“Dedo*, what are savages?”

I spent a day this week with my 7 year old granddaughter and out of the blue she asked me what a savage was.   I was a bit taken aback.  I had not heard that word used for some time.  

It turns out that she had seen the word “Salvage” written on a truck but obviously had been exposed to the word “savage” somewhere else and though it was the same thing.

I realized that this was a word that I would have heard quite a bit when I was younger but it is not used any more (as a noun**) or if it is, it has to be used cautiously and with some tact.

I tried to explain that it used to refer to people who were uneducated or uncultured or had some wild tendencies, who lived in societies where there was not the same education or sophistication as one that we are used to. (Try putting that into words for a 7 year old).  I also added that I don’t think anyone these days is seen as being that way because even if people live remotely or away from what we call civilization they are not necessarily “savage” in that they have their own cultures and habits which might be different from ours but not inferior.   

“So are they called homeless people now?” she asked. 

This was getting complicated. And over the week I have been thinking about this word.

Sir JohnThis morning I walked past the statue in City Park of Sir John A MacDonald,  Canada’s first Prime Minister  and wondered if there would be a move to have it taken out of the park, given his involvement with the establishment of Residential Schools in Canada.   I reflected on how times and attitudes have changed (for most) and how back in those days, our Canadian Aboriginal population would have been though of as “savages”. Uneducated. Not British.  No sophistication. Our settler ancestors actually saw this as an opportunity to educate them and make them less “savage”.  Totally wrong but coming from a place that we can not fathom today.

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A portion of Kent Monkman’s painting “The Scream”.  Canadian indigenous children being wrenched from their families to be taken to a residential school. A horrendous page of Canadian history that we must acknowledge.

“When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write.”   Canada’s Prime Minister, John A MacDonald  May 1883

I remember having a midnight conversation a few years back with my close Maasai friend, Stephen.  He had just described to me several Maasai customs that were quite different from ours but that all had definite  significance and meaning and reason behind them to preserve longstanding customs that gave order to their society and even preserved it.  I recall him saying that white people may have thought of African cultures as being “savage” – the Dark Continent – but these cultures do have laws and rules and customs that have developed over the years to keep them functioning.  Those customs may be different from ours.  Not worse or primitive.  Just different.  The same comment might apply to our Canadian indigenous people.

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Maasai men drawing blood from a cow to drink (mixed with milk) at a celebration.  Not something we would do.  It didn’t hurt the cow at all (like you getting your blood taken) and makes perfect sense since they have no refrigeration, and so only slaughter their cattle occasionally when the meat can all be cooked and eaten in one day. This gives them some iron and protein without sacrificing the cow and if they rotate through the herd, the cow does not miss the blood at all.   Probably over time, the warriors who drank the blood were healthier so the custom persists in some rural Maasai communities.

Western literature sometimes portrayed  the image of the “Noble Savage” –uncorrupted by civilization and pure but unsophisticated and uneducated.  Both North American aboriginal people and native Africans were seen as a bit of a novelty by some. Charles Dickens, however, was in disagreement with this image and wrote this in his journal in 1853.

“TO come to the point at once, I beg to say that I have not the least belief in the Noble Savage. I consider him a prodigious nuisance, and an enormous superstition. His calling rum fire-water, and me a pale face, wholly fail to reconcile me to him. I don’t care what he calls me. I call him a savage, and I call a savage a something highly desirable to be civilised off the face of the earth. I think a mere gent (which I take to be the lowest form of civilisation) better than a howling, whistling, clucking, stamping, jumping, tearing savage. It is all one to me, whether he sticks a fish-bone through his visage, or bits of trees through the lobes of his ears, or bird’s feathers in his head; whether he flattens his hair between two boards, or spreads his nose over the breadth of his face, or drags his lower lip down by great weights, or blackens his teeth, or knocks them out, or paints one cheek red and the other blue, or tattoos himself, or oils himself, or rubs his body with fat, or crimps it with knives. Yielding to whichsoever of these agreeable eccentricities, he is a savage — cruel, false, thievish, murderous; addicted more or less to grease, entrails, and beastly customs; a wild animal with the questionable gift of boasting; a conceited, tiresome, bloodthirsty, monotonous humbug.”  Charles Dickens – June 1853.

