Christmas, as experienced by the Maasai staff of the Big Life Foundation, Kenya
Samar Ntalamia, Programme Manager, Big Life Foundation
We asked one of the field staff we work with, Samar Ntalamia of the Big Life Foundation in Kenya, to write a letter that could be read out at a seasonal choral music concert held by EC4 Music, in aid of Save the Rhino, on Wednesday 18 December 2013. This is his letter.
The concept of Christmas is a rather new development here in Africa, and especially among the Maasai, who have resisted cultural change for a long time. To the 19th-century Europeans, they were the “noblest of savages”. An elite corps of painted and feathered warriors; for whom nothing was an inducement to change. Neither peace for war, nor money for cattle, nor cities and settlement for the plains and open boundaries of their land, covering much of southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. This isolation, their land, their traditions, codes and values have all been defended in a long and mostly passive war of resistance, carried out by a community structured as a standing army.
The present-day standing army is the Big Life Foundation’s rhino rangers, 95% of whom are Maasai recruited from the local community and famed for their intimate knowledge of the lay of the land and for their bushcraft skills. All these have come in very handy in offering rhino and wildlife security. The majority of the rhino rangers converted to Christianity very recently, and the roots are still sinking deeper into the soul. They celebrate Christmas as a combination of a religious and secular festival. There is not much giving of presents, but it is much a giving of presence.
People do not have the financial resources to buy gifts for each other, and even if they did, there are not any stores that sell Christmas gifts in the bush. The rangers’ food during Christmas is not the usual western spread: no turkey, goose, ham or any such food. But, there will be plenty of roast goat and cow and they must have Tusker lager! The Maasai are still warming up to the idea of chicken as a delicacy – vegetarians and fruitarians will most likely starve. The rangers will dress smart in their jungle fatigues and boots. Music will be quite a mix, but mostly Maasai gospel and Maasai traditional folk dance – the throaty sounds and the shaking of the neck and the legendary vertical jump.
And Christmas is for everyone, unless you are a goat or cow, and by extension a rhino. For rhinos it is a difficult time, because poachers try to take advantage of the festive period to sneak into the bush and kill rhinos to get some money for Christmas. I think there is some demand and supply stuff here. Security is tightened and there is a general state of alertness in all our ranger outposts.
So, yeah, things out here in the rhino area are different at Christmas, but like anywhere else in the world, we get together as family and friends, so it is only the ways and means that may differ, but the spirit is the same. And as the ancient story of God giving His son is replayed out here in the African bush, we, in turn, pass on what has been given, to each other; love and friendship as we wish each other a merry Christmas. And from me and the Big Life Foundation rhino rangers, we wish you a merry Christmas and a happy and prosperous new year 2014.
To support the work of the Big Life Foundation, click here.