Grief and Gratitude in Maasailand

This story was first performed on The Moth Story Hour live event on December 13, 2018

I began traveling to East Africa at age 19 - and in fact, I entered my post-teenage years while living in a Maasai village near the southern border of Kenya. As a young black woman with an urban American background, it wasn’t until my stint in Kenya that I had ever taken a hike, pitched a tent to camp, or seen a wild animal. It was a lot of firsts, and they obviously left a lasting impression. As a direct result of my incredible first experience in Kenya, I dedicated my life to wildlife ecology research, which I intend to do until the day I die.

When people ask me about my adventures in the wild - in particular my years spent living in East Africa - the questions typically hover around exciting or dangerous wildlife encounters. Tell me about the lions - the leopards, the buffalo, and the giraffe. I love the attention, and often find myself the life of the party recounting tales of narrowly escaping being trampled by a bull elephant, or waking up with a scorpion crawling across my forehead.

But what is often left out of the stories is the nuanced interactions, relationships, and misunderstandings that occurred. My identity as an African American woman - the descendent of slaves, unable to trace my ancestry back to African roots - living and working in Kenya and Tanzania - and notably outside of tourist regions and national parks - brought a lot of attention, and gave me a tremendous education, as well as meaningful experiences that changed me to my core.

The Maasai communities that I had the profound privilege to live with were quite isolated and rarely, if ever, interacted with non-Kenyans, in particular those not living a traditional tribal lifestyle. I was equally fascinated with the individuals I met, as they were with me, and when communication was possible (I had taken the time to master Swahili, but was never able to rise to the challenge of getting very far with the Maa language), the depth and magnitude of some of the conversations was tremendous. Again, my identity was a topic of much interest with the Maasai community, as there was very little knowledge or understanding of African American people and our experiences in the US. From simple things like the meaning of my name (it didn’t go over well that there is no meaning), to complex things like why African Americans have not waged war on our oppressors, no topic was off limits.

In 2009 I was learning to track lions in central Tanzania outside of a national park in Maasailand. Our project didn’t have the latest technology, so we were doing things the old fashioned way - identifying individual lions by their unique whisker patterns and writing down our observations in a notebook. When new lions entered the pride or were passed through the region, we got to give them a name. Often, we stuck to numbers and codes - Green79 for the color of the radio collar we attached to it and the last 2 digits of the code we assigned.

I changed a lot that summer - through daily experiences (almost all of them fieldwork challenges), I grew from being a student of wildlife ecology to a leader in field-based research. I went from doubting my ability to navigate off-road paths through the bush, to being able to chart my journeys by the positions of the sun and moon. Illnesses got the best of me a few times, but by the end of the summer I was able to eat every part of the cow, just like my Maasai friends. {{My belief systems were challenged over and over, bringing me to a place of profound personal growth. I found myself putting my personal value system aside and allowing myself to celebrate with a young woman who had just gone through female circumcision (by choice - and let me tell you, she was HAPPY). Despite my interest in animal welfare, I found myself participating in multiple cow and goat slaughterings, and finally learned how to properly slit an animal’s throat with a machete. There were even times when I put my feminist agenda aside and quietly resigned myself to be excluded from meetings and decision-making because they were for men only.}}

And the Maasai people whom I lived and worked with gained a wealth of knowledge from me. Never without questions, they tested rumor after rumor on me, eventually citing me as the supreme source of international knowledge, current events, and world history. I was like an encyclopedia of the Western world, or the Google of the bush. Topics almost entirely focused on US history and culture, and the Maasai people I spoke with had a particular interest in understanding what it’s like to be black in a white country.

When Michael Jackson was alive, he did not seem like the kind of person who would die, and in fact i believe his goal was to actually become immortal. So when a young Maasai boy appeared in the bush one day as I was beginning my morning of lion tracking - out of breathe from having run all the way from the village - I didn’t believe him when he delivered the news. Someone had been to the bigger village a few hours away that had electricity and heard an English radio channel say that Michael Jackson was dead. The small Maasai community which I was living wasted no time in sending the boy to find me in the bush and give me the news. This was especially sensitive information because everyone knew my middle name is Jackson from the one million times I had explained that my whole entire name had no meaning or translation - it was just a name. The concern was Michael must be a close relative of mine - perhaps someone I was named after - and I needed to get home to my family.

Regardless, I was in complete denial. “No, no, no,” I said in English, Swahili, and Maa. ‘He is not dead, it’s impossible. It must be a rumor.” I even began trying to explain to the boy the concept of tabloid magazines and how they claim celebrity deaths all the time, but I stopped myself and simply rushed him back to the village with the message to thank everyone for their concern, but it’s just a misunderstanding. And for the millionth time, I am not related to Michael Jackson.