To write something like this today would be considered racist and inflammatory.

Noble savage

Times change.  We don’t use the word “savage”** much any more (as a noun to describe people) and if we do, we have to be pretty careful about it.  There are lots of other “ethnic” terms that seemed quite common when I was a kid that are deemed totally racist and inappropriate today.    Most of us ( in my circle at any rate)  are respectful of other cultures and aware that although we are different in our beliefs and customs and language and skin colour and history, we are neither inferior or superior to one another.  And that is a very good thing.

 

*When my first granddaughter was born I was working in Bosnia and Herzegovina, didn’t relish being called grandpa so took the Bosnian name for grandfather,  Dedo.   Now I am Dedo to five grandkids and this is what the whole family call me – and other kids too.

** Savage can be a noun, an adjective or a verb.  As an adjective it can be used to mean uncultured, boorish, or wild. ( a savage beast)  As a verb it can mean to attack brutally.   (The tornado savaged the neighbourhood).  As a noun it generally refers to a primitive, uncivilized person.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Helping educate African children…

One of the mandates for the CanAssist African Relief Trust is to improve education opportunities for children in East Africa by providing infrastructure that will achieve this.

One of the schools funded by CanAssist is the Oltaraja Elementary School in a remote Maasai community in the Rift Valley, Kenya.   CanAssist has built one classroom there and in 2014 will build another.  Children who would otherwise have had to walk several kilometres to a school (or not go at all) will have the opportunity to get some Primary education closer to home.

An African solution to an African problem…

When I visited my friends, the Moiko’s, in Kenya in January they were having a problem. They are a typical (modern) Maasai family who, in addition to pursuing higher education and communicating with their iPhones and on Facebook, continue to raise cattle. Traditionally, the Maasai have had a strong link with their herds of cows and most of their typical day revolved around tending to their cattle as their main investment. Finding water and grass for their herds, often when water and pasture is scarce, milking the cows in the morning and evening and protecting them from predator animals took most of the Massai herdsman’s time.

img maasai bomaIn many parts of Kenya and Tanzania, there are Maasai villages that continue in this tradition. People live in bomas, small collections of mud huts around a central paddock where the animals are kept overnight. During the day, the women look after the children, collect firewood and water, cook and repair the homes while the men and boys take the cattle and goats out to graze.

At Stephen’s place, the children are up early to catch the school bus and Stephen goes off in his car to work at a Food Security program as he finishes his work on a PhD from McGill in Montreal. But at home, there are still the cattle to manage. Hired herdsmen look after the cows and goats but the family still goes to the paddock in the evening to inspect the livestock and milk the cows. It is a nice mixture of modern life with the traditional. I imagine that this blend is not easy to maintain.

In rural areas, Maasai men, dress traditionally and periodically meet together to "eat meat" and discuss community problems, like predators attacking their cattle.

In rural areas, Maasai men, dress traditionally and periodically meet together to “eat meat” and discuss community problems, like predators attacking their cattle.

One of the problems in more rural settings is with predators attacking the cattle. I remember dropping in to a clinic at Talek, near the Maasai Mara, only to be drawn into the small treatment room by the local health care provider who was covered in blood as he sewed up the wounds of a young Maasai fellow who had been mauled by a lion he was chasing away from his cattle.

Nearer to Nairobi, the risk of these larger predators is not as great although I do recall Stephen’s daughter telling me of having to walk past a cheetah on her way up the driveway one day as she came home from school.

The recent problem for Stephen is buffalo that come down from the Ngong Hills to a salt lick in his pasture. They break down the fence and they eat the grass. Buffalo are also a significant security risk as they can be ornery beasts, dangerous to humans. When I visited in January, Stephen was getting tired of mending the fence and wondering what to do.

Well it seems that not far away other Maasai were having similar problems with lions. And this boy came up with a solution. Check it out. I wonder if it will work for Stephen’s buffalo problem.

