Saturday, August 10, 2013

Stoves, Circumcisions, Weddings, and Births

Friday afternoon.  It was a long day of installing a stove and solar panels in Enguiki, and we were looking forward to hot showers to wash off all the mud, dirt, and dried cement (not to mention maybe some food), when Kisioki told us that the women were walking over to the next boma because a woman was about to give birth.  Did we want to join them?  At first I didn't believe that we would be welcome at such an intimate moment, but I couldn't have been more wrong.  That's the one thing that has surprised me most on this trip - how incredibly warm and welcoming and open everyone here has been to us. Erica was really excited about the birth, and her excitement was contagious, despite the language barrier.  We were immediately swept up arm in arm with the other women and started walking across the dusty hills.

When we arrived at the boma, there were dozens of women outside of the hut and everyone was smiling and chatting excitedly.  Then a woman's face poked out of the entrance to the hut, and we were told "Karibu" (welcome), and pulled into the dark and smokey home.  We were gestured at to sit on the tiny little wooden stools against the wall right next to the fire which was low and thankfully not producing the levels of eye-stinging smoke that a full fire would.  As our eyes adjusted, we could make out a few older women stripping down and bathing themselves in a bucket of water just taken off the fire.  Through a doorway into the bedroom (which is really just a very tiny room with an elevated platform stretched wall to wall that people sleep on), we could see some activity, and assumed that that was where the mother was.

Suddenly, one of the old women who had just been kneeling on the bed started ululating, and the cry was picked up by the women outside.  Erica and I were completely mystified as to what was happening, but were overwhelmed again that we were invited into this scene.  We were curious when a bag of sand was opened and deposited at the entryway to the bedroom, but we later learned that the purpose of the sand was to bury the placenta.  It turns out that the call we heard was to celebrate what the Maasai call "the second birth", when the placenta is discharged.

I thought that we had already been allowed to see so much, and so you can imagine that I was shocked when we were invited (and then when we hesitated pushed) onto the bed with the mother and some other women and then given the swaddled newborn to hold.  Everyone was clearly pleased as we oohed and ahhed over the baby, and I was torn between feeling overwhelmed at how adorable and perfect this baby was and awe at how calm the mother was after having given birth without anything to help with the pain. 

Incredible.  And PS - the baby was a boy.


It can be hard to realize how necessary these stoves are that the International Collaborative is building until you've been in a home without one.  The homes in the bomas are circular structures with thatched roofs and walls made of wood and then patched over with a mud that is strengthened with cow dung.  Then the women make a traditional fire, set within three large stones so that they can cook on it, things can get pretty smokey.  From the outside, you can see smoke leaking out through the thatched roof, and it's easy to wonder how the roofs don't just burn down at times. 

We had an opportunity to enter a house like this.  The second we walked in, the smoke hit us.  The acrid smoke was so intense that our eyes immediately started watering.  When we came back out, the old woman sitting outside asked us what we would do if we couldn't find a good house to stay in and had to sleep in a home with that much smoke.  She told us that she had eye problems because of being in that smoke her whole life.

The stoves that are installed by International Collaborative make an enormous difference.  Although you can smell a smokey smell, the air is much clearer and easy to breathe.  There is no discomfort in the eyes, even when the stove is going at full blast. Earlier this week, we went with Kisioki when he installed a smoke detector and a carbon monoxide monitor in a home with a stove installed.  This morning, we collected the detector and got to take a look at some of the data.  It was pretty intense but unsurprising to see the difference that the stoves make.  Kisioki's mother's home pre-stove had carbon monoxide levels up to 200 PPM (parts per million) - well over the UN's safety limit.  The home that we had recorded this week showed almost no carbon monoxide particles at all for most of the day.  Just a spike of about 90 PPM at the very end of the recording period for about 20 minutes.  Other homes that we saw data for were even better, with levels below 30 PPM.  So you can see that the stoves make a huge impact in the quality of air breathed in the homes.


It seems like we keep setting out to do work, and then as we're wrapping up something amazing happens in the last moment.  Our timing is pretty spectacular, to say the least. 

This morning we woke up before dawn to pick up a smoke and CO2 detector from a woman's home to add it to the data that IC is gathering.  As we were downloading the data on a computer, Kisioki took a look outside, saw that dawn was breaking, and asked us if we wanted to go see a circumcision ceremony happening in another part of the village.  

We raced over and got out of the jeep to see a circle of men next to the central focus of the boma - the wooden pen where cattle is kept.  Women aren't allowed to see the circumcision ceremony, which is the focal point of a boy becoming a man, but they gather around outside the circle of men and ululate as each circumcision is completed.  Through the crowd, we could see the boys being brought out one at a time, stripped of the black wrap they were wearing, splashed with a bucket of water (and let me add, it was VERY cold up in the mountains where we were at), at which point they kicked the bucket away and were led into the waiting circle to be circumcised.  The boy is not allowed to move at all while the circumcision is occurring, otherwise he'll bring his family shame.  The mothers, outside the circle of men, are all crying in sympathy for the pain that their sons must endure, but everyone understands that this is a test, that the life of a warrior is hard and painful, and that by being brave through this moment, that the boys are proving themselves.

We only caught the last few circumcisions, at which point I thought that things were over and that we would leave.  Wrong.  We were immediately steered over to a nearby home where two costumed girls and some older women were singing and dancing rhythmically.  After a few songs, the older men came out and sat in a semi-circle, drinking honey beer while the women continued dancing and splashing the women with the drink. One of the men offered Erica his glass which she took a sip of.  The people around us were clearly pleased, because they all smiled encouragingly as she drank. It was at that moment that I realized that Erica is significantly more adventurous than I am, because I was completely intimidated by the suspicious-looking fluid that we had originally thought was urine.  The dead bees floating in it didn't help. 

Again, I thought that the ceremony was over, but what we hadn't realized was that a wedding/engagement was also about to happen.   

A group of warrior men came out stomping and changing and formed a pressing semi-circle around the home that the girl had retreated into with her mother and some other women. As they chanted and stomped their spears into the ground, individual men would jump into the circle and then jump back out.  Erica and I had the most incredible view of this show, because we had been pushed to the front of the watching crowd.  The husband-to-be, dressed in full costume with feathers on top of his head and a decorated spear, accompanied by a similarly attired friend of his, started advancing towards the house in an intimidating way, shaking his spears.  One by one, the man and his friend entered the home and came back out.  The ceremony ended after the women came out and danced their way over to the men.

Before we left, we watched some of the men bleed a cow so that the recently circumcised men could drink its blood and then lead it off to slaughter for a feast.

And this all happened before breakfast.


  1. Your writing was so vivid I felt I was there, too. Double wow from me! (Mom)

  2. Definitely agree with the comment above! As I read, I feel like I'm there, too, seeing what you see, smelling the smoke, hearing the women ululate. What an incredible experience! (Aunt Tina)

  3. What an amazing experience. Thank you for showing it all in such wonderful detail.