MASSAI WEDDING
Meridijani, June 2013

Rain had been falling incessantly the day she was born. For this reason her parents named her Nalotesha – She-Who-Comes-With-The-Rain. It has been raining since morning on this day as well – the day they will come for her. Today is the last day of her life as she knows it, the last day of her life with her parents; with the family that she has lived with for the past sixteen years.

Until now, each new day of life in Maasai Mara was the same as the previous. Boys and young men from her extended family would head out for the pastures, and in the evening they would return. Carefree, she would stomp in the mud around the house, drink cow’s milk, sleep in the smoky manyatta, a house made from brushwood, mud, and dried cow dung in the village Inkamurunya. She would also watch over her younger brothers and sisters, milk the cows and sheep, and grow by leaps and bounds…

Some girls her age go to school, but that was not a privilege meant for her. When she bled for the first time, she was circumcised. That was the most painful day of her life, but she remembers it as the day she was noticed by all for the nice jewelry she wore. This jewelry was also a sign to others that she was ready for marriage.

Today is the day when they will come to get her and take her to an unknown place; to hand her over to a stranger. She has been on edge since morning, both curious and excited. Since morning she has been flooded with a sense of sadness, just as the Maasai Mara is being flooded from the rains.

One dry year, Nalotesha’s father Ole Sankei could not find enough grassland to feed his cattle. He was not one of the richer members of his society; at the time he had only about a hundred cattle. This was enough to take care of his large family. Life was good when the rains fell. His children would take the cattle to the pastures, he could go to the village, talk with other elders in the shade of an acacia tree, drink local beer made from fermented honey and choice seeds and grass. But when the rains failed and the summers were long and dry, Ole Sankei would have to take matters into his own hands and lead his cattle to the territory of neighboring clans. He never knew what awaited him there. Sometimes he would be allowed to let his animals graze there, but sometimes he would have to fight to save his life. During the last drought he took his cattle southward, far from home. For weeks he slept in the bush. The pastures were moister, but the threat of lions attacking the cattle was also greater. Almost a dozen cows were killed by lions, and another dozen by morans, boys spending several years in the bush as part of their rite of passage, eating mainly meat stolen from other herders. Even though there were hundreds of zebras, gazelles, antelope, gnus, and other large African animals, the Maasai consider their meet bland and never kill them. The same holds for all aquatic creatures as well.

In addition to these misfortunes, one more happened. The cattle became ridden with a disease, and needed medication. Ole Sankei had no choice but to approach a village he did not know, and ask people for medicine for his cattle.  Luckily he came across a good man named Lentuala Dapash. Lentuala gave him as much medicine for the livestock as he needed, without even asking him who he was, what business brought him to his village, or where he came from. Since he was situated near the national park, Ole Sankei had to pay a fee for grazing, but he did not have any money with him. Lentuala Dapash helped him with this as well. And this is how their friendship began. Ole Sankei invited him to visit his village Inkamurunya after the drought would end. When Lentuala finally came, Ole Sankei praised him and told everyone how Lentuala was a good man that helped a stranger. He asked him how he could repay him. Would he like several cows or one of his daughters for marriage. Lentuala expressed gratitude. He said that he didn’t need anything, but that he had a half-brother Shuel for whom he would like to find a wife. So they arranged the marraige.

A few months later, Lentuala returned to Inkamurunya with a cow. The cow was a gift for Ole, and a sort of dowry’s down payment that he was obliged to offer for his daughter Nalotesha. They sat around the fire and planned out the wedding, covering all the details. A few weeks later, Lentuala would bring Shuel to meet his new fiancé Nalotesha; to listen to advice that her father had for him, and then to take her away forever. Under normal circumstances they would walk the fifty kilometers that stretched between the two villages, but Lentuala was lucky. A few days earlier he had received a call from his friend Marampei. Marampei was a man of high status in other communities because he had a college degree and had established a large tourist camp at the entrance to the national park. But his status was not so high among the Maasai since he owned a mere fifty cows. Marampei told him that two foreigners from far-away Croatia wanted to learn about Maasai traditions. Since Lentuala’s half-brother was getting married, he offered to drive the newlyweds from her village to his, and in return he requested that the foreigners be allowed to witness the wedding ceremony. Lentuala was more than pleased to accept the offer, and thus solve the question of transport from one village to the other, which by foot would not be so pleasant. During the rainy season, the terrain is muddy, and the formal wedding attire would get dirty.

