Damaris S. Parsitau, Women's Studies in Religion Program 2018-19 Research Associate, delivered the following remarks at Morning Prayers in Harvard's Memorial Church on February 12, 2019.
Good morning, colleagues. Happy new year. Happy lunar year to those who celebrate it. I bring you greetings from my people, the Maasai of Kenya! My reflections today revolve around Maasai greetings and their meaning.
When I was a little girl, I noticed that we had frequent visitors in our home. My father was a kind, compassionate and generous man with a great sense of humor. My mum was quiet and reserved and way too busy with household chores and taking care of 10 children. Mum served as a social worker and a member of her local church mothers’ union.
My maternal grandmother lived with us because she was widowed and since she had no sons, she would then have to live with her first born child (in this case my mom) according to Maasai culture.
My grandma and my dad were very close and they used to chat and laugh for hours, something I think my mother didn’t like very much.
At the heart of their conversation was the welfare of children, animals, and the environment. My grandma and my dad loved children a great deal. Grandma was a traditional midwife who had helped birth many children in my village and beyond. Both dad and grandma were traditional herbalists who treated humans and livestock with traditional herbs.
The Maasai People of East Africa are a pastoral people who keep large herds of livestock. My dad had more than 1,000 herds of cattle. And he loved his animals way too much. All Maasai men love their cattle, especially cows. Women don’t own cattle even though they participate in the livestock economy a great deal. Cows for the Maasai are signifiers of social, cultural, and political prestige and honor. But they also hold spiritual and economic value. A Maasai man without cows is considered very poor.
Yet my dad and grandma drew so many visitors into our home not just because of their roles as healers of humans and animals, but also because of their generosity and compassion.
Sometimes we didn’t always know the visitors, many of whom came from very far. Many lived with various disabilities. Many others were people from vulnerable backgrounds. All who came to our home were well received. After a few days, they would leave with new clothes, blankets, food and in many cases, livestock.
I asked my mom why we always had so many guests in our home and she would smile and tell me that they came to greet the family. I didn't get it! Many years later, I came to understand it very clearly.
For Maasai people, greeting is much more than just a shaking of hands and exchanging the usual pleasantries. It is about human welfare and wellbeing. Maasai people, like most people in the world, love and protect children.
This love for children is better illustrated in Maasai people’s traditional greetings.
Whenever Maasai people especially men greet each other, they ask a simple question: Keisupati Nkera? Which means how are the children?
This simple greeting goes on and on and morphs into asking about the welfare of mothers, grandparents, the sick, and the frail. From there, it goes on to ask about the welfare of livestock (Nkishu), rains, and the weather. This goes on and on because after one person has narrated about the welfare of his/her family, they then ask the other person the same questions which follows the same pattern.
It is only after everyone has narrated the welfare of their children, the mothers, the grandparents, the sick and frail, the animals, and the environment that people then get into the business of the day.
So I have been thinking about what lessons we could draw from Maasai traditional greeting systems and what values we could borrow to engender or build more caring communities or even nations.
At the center of Maasai people’s greetings are values about the need to protect and care for children, the most vulnerable members of our communities, animals, and the environment and how we could nurture a spirituality of care or a consciousness that recognizes that we can only be well when children, women, elderly people, animals, and the environment are OK.
Maasai people who live in the wild and expansive African savannahs in Kenya and Tanzania have lived sustainably with their environment and wildlife for ages. Stories and myths were told about trees that "bleed and cry" when they are cut in order to scare people away from cutting trees. These stories helped preserve indigenous trees, especially those that had medicinal value.
Maasai greetings raise questions about human relatedness, a philosophy of care and wellbeing that links people’s health and happiness to that of animals and the environment.
Such greetings acknowledge an environmental consciousness that links people and animal welfare with their surroundings.
This sort of consciousness also links with the African philosophy of "Ubuntu" that says I am because we are and because I am so we are!
Maasai and Ubuntu philosophies of holistic relatedness are values that drive my personal engagements with humanity, animals, and environment.
As a community mobilizer, leader, gender activist, and career educationist, I seek a world full of compassion, care, empathy, social justice, respect, and love for fellow human beings, animals, and the environment. And I have my dad, mom, and grandma (who are watching over me from up there) to thank for teaching me to value all people and "other beings."
May Ubuntu and human relatedness guide all of us in our day to day interactions with the community and environment!