A visit with one of my “kids” …

In blog post in December, I told you about my Maasai goat, Veronica. (My goat, Veronica – December 8, 2012) Well this weekend I had the opportunity to revisit V2, Veronica’s daughter. Veronica is apparently off with the larger goat herd grazing somewhere more removed from the Moiko farm but V2 was a bit too young to make the trek so is still at home with about ten other goats and the sheep. I think she had had sons as well since I inherited her but they have likely ended up in a stew.

Veronica Lake

Veronica Lake

I can now recognize V2 easily in the flock by her speckled face and the eyebrows inherited from her mother (which led me to name the mother Veronica after Veronica Lake, a movie star from the 1940’s)

The Massai mark their animals for ownership by making distinctive cuts in their ears. My goats have my own branding which is two cuts on either side of the left ear and nothing on the right ear. So if they get lost or when mixed with the other goats it is always clear that they are mine.

John, Dennis and V2  - 2013

John, Dennis and V2 – 2013

Me, Dennis and Veronica - 2005

Me, Dennis and Veronica – 2005

A bonus was that I also got to visit with Dennis, who gave Veronica to me in 2005. We got our photo with V2 who happens to be pregnant. Dennis promised to send me a photo of my next grand-kid so stay tuned to see the next member of the Geddes ole Moiko clan of goats.

You can notice, as well, that I am wearing the  same Maasai beaded bracelet that Dennis gave to me in 2005.  An enduring friendship .

My goat – Veronica

In an earlier post, I mentioned my goat, Veronica. Let me tell you about how she came to be mine.

Over the time I spent with the Canadian Field Studies in East Africa, I became good friends with Stephen Moiko, a Maasai fellow who, I met in 2004. In addition to having a traditional Maasai background (he is the second youngest of 27 in his extended Maasai family) Stephen has excelled in academics and is soon completing his Phd in Anthropology at McGill.

His family lives just outside Nairobi on a home site that was once part of his father’s traditional village. They are gradually acquiring various more modern amenities but still struggle with access to water and have outdoor latrines. Electricity is a convenience introduced to their home only 3 years ago.

I have stayed with this family several times since meeting them in 2004 and the many conversations I have had with Stephen, his wife, his mom and his kids have really helped me understand Maasai culture.

On one visit, young Dennis, a nephew of Stephen’s who lives across the road, was sitting with me in the living area as the solar lights were gradually dimming. He was about 12 at the time and intrigued by this muzungu from Canada.

Our conversation was limited and some of our time was spent sitting side by side in silence.

At some point we started talking about friends. “Who is your best friend?” I asked.

“Right now, you are.” was his answer. He took a Maasai bracelet that had been made by his grandmother off his wrist and gave it to me. “I want you to have this,” he said.

Then he said “And I want to give you one of my goats, too.”

I was flattered but didn’t want the boy to give me something so valuable to their family. “Thanks, Dennis but I can’t take it. You know I live far away.”I said

“Oh, you won’t take it away, I will look after it for you but it will be yours. I want to give it to you as my friend.”

The next morning he took me to the paddock and showed me the goat that was to become mine. It was a healthy young female goat with dark marks over the eyes. “She looks like Veronica Lake,” I said. “Let’s call her Veronica.”

Time has gone on. Dennis is now a young man, having just completed secondary school. Veronica looks a little old and tired but she has had a few kids over the years and Stephen’s mom can still point them out to me. Maasai herdsmen identify their animals by making a unique combination of cuts in their ears to show who owns them. Veronica and her progeny are marked with my unique brand – as part of the Moiko clan. When I visit the family, I always go out to the field to find Veronica and what remains of her extended family. Some of her offspring have, no doubt, become someone’s dinner.

I will always remember the generosity of this young Maasai boy. I still have the beaded bracelet and although I have been given many other beaded items over the years, this is the one that I wear when I visit Maasai communities in Kenya. And Dennis and his grandmother still notice with pride that it is his bracelet that is on my arm. The bracelet reminds us all of the endearing connection we have established despite our quite divergent backgrounds.