Shuel Dapash also liked the idea. When he climbed aboard the jeep with his best friend and best man Matayian Leturo on the wedding day, he met the foreigners and told them how he was happy because this was his opportunity to marry a second wife at the mere age of twenty one.  He talked to them about how so far his favorite stage in life was during the moran when he had spent several years in the bush with his age mates, ate beef, and let his hair grow long. He said that there was an increasing number of young Maasai attending school and not undergoing the moran because they could not miss so many days of school. He was glad to have not gone to school and to be able to become a full-blooded Maasai warrior – a moran.

When this stage ended and his mother ceremoniously cut his hair, it came time to marry. At eighteen he married a young woman and together they had a son. He hoped to marry a second wife, but not before his 25th birthday. The Maasai by tradition are polygamous, which is somewhat an adaptation for the high infant and warrior mortality rate. However, only wealthy Maasai that have succeeded in owning a large number of cattle can have more wives. By his 21st birthday, Shuel succeeded in owning 120 heads of cattle, and now thanks to his good older half-brother Lentuala, he had the opportunity to take a young lady as his second wife. For a Maasai to gain status, he must have multiple wives and a lot of cattle. Just one of the two is not enough. Shuel was overjoyed because he was well on the way of becoming a well-respected Maasai.

He wanted to know if he was going to like Nalotesha, but he was also a bit afraid of her father. When he arrived at their home in the evening with gifts, he liked her father, but he could not see Nalothesha because she remained in a dark room, with a wall between them. Night fell upon Inkamurunya, and the clouds burst with heavy rain. As each hour of the night passed, the mud levels deepened around Nalotesha’s house.  The only light in that cramped space was coming from the fire smoldering under a large pot where meat was cooking. The smoke could hardly pass through the only window since it was no wider than a hand’s width, so the house was constantly smoky. There was so much smoke that all the walls were black, and inside people could barely see one another. At least there weren’t any mosquitos or other insects inside.

About a dozen close relatives of the Dapash family gathered, as well as six guests, the groom Shuel, his best man Matayian, his half-brother Lentuala, his friend Marampei, and two foreigners. Marampei quietly translated to the foreigners. For a long while people talked about the rainfall in this rainy season, and noted how this upcoming summer there wouldn’t be problems with pastures for cattle. Then Ole Sankei began a lengthy monologue. He talked about the family history and how he had raised Nalotesha. Ole then described in detail how he met Lentuala and retold the chronicles of their friendship. Then he expressed faith in how this wedding would strengthen the ties between the two families. While pointing his index finger to the sky, he told Shuel how he was to watch over and care for Nalotesha, no matter how she behaved, that he must respect her, provide her with cows and protection, make many children for her and take of them all. To Nalotesha he sad that the time came for her to leave his home, just as all Maasai women sooner or later must do. He said that he tried to find her a good husband and good family with a lot of cattle and a good reputation, and that she was to be grateful to him for that.  That she was to respect her husband no matter how he was, regardless if he was dumb, ugly or pitiful. He said that tomorrow, when they leave his house, she must not to look back or return until five years passed, or until her first child would turn one.

No one was allowed to interrupt the old man, and those spoken to had to acknowledge his words. That is how Nalotesha and Shuel heard each other’s’ voice for the first time. They agreed with all that Ole Sankei said. When he finished his speech, the people returned to their homes, and Nalotesha and Shuel, although that had not yet seen each other, were wed.

The rainfall continued all night long, and did not stop not even in the morning. Ole Sankei’s youngest sons lead the cattle to the pastures that morning, and the livestock’s pungent odor filled the air surrounding the house, and deep into the wet mud around the house, and into the pores of the dry mud walls of the manyata, and into the clothes of the residents of Inkamurunya… There wasn’t a rain in the world that could rinse off that smell. Shuel with his best man Matayian and other curious onlookers waited in the rain for Nalotesha to come out of the house and set off on her way to her new life. From early morning, Nalotesha’s mother and step mother were getting Nalotesha ready. They covered her skin in red ochre, the Maasai’s holy color. They decorated her with colorful jewelry, especially with blue beads, because blue is god’s color, representing the color of the heavens. They wrapped her in new, clean shuka. Green was the dominant color on the shuka since that is the color of god’s greatest blessing – fresh grass after rain.

