Eric <randomly during a car ride>: Nogoshi!
<He has been working on his Maa (Maasai language)>
Lanoi Charity (the local woman who runs the Oltumo project): What does Ngoshi mean?
Eric: It means potato.
Eric: I am surprised you needed to ask me. Don't you know what Ngoshi means?
Lanoi: Well, I know what it means, yes. But I wasn't sure what YOU thought it meant.
Which is fair. There were no potatoes around at the time.
Me: He plans to take it home and tell everyone it is a Maasai swear word. Nobody will know the difference.
Me: What ARE the Maasai swear words?
My dad taught me you can tell a lot by a culture from their swear words. He told me how there were religious swears for a long time, then when the wars hit, we got introduced to "bloody" as a swear, and then during my life time, we became obsessed with sex and it's associated body parts. So I am very curious what is so charged in Maasai culture that they use it for curse words.
Salaash: We don't... swear... exactly. I guess you could curse someone.
Me: Like we will say "damn you"?
Lanoi <raises eyebrows at the casual way I am cursing other people>
Me: I'm not actually cursing him. Even the people who believe in damnation don't believe that humans have any influence on it. So it's like an exercise in PRETENDING to curse each other.
This seems like a dumb cultural practice, even to me.
Lanoi: We believe that words have a lot of power when people say them. So we don't curse a person directly. We will say "I wish good things for you and your family", but you replace "good" with "not good" in your mind.
Me: How do you know that they will not misunderstand and think you are actually wishing good things?
Salaash <drily>: They will not misunderstand.
Me: Even though you are saying the opposite of what you mean.
Me: Like when a Canadian says sorry?
Salaash: Yes. Like that.
First thing when I arrived, I wanted to know the word for “sorry” in Maa. It turns out THERE ISN’T ONE. As a Canadian, I am completely lost without the s-word. I am left without the ability to apologize, to smooth out social situations, to get people’s attention, to create conversation filler, to tell people I’m annoyed, to… well, Canadian sorry is a very versatile word.
Me: What do you say when you do something wrong, then?
Salaash: Well, if it wasn’t on purpose we tell people it wasn’t on purpose.
The entire Maasai approach to conflict is very different. They have an approach that I have been taught via systems psychology to view as “unhealthy triangles”… Meaning that everyone is up in everyone else’s business. When I started to take inter-cultural-competency training, I realized that it’s more complicated than this.
It’s not “unhealthy” it’s just different.
Me <long ago>: Explain to me how it works to solve conflict between two people by bringing in, uh, one or two other…
Salaash: It's not one or two others, it's half the village. At least. For anything serious.
Me: But why do that for a problem that exists just between two people?
Salaash: But it isn’t two people. No conflict is ever between two people. Because it is never rooted in just the two people, and it never effects only them. The situation always matters. It is the problem of the whole community, and the whole community helps solve it.
Me: But what’s to stop one person from being a trouble maker who runs around telling everyone—
Salaash: Nothing. That happens all the time.
Me: Well then…
Salaash: Look. Everybody knows that guy. We know what he’s up to. You put the story in the context of who is telling it.
Maasai are very wise to triangle tomfoolery.
In the end, our different conflict approaches are not just a translation issue. Salaash’s concepts are actually different from mine. I see a community as a group of things-called-people. He sees the community as the "main" thing, made up of parts-called-people. The community owns, is effected by, and has the power to solve the problem. Like if my liver and kidney are having issues with each other, I do not think of it as a quarantinable liver-kidney issue, I think of it as a Liz's-health issue. I have sometimes summed this up as “putting the needs of the community before the individual”, but I am learning I’ve been wrong in this. The individual’s needs matter—just like the needs of my liver matter to me. Maasai do not throw their people under the bus. Like I do not throw my liver under the bus.
Understanding this, their approach to dealing with the drought makes so much more sense.
“We have very little money, so we put it together so it will grow” one woman explained. At first, I didn’t understand. But then, it started to make sense. The way money owned by a club can’t be taken by a husband, or spent on a temporary crisis. The way they can buy more and do more via this structure, and lean on one another for wisdom.
The I’m-a-liver-you’re-a-kidney approach is a real gift to me. It causes me to be so much more effective in daily life. And also in my work with the Maasai. Over time, I start to realize that my “I will help you come up with solutions” approach isn’t really my place. They have solutions. My plan to teach them how to come together is downright laughable--they are experts at coming together, in ways that I as a North American can't even dream of.
I am learning that at the heart of I'm-a-liver-you're-a-kidney is the question "What is my place to offer to the whole? What is missing that I can provide?"
What they don’t have and I do is not wisdom or plans. It's access to places to tell their story. It's the voice needed to find the small amounts of capital to make those solutions happen.
My place, I’m realizing more and more, is to gather the stories and tell them. To give people a chance to join with the women in funding the plans they’ve painstakingly come together to create.
If you’d like to be a part of this, or you want to learn more about the Oltumo Maasai’s business plans, you can find the amazing details of their story and strategies on their Go Fund Me page. A ten dollar donation is worth almost two days of a woman's work. I am personally paying all overhead and transaction fees, which means every single penny you donate will go straight into the hands of these women.