Saturday, September 10, 2011


Last week I went to a Borana tribal celebration called Gadamoji. It took place near a small village called Kubi Dibayu and was extremely crowded. There were hundreds of people all dressed up in traditional tribal clothes. Most of them looked exactly like my neighbors look every day. The celebration was a coming of age ceremony and retirement party that only occurs once every eight years. The event was a month long in preparation culminating in singing and dancing and feasting. Every eight years the tribe celebrates the life of all the oldest members of the tribe; they are called mzee (pronounced em-zay). The people come from surrounding villages and set up a temporary house in Kubi Dibayu. Each family that has an old man to honor will build a hut out of sticks and grass. Because of the drought, there was no grass to cover the houses so everyone used discarded plastic bags. There were about fifty little houses in a row and I was told that the family can build the entire structure in less than an hour. The houses were large enough for the whole family to fit a little uncomfortably and each hut was connected to the one next door so all the families could socialize. The huts were elaborately decorated on the inside with traditional decorated pots and baskets. The women and young girls of each household put grease in their hair to make it shine and wear a traditional watertight basket on their backs made for carrying camels’ milk. Some of the women wore leather belts decorated with the shells of large land snails. All the women wore their hair down and some had their hair partially braided to signify they were married while others had a piece of metal, similar to tinfoil, in their hair for every child they had. The men of the family carry spears and carved walking sticks and on their heads wore turbans and a strange headband that, I thought, appeared like a large silver chess Queen protruding from their foreheads. The morning of the celebration, the old mzees shave their heads and put the hair in a two foot high, compact, mud cone outside the hut. Then the mzee goes into the hut into a special room separated by a curtain. He has to remain in the room for three days. Meanwhile, outside all the youngest members of the family are also busy. The little boys and girls have their hair put in dreadlocks and colored with henna and are given leather and shell headpieces to wear. They wear them all day and then, in the evening, they also have their heads shaved. During the main part of day, the sons of each household go from hut to hut, chanting and singing while an announcer recites details about the mzee’s life. Details that make him revered are killing elephants and lions, how many children he has, and whether he is a tribal elder. When the men come to the door of the hut, the daughters of the household join in the singing. The men go into the hut looking for an item of significance; it is like a treasure hunt. The women have put a symbolic item in the house representing the mzee’s spirit and it is protected by the women. The men have to find it and the longer it takes the more luck the mzee has. During the hunt, some people get very emotional and start shaking and crying and fainting. The men who become upset get very violent and start fighting that scares all the spectators into running away. Once the item is found, everyone cheers and the women ululate. In most cases I saw, the special item was one of the small traditional baskets with some camels’ milk inside. The men each dip the end of their spears into the milk and then taste it. Once everyone has had some of the milk, the item is returned to the family for safekeeping and the men move on to the next house. After all houses have been visited, there is a big feast. This time, because of the drought, there is not enough food to feed all the guests. But the families of the mzees all get plenty because part of the tradition is to bring a goat or young cow as a gift to the family. I had a great time; it was very fascinating. I also enjoyed not having to make conversation with strangers. Almost no one spoke Kiswahili or English so I was able to wander around and take pictures and smile. I was the only mzungu in the group of hundreds and hundreds of non-English speakers. Needless to say, I got a LOT of attention. I even got to use my newly learned kiborana phrase “Larisa” (Don’t do that) when people were playing with my hair. Everyone around me just laughed, they just think it is hilarious when I speak kiborana. I was also surprised at how many people I knew. My deputy principal was there, her father was being honored. I saw our laboratory technician, a bunch of teachers from surrounding schools, my neighbor, and many of the women that I usually pass on my way to school. After spending the day at Gadamoji, I went back to my village and spent some time with Lokho, my neighbor. She has been having a rough time lately and I felt that I should give her someone to talk to. She told me this story about her only friend from school who used to be very in to studying and school but then got a boyfriend and changed her attitude. Lokho tried to warn her friend that this guy, who happens to be Lokho’s older cousin, had many other girlfriends and was just using her. Lokho told the girl that there was nothing that the boyfriend could give her that was more important than her staying in school and focusing on her studies. But Lokho could not get through to the girl and she went with the boy and stopped being Lokho’s friend. Lokho was very sad and angry at the girl. Lokho said that she found out recently that the girl, only thirteen years old, now has HIV. To make matters worse, the cousin who gave the friend HIV was now living in Lokho’s house and telling Lokho that she really needed a boyfriend and that he would be very happy to “do it if no one else will”. It made me absolutely sick but at least Lokho is too smart to listen to the guy. She said that she now avoids the cousin and refuses to talk to him. She said “we are no longer family” and sadly she said I was now her only friend. The very next day, another cousin of Lokho, the one year old Guyo, came down with malaria and had to go to the hospital. The Aunt and Uncle took the baby to the hospital leaving Lokho at home with the cousin and the toddler, Galgallo. As soon as they were alone, the cousin kicked Lokho and Galgallo out of the house and refused to let them back in. They had to sit outside under the scorching sun all day with no water. By the time the aunt and uncle got home, Galgallo was crying hysterically and Lokho had been begging the cousin for hours to let them come get water. The aunt and uncle immediately kicked the guy out of the house but poor Galgallo has been nearly silent and crying a lot for the last couple days. Whenever he is asked why he is upset he says “I am just remembering.” Some days this place just breaks my heart. There are no more camels. It is raining in the Chalabi desert and so the herders have moved on to literal greener pastures. There are also no more cows. But I am told that they are all dead. The only livestock left is skinny goats and dirty sheep. All there is left for them to eat is garbage.

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