I suspect that when I visit them over the years, Maria will point out a goat that is supposed to be one of Veronica’s offspring. I won’t know if they are just humouring me or if it really is one of “mine”. But really, it doesn’t matter. We know that it is a little remembrance that will bond us and that is what is important.

Dennis LP.S. How cool is this? As a result of publishing this blog article three days ago, my young friend Dennis has found me online and we have had a chat. He is now a young man, attending University in Nairobi. What a Christmas treat for me!!! The internet has shrunk the world beyond belief.

The “D” word…Drought.

This is a slight variation on an article that I wrote that was published in the Kingston Whig Standard, on Monday October 22, 2012.

In Eastern Ontario it has been a dry hot summer. Ideal for vacations, swimming at the cottage and just living outdoors. But not ideal for farmers.

We tend to take water and even adequate rainfall for granted here in Canada. But this year farmers in Ontario were suffering. Apparently corn crops are miserable. Many farmers who raise livestock are having trouble finding feed for them. Grazing fields have been dry and wheat crops have failed. The Ontario Federation of Agriculture, combined with the Mennonite Disaster Service have initiated a program whereby Western Canadian Wheat farmers can donate bales of hay for feed to ship by train or truck to their Ontario peers.

The first shipment of 200 bales arrived this week. They estimate that the need is more like fifty thousand bales.

I wonder if we are getting the idea that the climate is changing and that it will affect us. We have been relatively insulated from the shift in weather patterns. Air conditioning when it is hot. Ample supply of fresh water in lakes and rivers. Government subsidies. Social assistance.

In Africa the situation is more challenging.

Just for a moment, put yourself in the shoes of a Maasai herdsman in Kenya.

First of all, the shoes would likely be made from old auto tires. Or maybe you would have no shoes at all.

Your herd of cattle, even at their best being scrawny compared to what you see in Canada, are grazing in the open on land that is barren and dry. It has not rained in several months. You have to walk miles with your cattle to the local watering hole, a source shared by the livestock and humans alike for drinking, cleaning and bathing.

On the way to the water source one of your animals becomes weak and collapses. You have no choice but to leave her there. Hyenas and vultures will take care of the rest.

Traditionally you have always relied on your animals as your source of wealth and many years ago you moved with your extended family from region to region, building a new village as you relocated and following the rain and grass for your animals.

Early in the 1900’s the British colonialists arrived saw your land as being not “owned” by anyone. Ignoring your traditions, they quickly set to work according to their laws and customs to purchase land for themselves and erect fences. You and your animals became gradually squeezed to less favourable locales. The city of Nairobi now sits on land that your grandfather used for grazing his cattle.

Rain is essential to your survival. In the past few years there have been increasingly longer periods of drought, often lasting for months and months. Your animals stop producing milk. Many of them die. Your “wealth” is drastically reduced along with your supply of food.

You have nowhere to turn for social support. Food prices in general escalate, in part because of lack of local foodstuffs but also because of the increasing cost of fuel to transport food from further away.

What can you do? Where can you turn? You might give up your traditional means of livelihood and move to the city. But you are not educated, have never used a computer and when you get there would be forced to cram into slum living conditions with others who are flocking to the city looking for work.

So you pray for rain. Your children go hungry. You scrounge for any bit of food for you and your animals. You rely on handouts from International Food Aid programs or your neighbours. You hope.

Eventually rain comes. Within days there is a tinge of green on the landscape. You rejoice that you have survived this crisis, emerging more poor even than you were before, but ready to start over.

Every few years, this kind of drought event has occurred in East Africa for a long time. Now, the problem is that this pattern is happening with increasing frequency.

People in tropical climates have recognized these changing patterns for a while now. They are powerless to change them. The CO2 emissions that are leading to these climate variations are coming, almost entirely, from the more opulent nations in temperate climates – regions that have been somewhat protected from the resulting changes. We may be happy to shovel less in the winter, spend more time on the beach in the summer but eventually the penny will drop.

This year in Ontario we have had a significant drought. It has been a crisis for farmers and food producers here. Will it become more common as time goes on and the climate changes? How can we prepare for this?

And I wonder what will happen to the Maasai pastoralists.

Here are some weather observations that reinforce the notion that patterns are changing.