*

And there she is, standing alone in the hallway of the manyata, facing her final exit from her childhood home. She stands motionless, her head bowed, frozen in the last moments of childhood. Tears swell at the corners of her eyes. She stands like this, as moments pass, as if she is in no hurry, as if hesitating. Occasionally a tear rolls down her face, onto the dusty floor. She lets it, allowing it to drop. That is a tear of the inevitable acceptance of destiny, the sweet sorrow of obedience. That tear is a requiem to her past life; an expired life, epitaph to childhood that is disappearing, forever, as Nalotesha decides to step into the light that comes in from the sky above Maasai Mara, from the milky sky from which the rain has just stopped pouring.

Nalotesha walks in a half-circle in front of the manyata, a tradition trodden down by the ages, a path her father and uncle had just blessed by pouring milk and beer along the length of it. About fifty rueful steps away Shuel stands waiting for her. Although she doesn’t lift her head, she watches him from the corner of her eye. Her sadness, as if for a moment, deepens into a furrowing of the brow. Shuel, however, seems satisfied. A smile spreads from ear to ear, as he walks with her. They still have about a thousand steps to take to the jeep, across rain-soaked grass. Shuel picks up the pace. Nalotesha lags behind, but she does not look behind. Several women from her clan follow her, but only to the jeep. They don’t talk. They don’t even say goodbye. Behind them, Lentuala with the help of a friend caries Nalotesha’s suitcase holding all her belongings and everything she is transferring from her old family to her new one. Shuel keeps a big smile, and Nalotesha keeps her head bowed even in the jeep that leaves Inkamurunya for good.

The rains stopped but during the night, the ground got so soaked that the jeep struggles through the mud harder than it had upon arrival. It is getting stuck more often, but each time the driver manages to somehow climb out of the bilge. The first greater problem arises at the stream crossing that has swollen overnight. The driver suggests everyone get out of the jeep and cross on foot, so that the jeep could cross more easily. There is mud and sand at the stream’s bed, and the water is knee-deep. Everyone had already begun crossing the stream when they notice Nalotesha standing hesitant at the shore. Shuel runs to her and without even asking, he lifts her with the strength and pride of a warrior, and with confident steps he carries her across the river so that she doesn’t get wet or dirty. Humble and amused, Nalotesha smiles for the first time, a faintly visible, but freely.

The mood rises in the jeep a little, and Nalotesha speaks her first words with Shuel. However, soon after, the jeep gets fatally stuck deep in mud. Everyone tries to dig the mud and fill it with branches, but the tires just spin in place. After a few hours of unsuccessful efforts, Marampei and Lentuala give up and walk to the nearest village for help. In the meanwhile, the newlyweds converse more. Nalotesha’s words are quiet, spoken with her head still bowed. Help arrives late in the afternoon. All transfer to the other, a larger and stronger jeep that easily crosses over the fresh mud. Shuel decides it is too late for festivities in his village. He does not want to bring his new bride to his village by night. Instead he wants to arrive during the day, so that she could see everything. Lentuala recommends everyone sleep in his village, which is located about half the way to Shuel’s village. The next morning they would continue their ride.

Lentuala’s village is covered deep in mud, but his manyata is dry. His wives have already killed a goat and cooked it to feed the group. There is enough meat leftover for breakfast. At sunrise the sky is clear and remains sunny. The group continues on their way in a good mood, hoping to finally reach Shuel’s village Empopongi. The landscape is completely different today, much more green and hilly with much less mud. The water in the streams appears fresh and abundant; the ground seems soft and moist. Here not only cattle graze, but zebras, gazelles, and antelope as well. Nalotesha curiously looks out the window. The foreigners ask how she likes the new landscape. She says that she likes it, that in her hometown there aren’t as many wild animals, and it is nicer here.

At noon the group arrives at a village. From its opposite bank they have a good view of Empopongi. However, one large river passes between this village and Shuel’s. This river has swollen from the rain, so the driver decides to leave his jeep in the village. A crowd of curious onlookers have gathered. Everyone knows Shuel well, and they want to see his new wife. They peek through the windows to see her, then smile and comment. She is quiet and shy, but no longer sad. However, during the night the ochre had rubbed off. The women rub new layers of this favorite Maasai color on Nalotesha, so that she is refreshed and ceremoniously dressed to meet her new family.

On the way to Empopongi, Shuel once again carries Nalotesha across the river that has swollen from the fresh rains. The water is soft, white, flowing fast and strong. At the entrance to the village, Nalotesha curiously peeks from under her bowed head, to see the world she is now entering. She seems satisfied. The village is truly beautiful. Unlike her village that is situated on a plane soaked in mud, here the landscape is hilly and green. The grass is moist, and there is little mud. The people of the village are sitting around, in the shade of acacia trees, in the shade of large cacti. The manyatas are scattered about the hilly terrain. Most of the cattle have been led by the young boys to graze outside the village, and a few cows, sheep and goats have stayed behind in the village.

