A-ɨcɨák – To meet by chance.
Swelali was born in the savanna, and there she will live until she dies. Enkai has watched from the sky with his bright and blinding face, and has watched over her family and their herd. He has seen the grasslands over which they crossed, the pain of her many lost children, the songs sung over the ground, the leaps of joy of the morads and the many inkajijiks she has built with her own bare hands. He has watched over her herd; he has kept the cows healthy and strong.
But she wonders, sometimes, if there is anything Enkai can do for him.
She met him a very long time ago, when she was only a small child. It was only an hour after sunset, just as the wedding celebrations were beginning. Her uncle was marrying his second wife, and the singing and drinking had only begun. She had crept away from the ol-túrén, the hearth, and had found herself nearly in the shadows.
When she first saw him, Swelali was seized with terror such as she could not remember ever feeling. She thought, for a brief moment, that perhaps this was an evil spirit such as those her father had warned them about. En-torrónī, he had said. They were bad.
But her child’s curiosity kept her in place. She would not be kurêt, a coward, and shame her family. And as she watched, she noticed that all those around them were aware of the strange creature who sat in the shadows, glancing at it now and then even as they sang; the en-kitóo, the elders, even passing him the ɛn-dʉ́kʉ́ny, which was full of honey beer. With wide eyes, she watched from afar as the creature took a sip and returned it to the hands of her father. He and the other en-kitóo continued singing.
The creature was shorter than any of the morads, with a heavy shoulder-long shadow of hair on its head. It seemed to wear clothes, yes, but they were dark, like the clothing of a young man after emorata. Its eyes were dark, its movements graceful, but above all what frightened her was its skin… pale and bright like ivory from an elephant’s tusk.
Swelali had never seen anyone like this, with skin and hair quite like this. Yes, she had seen a ɔltʉŋáni ɔ́ɨ́bɔ̄rr before, a water youth, a traveler from distant places away from the savanna, a white man… from afar. But that man had not been like this. That man had had skin reddened by the sun, and his clothes had had more color and had shown more skin. And he had been joyful, talkative, speaking tentatively in Swahili but with no knowledge at all of Maa, her own language.
This creature simply did not look human. Swelali could feel it, just like the cows outside could; she could see them unusually restless. And she did not doubt that her father and the other en-kitóo knew the difference. She could feel it in the soles of her feet, as if the ground itself was acknowledging with silent respect the presence of this creature.
And it was in that moment that it, him, turned and met her gaze.
His eyes were black. They glinted with a strange kind of light that reminded her of the stars and the moon and a leopard’s eyes in the dark. She was petrified, staring, and the world around her seemed to fade away into small pieces, dividing music and laughter and voices… and making them all disappear.
She was aware, suddenly, of how very small she was. Only a child before this… this… him. Small and impotent, and in his eyes she could see too much; his expression was too full of things she could not recognize. E-sopîa, she thought. Dark. Darker than any moonless winter night.
But then he smiled, and suddenly the world focused again, and it was all real: the laughter, the songs, the footsteps, the voices, the smell of the dirt, the honey beer and the cows, and the feeling of her own heart beating loudly in her chest.
She crept into bed much later, but she could feel his presence through the walls of her family’s inkajijik. She curled into a small ball, like a hyena cub in the cold, and fell into a strange sleep with dreams she could never remember properly. But when she woke up, she was sure they had not been nightmares.
A-ɨdacaá—To pass by; have a brief stop-over on the way to somewhere else.
Swelali has learned every scent, color, sound and feeling that exists in the grasslands. She has learned the seasons, and the changes of the breeze. She knows the moods and the patterns of the cow’s breathing, the rustling of the grass and the bushes. She knows her people, the Maasai, with their colorful Shúkàs of red, yellow, black and blue. She holds in her heart their laughter and their tears, and the voices of her people as they sing and tell the legend of Enkai, generation after generation.
They are strong, the Maasai. Strong and unchanging like Ol Doinyo Lengai, the Mountain of God. Swelali feels it in her veins and in the darkness of her eyes. She feels it on her skin, and in the warmth of her breath.