But when I arrived back at camp to my East African colleagues later that afternoon, I was met with looks of concern. They had access to the radios all day, and the news was true after all - and my extreme denial was evident. The tears that welled in my eyes and streamed down my face were partially out of grief for the tragic and unexpected death of my favorite artist. But the tears also represented a feeling that was beginning to surface and that caught me off guard - that I was homesick. In a land of beautiful black faces and traces of my ancestry, I longed for the African American community, and realized more than ever that perhaps the result of exploration is an appreciation of home.

The next week, a new lion was discovered in the region. A juvenile male likely dispersing through the plains in hopes to establish new territory and join a pride. I was given the privilege of naming this one, and I called him Michael Jackson.

Five years earlier, I had a similar experience. I was only 19, and it was my first time visiting East Africa, this time as a study abroad student. I was the only black student in the small program, and the first black student who had ever participated, so the rural Maasai community quickly became interested in who I was and what I knew. At such a young age, all of the attention went straight to my ego, and I looked forward to lending my American expertise to each day’s new inquiries. The questions I remember the most were about race - whether it was true that Native Americans were kept in zoos (a rough Swahili to English translation of “reservation”), and why Latinos weren’t allowed to speak their language. Overwhelmingly, though, the questions were about validating whether what they had heard about slavery was real. And sadly, it was. They saw me as proof, however, that times had changed dramatically, and the black experience was one of progress and opportunity. Acknowledging that my people were still fighting an oppressive system, I found myself exuding optimism, and ensuring my new Maasai friends that things were getting better every day.

Not only was this the bush, but in 2005, smartphones weren’t a thing, and the internet had not yet hit rural Kenya. We, the students in the program, lived off the grid within the Maasai community, and depended on monthly mail runs to Nairobi 8 hours away, to receive correspondence from our parents and friends back home. One day early in the trip, three Maasai warriors visited our camp specifically to talk to me. They came with news they felt only I could help interpret. Eager to once again impress everyone with my knowledge of the west, I happily sat down with them and our translator for a chat. The eldest warrior spoke first. “They’ve let your people die,” he said. Not knowing what he could possibly mean, I asked what news they had heard. “All of the black people - they have drowned in the waters.”

I didn’t understand, and quickly eased my initial alarm by suggesting they must have heard a strange rumor or a major exaggeration. But the warriors were upset - seemingly at me. “You said black people were equal now,” one of them yelled. I felt embarrassed that perhaps in my quest to calm their anxiety around the brutal reality of American slavery, I had made things at home seem perfect. I tried to backtrack my earlier statements and explain that Black America is still faced with oppression, and sometimes violence, but they interrupted me. “Where is your family? Are they dead too? Why would they let all of the black people die?” In my confusion and denial, I brushed the conversation off as completely misinformed and assured these Maasai men that everything was fine and eventually when I get news from home, I’ll be able to explain whatever strange current event they were touching on. I got up and left and for the first time during that trip, wished I could call home and check on my family.

“All the black people - they have drowned in the waters.” It was Hurricane Katrina they had been referring to, and the news came to me more than a month after the tragedy in the form of a Time Magazine special edition my parents had sent in the mail. The cover of the magazine was an image of floating bodies, and the article detailed that over 1000 people had died, almost all of them the black residents of New Orleans. I sat with the magazine amongst my white peers in a camp within a Maasai community in southern Kenya. I read and re-read the statistics on the racial disparity between the people who were evacuated and the ones who would perish in the storm. The questions that the Maasai warriors had raised to me - a confusion over the value of black life in a country that asserts equality - had been valid after all. I was ashamed of my country for letting me down, and ashamed of myself for having painted a false picture of America for my new Maasai friends.

I shared the magazine with the entire village - allowing them to pass it around and providing loose translations for the text. When I brought it to the eldest warrior who had first brought me the news, I choked up and began to cry. My tears - he felt - were what had been missing that day I was in such denial. He said the village had cried for my people, and he offered asylum in his village for those of us who remained. They would name the next baby born into the community Katrina.

My years as an African American woman living within a Maasai community were irreplaceable. Riddled with misunderstandings, close-calls, and cultural faux-pas, I often longed for the black people and culture I was familiar with back home. But in the darkest and most confusing times, and at the moments when unexpected death and tragedy came knocking, whether we had lost the King of Pop, or the underprivileged residents of New Orleans, the Maasai community was there to hold my grief and and share my pain. Thousands of miles away, in a land where centuries-old tribal lifestyles are still practiced daily, live our brothers and sisters concerned with black lives and liberation, and a lion named Michael Jackson. We are welcome there any time.