Shuel’s manyata is truly large and impressive. About a dozen houses form a circle around a large corral that is now empty. The Maasai build houses around corrals in order to protect the livestock from wild animals, especially lions, hyenas, jackals and leopards. The youngest and most vulnerable livestock are kept in the homes in which the people sleep. Shuel’s manyata is completely surrounded by a wall of thorny branches. Outside is thick grass, and inside mud formed by the numerous livestock of the large Dapash family. The main entrance to the manyata is through a clear thorny passage. The path from Shuel’s house to his father and first wife – Shuel’s mother, has been cleaned of mud. This is the path Nalotesha will take. She stands at the entrance with her head bowed under the thorny passage. Shuel’s mother approaches her and before the eyes of the gathered crowd she follows the ritual – rubbing butter on Nalotesha’s head and pouring milk and beer in front of her solemn steps. Nalotesha enters the house followed by two men carrying her suitcase. As soon as she sits in the designated room, Nalotesha is given milk to drink from a dried and emptied squash. They place a young child in her hold, believing that would ensure her fertility to give birth to many children. Nalotesha will remain in their house until the next morning. She is not allowed to go outside where the celebration honoring her arrival has already begun.

The young men that had spent their moran with Shuel sing harmonic (throat) songs and dance an unusual dance that consists of jumping in place. After them, the women sing, also harmonic songs, but not throaty. Their tones are higher. They stand in a row and with a slow step walk towards the house in which Nalotesha sits. They carry gifts; one goat, new shuka (sheets), and dishes made from dried and carved squash.

Later in the afternoon the celebration quiets.  People retreat for a rest, to wait for the rest of their clan to return from the pastures. As the sun sets, the herders return to the village with hundreds of cattle. Women and children rush to milk the cows and return them into the corral within the manyatas. At the end of this day in which no rain fell, the most important people of Shuel’s clan gather in the house in which Nalotesha sits. They begin a discussion about the name to give her. The men must give her a new name that only the men can use for her, and the women must give her another name that only the women would use. Inspired by the way they had crossed the river by Empopongi, the men decide to name her Noonkuta – Fresh Rain. The women, inspired by the delicious food prepared for the wedding ceremony, give her the name Nemuta – Ceremonial Food.

Then they sing a typical harmonic throaty Maasai song that sings about women’s beauty, a warrior’s bravery, about herders’ ability to defend livestock from lions … The elders remain to sing in the home, and the younger members go into the darkness of the night to return to their homes. Those who remain snuggle in a circle and sing from the top of their lungs, and after each song they laugh and shout until someone starts another song. This celebration lasts late into the night, when they all retreat to sleep. For the next several days the newlyweds are not allowed to sleep together, so Shuel goes to his home where his first wife, their only child, and best man await him.

A new morning dawns and remains sunny. Each new day in the Maasai Mara resembles the previous. The women milk the cows and goats, the boys lead them to the pastures. But for Shuel a special part of the transition ritual is still ongoing, so part of his cattle remains in the village. Shuel leads Noonkuta from his parents’ house to the cattle to show her his wealth. Then he tells her that he will now give her her wedding gift, the second part of the dowry. She is happy, smiles, leans forward to the ground and grabs a handful of cow’s dung. Shuel walks among his cattle and chooses a few healthy and well-fed cows. Then he points to the chosen ones with his stick, and Noonkuta marks them with cow’s dung, to know which are hers. Later that afternoon they will be marked. Shuel gave her a total of ten cows, and with this the wedding celebration comes to an end. Children gather around Noonkuta, hug her, and Shuel’s little son climbs into her hold. Noonkuta no longer hides her smile.

The foreigners ask Noonkuta how she likes Empopongi, and she tells them that it is better than Inkamuryuna. The pastures are better here, there are more cattle, and the people are good. She says that she does not want to return home, that this is her new home and she is fine here. They ask her how she feels as the second wife of her new husband. Noonkuta says that she would rather be a second wife than first, because the second, younger wife is more respected in the Maasai world. She says that she is not jealous. And that she wants a lot of children. At least five.

The foreigners promise to return one day and bring her pictures from the wedding, and they hope that they will see her with a lot of children … They say goodbye to everyone and leave the village, by foot, without looking back. They cross the river, return to the jeep that takes them across the lush green grasslands in which zebras, gazelles, and antelope graze. The Maasai Mara remains behind them, under the shining sun.