It has been an amazing time of collaboration and progression at the well site of Oltumo Maasai Project. Since February 10th, we have been fortunate enough to welcome 7 volunteers to our project! Largely through the website helpx.net, but also from our facebook page and this website, a steady stream of requests to come and help in any way they can has been flowing our way. In the end, about half of the helpers who requested to come were accepted, and I feel completely satisfied, even surprised, with the energy and support of those who have joined us. From far off countries like France, Sweden, and New Zealand, to even right here in Kenya!
Why does Oltumo need Volunteers?
On top of the obvious benefits of having this physical and motivational support, it is essential that we consider the reasons as to why a Maasai project would need help from people not within the community? It must be clear that our helpers are not paying more than their food costs to stay with us, so money generation is not the incentive, unlike most volun-tourism projects here in Africa. Our original intentions back in November were that this project was to be built in a way that the the local community would get involved, and eventually take ownership and lead the direction and management of the project. That is still the intention and our major goal, but the path to get to that point is unclear and full of obstacles that we were either unaware of before, or just not capable of understanding the bigger picture of until we had lived it.
When I say obstacles, I mean more that the everyday customs and culture of the Maasai need to be fully understood and empathized with in order to create a structure and systems that will truly benefit them. These systems also need to be self-maintainable and appropriate for the long run. For example, the cultural role of men and women in the society creates immediate constraints as to what can be done and who can do it. To try and force new ideas that put pressure on the gender roles of a culture is inconsiderate, illogical, and likely very damaging to the culture itself.
Oltumo sees it's role as providing working examples of appropriate ideas and small yet beneficial solutions for the Maasai, but is still unsure as to how to appropriately implement or introduce them into the culture.
Moreover, as the outside world encroaches on the Maasai, certain extreme changes are already taking place! Christianity is taking over their traditional beliefs and leaving their customs behind as 'primitive' ways of the past, education has transitioned from life-learning to something only to be done in the classroom, coincidentally anything outside of modern education is slowly being seen as less-worthwhile or important, including their traditional medicine, which is quickly becoming non-existent.
Being part of the Change
A reality that we face by being a project inspired by the Maasai, especially Lialo Salaash, yet initially driven by a whole bunch of foreigners, is that for better or for worse, we are indeed causing change by simply being here. Had this project been started ten years ago. we would have had to have been much more careful in what we were bringing into Maasai life. I personally feel guilt over the influence of my computer and camera from visits to the Mara in the past. Currently, all of the "modern society influences" that we are bringing are available in the Mara; in the center there are "cinemas" where you can go and watch movies on a TV screen, internet is available on any smart phone, new jobs and roles are being accepted by the men as they need more income than in the past. Combined with the exposure to outside cultures that has been around for a while due to the tourist camps, and to top it all off, land sub-division, and drastic societal change is not only inevitable, but here.
Does this justify us bringing in modern technology like Ipads and computers, or wearing more liberal forms of dress than is customary? It's hard to say, and all we can strive for is exposing the Maasai to certain aspects of outside cultures and customs, while not forcing them to accept, but rather leaving the acceptance up to the Maasai themselves. Balance is a fine line indeed...
John using a Maasai-English language website to communicate with some local women. The women loved it so much and it in-turn inspired John into the realization that education is desired by all of the Maasai, not just the young, and that what we have could potentially be a fantastic education space in itself.
The Role of Oltumo and the Maasai
As destructive OR beneficial as this all may sound, we believe that these changes also provide new opportunities to grow and become more resilient. There absolutely are niches that we know can be filled in truly beneficial ways. The challenge lies in the fact that the culture has no answer as to how exactly they can even be filled, or even who's role this would be to fill them!
A good example of this is the idea of growing food in a small garden within the village. Traditionally the women would take care of all matters in the village, like raising children, feeding them, making sure there is enough water and firewood, building the houses, etc. The men would be responsible for taking care of the animals so as to provide income and food for the family. So what happens when the droughts are more common and the animals one has are not enough to provide fresh milk everyday, nor fresh blood to drink (highly nutritious, although Christianity has really helped to mostly put an end to this "sin" as well), or even enough income to buy food from the markets or send their children to school? Does this mean that the men can grow food because it equates to earning money, or is it still the women's role because they are the ones who physically feed the family?
These issues are not the role of Oltumo to answer, but we can provide inspiration by planting seeds of hope and solutions for those who wish to take more control of their lives and have ownership of their own fate as much as "Enkai (God) is willing."
Cob and Natural Building - A way to build trust and respect among the Maasai
The Maasai women have always built their houses out of maybe a dozen solid posts, woven sticks, and cow dung. They also used to be nomadic, and a house was only needed to stay useful for a few years. Now with land sub-division limiting their ability to move as in the past, they are in need of more permanent dwellings. Beyond their traditional building style, concrete building done by a Fundi (builder) is seen as the only other option. Not only is this extremely expensive, but generally the basic and modern designs also take away from the cultural beauty of their close-quarters, fire in the center of the house-style living.
We have began to experiment with adding other elements to the cow dung, such as clay and sand, essentially making a cob mix instead of only cow dung. The goal is to try and find a mix that would reduce the cracking and increase it's longevity. It took us a few tries for sure, but in the end we have found a way to almost completely stop the cracking which could mean fewer bed bugs, leaks, and in general an increased longevity of the houses! All for free just a bit more labor.
We have also realized that termites are the greatest destroyer of buildings here, and so are experimenting with different kinds of foundations such as rock, or concrete. Our idea is that if the Maasai do a simple concrete base under the exterior walls of their home, then they can see the termites and stop them before they enter the walls. This is not natural, so the other option is a rock foundation, which is a LOT of work. We're trying to stay as close to the traditions as possible, but with some modern advancements that will keep the cost very low, and increase longevity of the buildings.
The women who come and gather water ever day have been watching us with excitement as we evolved from a fully cracking wall to a rocket stove that has no cracks whatsoever! Some have said how they want one in their home, and most initially think that we are using cement because it doesn't crack! Another huge benefit to this rocket stove design is that it uses about 1/3 of the wood as normal fire-top cooking, and without smoke if the wood is dry! This is a perfect way for us foreigners to do something that is somehow traditional, locally applicable, and can improve their standard of living without costing much money.
There is a lot more that we've been working on, like gardens, grey water systems, a movable toilet, tree planting, maps and drawings of the site, and more! My time in town is finished, so I have to end here. Thanks for reading and supporting Oltumo Maasai Project!