the Maasai culture by traveling to Kenya, where most of the Maasai live, and immersing myself in their daily lives.
Unexpected Challenges of my Maasai Immersion
As part of my grand plan of Maasai immersion, I visited ten Maasai families over three days in Oloitoktok, Kenya. During most of my waking moments, I was either meeting with Maasai friends or making new Maasai friends.
Uber drivers would ask me how I was doing that day, and pedestrians shouted ‘’Jumbo! Karibu Kenyatta!’’ (“Hello, welcome to Kenya” in Swahili) from a great distance, and would run to shake hands with me. The hosts of homes provided hot Ugali and Sukuma Wiki. Our friendship blossomed over the sound of conversation and chewing. I began to feel more confident in reaching out to strangers, embracing them, and accepting whatever the people of this land offered to me. No one ever refused to answer my questions. Although I was illiterate in Maasai culture, my soul feels close to these people. I became comfortable with cheering in a crowd of unfamiliar faces and accepting every hand that dragged me into a dance.
Despite the attempt at intense immersion, I started questioning if I would ever truly understand the cultural nuances and the ways of thinking among the Maasai.
It was an intimate conversation with a Maasai female friend that made me examine my role as a cultural participant and observer. During one of my home visits, my girlfriend, Nashipae, warmly welcomed me while holding her baby daughter. She proudly explained various rituals and traditions of the Maasai, the most beautiful civilization on the earth in her opinion. When the topic turned to female genital circumcision (FGM), she paused and grew silent. Slowly, she started recalling the heartbreaking stories of her childhood girlfriends who died of FGM. She revealed the traumatizing exclusion and mockery that she lived through during her years in junior high school, as she was never circumcised. In order to escape from the cruel mockery, many uncircumcised girls of her age back then would beg their parents to circumcise them. Many of them never returned alive. “It’s much better now. At least FGM is illegal, isn’t it?” Nashipae gently touched her daughter’s head.
Born in a completely different culture and society, I never experienced that same level of sexism and patriarchy. The visit left me with a lot of questions. As much as I could participate and observe the daily lives of the Maasai, I may never truly understand the suffering they went through and their complex feelings on FGM. I realized that I could never truly “become a Maasai”. The Maasai culture belongs to its own people. What should be my standpoint when interacting with people from other cultures?
The Oneness of humanity
A lunch gathering brought clarity to my confusion. When I was taking a break from the Maasai immersion, I accepted an invitation from a Kenya Baha’i family to attend lunch at their home in the suburb of Nairobi. According to Wikipedia, Baha’i believers account for only 2% of the population in Kenya, a Christian-dominated country. During lunch, Kathy shared stories from her childhood as one of the only few women who received higher education in her village. Before retirement, Kathy dedicated her career to the work of UN peacekeeping and moved with the UN missions to various countries around the world. She regards herself as a global citizen and that the world needs universal inclusiveness.
As a Baha’i, Kathy believes that oneness of religion, God and humanity is the truth. She explained that unity will not be achieved through the suppression of differences, but instead through the respects towards the intrinsic value of other individuals and cultures. It is not diversity that causes conflicts and division, but rather people’s intolerance and prejudice towards diversity.
Division does not only exist between China and Africa. As the way people interact with each other changes with time, we are more accustomed to separating ourselves from the community. This is an era that is sustained by the law of demand and supply. In order to meet the demand to create wealth, the desire for consumption and private ownership is extensively encouraged. With the popularization of high-tech products, the latest information can be quickly transferred from individual to individual. An increasing number of people become involved in the endless materialistic pursuit cycle because of eye-catching advertising and publicity, and possession of material goods and fortunes can work as a measure of happiness. In addition, almost everyone prefers to communicate at a digital level, and the Internet grants everyone a chance to “construct” themselves. We are obsessed with what others see, not who we are. In a virtual society, every living person can be turned into an electronic resume. Using data, people from every corner of the globe can know someone’s age, gender, birthplace, interest, activities he or she recently participated, and even more. Communication appears to be enhanced, but in actuality, it becomes emotionless transactions. With interpersonal relationships established on profits and dialogue full of strong intent to manifest other viewers’ opinions about oneself into a shape one desire, people tend to be more attached and dependent on each other, but is this intimacy based on honesty and an open mind? As society becomes less concerned with personal or interpersonal well-being, are we losing our way in expressing genuine selves to the world?
I got in touch with Rhodia, an anthropologist in Nairobi who devoted her entire life studying the Samburu community. She has discerned that the tribal civilization, which prioritized unity and love, is now leaving their utopia behind and marching into a cold, cold world. I was saddened by this pessimistic view for a while because civilization cannot move backward in order to preserve the precious part of every culture. But now I am aware that the answer has been right in front of me, hidden in this journey. In the ancient land of Africa, there exists modern people: among them are Baha’is who believe in humanity’s oneness and practice their beliefs by treating friends from all around the globe as family members, Maasai who send their children to a Westernized school but insist on tribal ceremonies and telling stories by the fireside, and African-born intellectuals who established organizations to solve social problems. These African born global citizens brought me hope. They make great effort to add mass on an invisible scale, trying to balance science and technology with noble humanity.
In my journey of exploring the reality of Maasai culture in Kenya, I found something much deeper. It is not hard to learn about the material aspects of culture, such as clothing, cuisines, artifacts and etc. However, it is the hardest part is to learn about things behind the surface: what people think and why they think the way they think. I still don’t fully understand the Maasai ways of thinking. But I have found the key that will guide me through my cultural exploration in the future.
Helena Xu is a youth fellow at China House Kenya
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