Imagine growing up as a boy in a cow and goat-herding tribe of Maasais in Tanzania on the African savanna. Your “boma” or village sprawls on the rim of a vast and ancient volcanic crater wherein roam all manner of wild animals including hippos, hyenas, flamingos, elephants, vervet monkies, wildebeasts, giraffe, lions and leopards. You sleep in family huts of cowdung and stick construction, ringed by barbed acacia walls to keep out the lions who stalk your valuable cows and goats. No furniture, no internet, no phones, no electricity, no running water. Your education comes in a one room school house that is a ten mile, round trip trek through lion territory. Some days you turn back because of roaming lions; other days you’re kept home to help herd the livestock. Education fizzles out by 7th or 8th grade so you can tend the cattle and undergo extensive endurance, naturalist and moral training as a warrior. In time you rise to the status of junior elder, marry (sometimes several wives),have children and eventually take a position of leadership in the tribe as an elder.
Now imagine coming to live in Montclair to attend college. This must be about as close to feeling like an alien as it can get on this earth. Saning’o, a 23-year-old Maasai warrior, who is also the future tribal Chief, came to live with us last August to attend Montclair State University. Ten years ago my family visited friends in Africa and had the remarkable opportunity to spend a day with a hunter-gatherer tribe, as well as a cattle herding Maasai tribe. I remember as vividly as if it was yesterday sitting in a dark stick and dung hut with the tribal chief, Oledorop, a keenly intelligent man with laughing eyes who had taught himself English. After discussing their culture and lifestyle, Oledorop asked us if he might stay in touch with us. “Of course,” we exclaimed. He responded, “I would like to continue the education of my son.” We proposed: “Why don’t you bring him to America this spring; come have your own safari in our country? Perhaps he could go to school with our oldest son for short while.”
And they did. Four months later, In April of 2002, Oledorop, his son Saning’o and Eliyahu, another Tanzanian we had gotten to know, arrived at Kennedy airport for their stay in Montclair. How otherworldly it was for them, flying in a plane, itself surreal, then driving through the canyons of Manhattan with the towering structures, teeming masses of people jammed and jostling on the sidewalks. They were slack-jawed, speechless and stunned. Saning’o attended MKA’s middle school for several weeks, taught himself how to ride a bike, and steeped himself in the array of oddities and indulgences of our materialistic lifestyle. The nonplussed intelligence with which they inquired about and sought to understand our ways was impressive.
In the ten intervening years, Saning’o attained a middle and high school education in the nearest small city, Arusha. With a little guidance, he managed to apply to and get accepted by Montclair State University, a remarkable feat for one whose first language is an unwritten tribal dialect. Last August he flew back to live with us as he embarked on his freshman year. As the future leader of his Maasai tribe, he is interested in the field of education. More specifically, he wants to explore ways to advance the educational attainment of his tribe, while preserving its independence and culture. He is keenly aware of the increasing numbers of youth who leave their ancestral home and drift away from the Maasai culture and values.
Last month Saning’o sat at our kitchen table for his last family meal before returning to Tanzania for the summer. Rather than his customary red and black plaid garment tied at his shoulder and draping down his lean figure, he was attired in college garb,- jeans and a Nike shirt. With the beautiful face of a model, with broad brow, chiseled cheekbones and jawline, Saning’o’s beaming smile reveals the telltale Maasai missing lower two teeth, a gap maintained to permit feeding through a straw in the case he was stricken with lockjaw.
Saning’o asked me, as he did each night: “How did your day go today, Ann?” The way he asks this simple social question takes on a penetrating earnestness that is disarming. Every fiber of Saningo’s being is still, awaiting details and nuances of my response. Right then, I seem to comprise the universe of his concern and attention. It is deeply touching to have someone ask about you with such searching interest. The unfolding discussions often lead to illuminating or amusing exchanges.
On this last night, I asked what his most striking impression has been, based on his experience as a Montclair student and resident. “I found the pace so very fast. People rush about, each on their own individual path, passing each other by. They don’t really look at each other. Here, perhaps people are raised to be wary of strangers. In my culture, we greet every newcomer with interest and care about how they are, how the conditions are for their people and their cattle. It would be considered disrespectful and wrong not to stop and talk with people who greet you. Here, if they ask how you are, they don’t really want to know the answer. They don’t stay long enough to hear your answer. In Tanzania, we would never say we couldn’t talk to someone because we had to work. We would never put work in front of helping a person. But we get much less work done, as a result. We are much less productive than Americans. This is an individualistic society, where productivity is valued over community. I see and admire how people do get so much more done here, so quickly.”
I asked Saning’o what impact this difference has had on him through the year. Without a trace of judgment he offers: “I’ve learned to stop looking to engage with people with my eyes, to stop asking how they are. I’ve come to walk looking down or straight ahead.”
I feel my heart crumple. What a sad change our society wrought on this large-hearted young man. I know it’s not permanent. I know he’ll blossom back into his direct, robustly engaging social self the instant he strides back into his village. But this is his takeaway from America? Another sad statement about his American experience is that despite avid outreach efforts to get folks from his Montclair “village” to embrace Saning’o, no bonds outside the family were forged. On three separate occasions, well-meaning community figures made arrangements to connect with Saning’o, yet each time their busy lives interfered with their following through with him.
But isn’t this the way it is among all of us, much of the time? Saning’o casts into stark relief the habit of dulled self-absorption that binds us so tight to our familiar orbits that we miss out on the most extraordinary discoveries that lie right around us. We rob ourselves of those gleaming moments of true and enriching connection with strangers, which lend life its most precious value. The other day as I walked down Park Street I smiled at a dad with a young son; he looked perplexed at me then asked “do I know you from somewhere?” We should know each other before smiling kindly? Maybe the other way around would yield more friendly connections.
Tonight it all comes full circle; I fly with my son to spend two weeks with Saning’o in his remote Tanzanian village. It will be sheer joy to see him in his element after this past year. I’ll report back on how he is. Or you can see for yourself when he returns for his sophomore year in August.