I just got back from being "in the bush" for 5 days in southern Kenya, outside the small town of Inyonyorri. This part of the country is very, very rural and only inhabited by Maasai tribespeople. In Inyonyorri, ICROSS has a clinic for the Maasai, run by Johnson. Johnson is Maasai himself, and I stayed with him and his family for 5 days.
I visited a Maasai tribe when I was here last time. The Maasai are what you think of when you think of an African tribe. They wear brightly colored fabrics, they have lots of colorful beaded jewelry, they plug their earlobes, and their main source of income is raising livestock. I took so many pictures last time that I didn't try too hard to get photos of the Maasai in their traditional garb. Here's a link to the pictures I took in 2006.
I had an AMAZING time with Johnson and his family. The Maasai are such a contemplative people that I felt like I was having a monastic experience at times...lots of stillness and silence. (The language barrier helped with that...) It was also a very formative experience. I can now say that I have been a shepherd, a goatherd, and a, um, donkeyherd. (More on that later.)
Johnson is one of the two nurses at the Inyonyorri ICROSS clinic for the Maasai. Though it’s next to the primary school, it’s still in the middle of nowhere. You have to drive about 2 miles on a dirt road to get there (which is far considering that no one owns a car). Essentially, people come to the clinic, tell Johnson what’s wrong, and he prescribes them meds. Lots of cases of malaria and fever. I don’t think it’s what I hope to be doing as a nurse, but I’m still glad that I was able to shadow him for a couple of days.
Sunday morning, I helped (kinda) Johnson and his brother David herd 9 donkeys to a "river" (aka small water reservoir) about 6 km away. I loved it. It was a nice, slow walk, and some of the views of the nearby hills and of the Rift Valley were beautiful. At the river, we filled up fourteen 20 L jugs of water and loaded them on the donkeys. When it was time to leave, Johnson told me to go ahead and start walking with the donkeys. What?! I said, "Um, okay. Uhh, let's go, donkeys." Thankfully, the donkeys stayed together and knew where they were going (I had no idea), but I was still really, really nervous for those 6 or 7 minutes.
Later that afternoon, Johnson said that we needed to go herd their goats and sheep around so that they could graze. There were about 100 total. At first, I was really excited because I had enjoyed herding the donkeys so much. But then we started walking and it SUUUUUUCKED. Awful. The goats themselves were okay. The problem was that we weren't following a specific trail. We were just walking around "the bush," as it were, which is very unpleasant. We were hardly ever on level ground. Instead, we were guiding the animals on the sides of hills (more like small mountains!) which are covered in loose rocks and deadly plants! I am not kidding when I say that EVERY PLANT IN SOUTHERN KENYA IS COVERED IN THORNS! BUSHES, TREES, EVERYTHING! Grass is the only thing that doesn't have thorns, but it's so dry there (they currently are in the middle of a drought) that all the grass is dead. I was cursing up a storm to myself. If I was looking up to avoid thorny tree branches, I'd step on a loose rock and nearly fall down the mountain. But if I was looking down to see where I was stepping, I'd get my shirt and/or hat caught in a tree. I was miserable...
But then I would catch a panoramic view of the Rift Valley. Or Johnson would offer me some fruit he picked off a tree. [Me: "What is it?" Johnson: "Wild fruit." Me: "Um, okay." (I put the small fruit in my mouth and chew. It has a pleasant, sweet and tart taste, but then all of the sudden, it tastes like I have 8 Warhead sour candies in my mouth. I quickly spit it out.) Johnson: (laughing) "You're not supposed to chew it!" Me: (thinking) "What the hell?! Thank you for the detailed instructions! Where I come from, people chew fruit." Apparently, you're just supposed to bite through the skin of the peel, suck out the juice, and spit it out.] Halfway through our journey, I remembered something that I read in Beginning to Pray by Anthony Bloom. He said that we're to treat everything in our day (even the things that hurt us or that we dislike) as a gift from God. I felt better when I realized that I may never again get the chance to herd goats in Kenya. Even though the plants were very hostile, the country was very beautiful. I became a little more appreciative, and that renewed spirit would last 3 or 4 minutes until I got caught in another giant, thorny bush. I had to keep reminding myself of how fortunate I was. But I also remembered something else that Bloom writes about. He says that we are to constantly be aware of the turmoil in our lives so that we can (and have to) depend more on God. Needless to say, I was praying a lot during the goatherding... And after three-and-a-half hours of mostly misery, it was over. Yes...
Later that day, Johnson's 8-year-old son Alex taught me how to milk a goat. Actually, I think forced me to milk a goat is more accurate. He gave me a cup and nudged me to the ground, and before I knew it, I was squeezing its udder. (You have to squeeze pretty hard.) I'm an unlonely goatherd indeed. Lay ee odl lay ee odl lay hee hoo!