“Experience is The Best Teacher”

Copy of Keith Valley School AuditoriuSusan Naserian Nketoria

While in Maasailand I hope to interview some Maasai women and feature each of them on The Bucks Underground Railroad during March–Women’s History Month. Susan is the first of five.

My initial meeting of Susan is in May 2005. She, along with Daniel Salau Rogei are special guests at a Meet and Greet in Peace Valley Park hosted by Phyllis Eckelmeyer. It’s at this event I purchase my first piece of Maasai jewelry. Susan doesn’t speak a word as she snaps the bracelet around my wrist. Nine years later, that quiet demeanor I witness blossoms into a confident and knowledgeable woman–born from her experiences of speaking in front of hundreds of people about her Maasai culture.

Beaded jewelry becomes the means by which Maasai women form their own micro-finance company: Olorien/SIMOO. Susan’s compound is the meeting place where as many as thirty women regularly gather to create traditional and contemporary pieces of jewelry. In addition to the income from their jewelry sales the women raise chickens to sell eggs at the market. Extra vegetables are also sold at market. Now when Susan travels to Bucks County she brings jewelry created by women from the co-op. She keeps a ledger of all sales so that the money can be returned to each specific woman.

Olorien also partners with HairZing, an American company owned by Francesca Kuglen and Hollie Montgomery. The women support female crafters in developing countries by offering their products for sale on Hairzing’s website. The partnership with Olorien becomes more solid in 2008 and 2009 when the two executives travel to Kenya in order to meet with the women and assist them in ways to improve the marketing of their jewelry.

We at MCEP were aware that Susan traveled to Washington DC last June; but we had no details. Now as I interview her and ask about her 2014 visit, there’s a backstory to her representing the Maasai culture from the Olosho oibor village at the Smithsonian Festival 2014.

“For forty-eight years, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival has gathered people from around the globe on the National Mall to celebrate the best of the Group photo at 2014  Festivalhuman spirit.”

So begins the introduction on the Festival’s 2014 website about this event. Kenya and China will be the featured Nations where their cultures of “… song and story, movement and craft in tow, exemplars of traditional genres demonstrate practices that continue to resonate in our modern world.” This picture is of the Kenyan and Chinese participants also from the 2014 Smithsonian Festival’s website.

Susan’s adventure begins when a Kajiado County Cultural Coordinator (the County where Olosho oibor is located) comes to interview the singing group in her village. Susan is a member of this group and they are one of three Maasai singing groups from different regions that will be interviewed. All the singers travel to Nairobi for a second audition at the Sports and Culture House. As each singer is interviewed individually, Susan’s responses are noticed. They ask about the jewelry she wears and she thoroughly describes the meaning of the colors and designs.

Susan is asked to return to Nairobi, minus the singing group. She is asked to talk about aspects of her Maasai culture. She describes her jewelry, the tasks of building manyattas and Maasai wedding ceremonies. She shines brighter than the brightest star in the dark Kenyan sky! Her multiple travels to Bucks County are proof of what results after speaking many times before hundreds of students and academics at schools or colleges, and to professionals at organizations. These life experiences of her visits to America as well as her ability to speak  distinctive English and having a valid Visa are the perfect resume that eventually take her to the 2014 Smithsonian Festival.

Susan speaks warmly about her two weeks in America. The Festival ran from June 22 until July 7. Each day from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m. she joins other Maasai on the Mall surrounding the reflecting pond. Each of the Maasai are sheltered in a separate tent and available to describe their unique cultural knowledge to tourists. Other Maasai representing their culture at the Festival include a woman and man storyteller, a musician, a carving artist, a weaver and a hair braider. The participants enjoy an outing to Williamsburg and when I tease Susan by asking if ‘room service’ was most fun, she giggles instead of answering my question. She keeps in touch by cell phone with the hair braider–having made a lasting friend from her trip to America.

Susan and Francis’ two sons Ezekiel and Amos mentioned in my previous post, The Compound in Olosho Oibor Village are continuing their education–one at a prestigious boarding school, the other in his first year of college. They represent the next generation that will continue the legacy of their Maasai culture.







A Maasai/Christian Church Service

DSC_1381Sunday, February 22, 2015:  A bright and warm Sunday morning greets us. The cold white-snow winter back in America is nowhere to be felt here. I take the short walk across the compound with my plastic tub to be filled with warm water for the morning ritual of a “bird bath”. This is a small inconvenience compared to turning a spigot for water to flow from faucets or shower nozzles. It’s impossible to imagine not bathing at all because the water from a 5-gallon container is not clean and is used sparingly for cooking and drinking. Now bore holes from seven wells carry water through pipelines to cisterns placed throughout the village.

“Before the wells it was a struggle to find water every day. Now I can bathe and wash my clothes with clean water”, so we hear a few days later from a Maasai woman.

This will be the only opportunity for me to wear my Maasai dress with its colorful beads and metal discs that make a gentle tinkling sound when I walk. Phyllis and Alice also are dressed in their finest Maasai garb.

The denominational church prevalent throughout Kenya is the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA). In 2009 I attended a PCEA church service. This visit I’ll be worshipping at a different PCEA church, one located on the grounds of the Olosho Oibor Primary School. It was in 2009 that I photographed over half a dozen children at this primary school, children sponsored by donors from the Delaware Valley. The school now has a cooking hut which feeds lunches to the children. This is a godsend because for many children, having a meal at lunch means they’re able to attend school. An infirmary is also on these grounds. Next to it is a maternity building where up to six women can stay prior to the delivery of their babies.

Yet another addition on these grounds is a protected area with dormitories for rescued young girls who ran away from early marriages or FGM (Female DSC_1383Genital Mutilation). Even though the Kenyan government recently passed a law forbidding FGM, it still continues in some communities. At right are some of the girls from the safe house dancing and singing at the service in their tangerine and black “Weekend Uniforms”. There are currently 60 girls living in this sanctuary. I will in a later post write a separate blog about the history of the safe house.

Church begins at 10 a.m., a service that mixes traditional Maasai music and dance with Christian Bible readings, music and prayers. As guests, we are invited to introduce ourselves to the congregation and describe our relationship to MCEP.  Toward the end of the four-hour service everyone in the congregation rises from their seats for a delightful Massai dance and chant down the center aisle. I start my movie camera and hope I’ve captured a moment to be treasured.

After the church service the documentary QUENCH is shown to everyone. Many of the young people under ten years of age watching the documentary this morning have no conception of walking 7 to 10 miles every day to fetch water. Daniel Salau Rogei, Program Assistant for SIMOO speaks after the film and encourages the young people to continue the legacy of their Maasai culture.