The next time she saw him, she was older. She would undergo emorata in two years’ time; she was almost a woman. She wore more necklaces now, and more adorning on her arms and ears. She worked harder and played less, but she smiled and was joyful. Swelali knew she would not have trouble in being chosen as a wife.
It was just at sunset, as the preparations for the festivity prior to the day of emorata for two of her brothers and many other young men of the village were coming to a close, and she was carrying the heavy séender out, that she saw him for the second time.
He stood silently in the corner of one of the inkajijiks, so still that she might have passed him unaware had the light of the setting sun not given everything a reddish glow. His hands were folded before him, his eyes surveying the scene in a way that made something she could not define stir in her heart. Swelali, though her arms strained with the weight of the séender, was overtaken with an urge to stay where she was, as if she could not pass and come between him and the village before them. As if her presence could mar the peace that his posture seemed to emanate.
Yes, that was what it was. Peace. The relaxation of muscles in a face that always had them tense as a mask, the overwhelming shudder of beauty as someone’s eyes found it at last. Swelali felt like she was intruding in something that was not meant for her to see, but she could not tear her eyes away.
She knew somehow, innately, that he was aware of her presence. If he had not wished it so, she would never have gotten so close. She did not doubt for a moment that he had the power to move people and entire worlds. No; Swelali was humbled, and in her heart stirred that ancient terror she could not quite describe. And as the last rays of the reddish sun disappeared into the grass, she was a child once more, frightened but fascinated in a way she could never explain.
And then there was a shift in the air, and Swelali found her footsteps taking her away from the shadow of that presence, to relieve her arms of the weight she carried.
It was only the next day, when she awoke from strange dreams of color and beauty and fear she did not recognize, that she realized what it was that she had seen in his expression as he gazed at her village, as he surveyed her world with the eyes of an outsider.
A-niŋ – To understand.
Swelali has always had a fascination for words. When schools began, schools that taught Swahili and math and writing, she was among the best students and she learned words like cattle ate grass. She learned them well, and she learned to write words of her own; words in Maa, the language of her people.
She finds herself scrawling words on the dirt, sometimes, as she crouches near the hearth, and she whispers them to herself so she will not forget. For she cannot forget; she will not forget. The words are a part of who she is; they hold the secrets of the Maasai, passed from mouth to mouth as generations pass.
His expression lingered in her mind for many weeks after he was gone. Swelali could see those dark, endless eyes when she slept and when she awoke; she could see them in the grass, in her home, in the ground, in the sky. And it intrigued her; the way the vision had been burnt into her eyes like one is blinded by the bright sun.
After some days of this, she built up the courage to speak. Her father was Ngidaha, an en-kitóo, an elder of the village. He stood tall, jumped high, and possessed a vast herd and many children. Swelali was the daughter of his second wife, and Ngidaha held her high in his regard for her strength and her bright shining smile.
She approached him one day even as he sat to rest after his morning meal.
“Pápa?” she asked quietly, crouching beside him even as he examined his tunic for rips or holes in it. “Who is the n-túrrêî who comes always at night for the wedding or emorata celebrations?”
Ngidaha stopped frozen for a moment, and then lifted his eyes from the tunic and turned his eyes to look at her face. A small smile appeared on his lips. It was almost an expression of rapture, similar to the face he wore when speaking to the people of the story of Olonana and Senteu, of the Moryok and the Morwak. It was a face she was accustomed to seeing accompany a tale of great beauty and sorrow around fires and followed by music. It seemed out of place in the dusty interior of the inkajijik at midday, in summer, surrounded by the children.
“He is not like you and me, e-ínoti,” said Ngidaha, returning to the Shúkà, turning it slowly and thoughtfully between his fingers. “But you already know that. Nor is he a water youth, a ɔltʉŋáni ɔ́ɨ́bɔ̄rr, like the others. He is something we do not know and we will never understand.”
“Have you spoken to him?” asked Swelali in a low voice, as if she might disturb a sleeping child.
“He says only that he wishes to rest, and now we no longer ask questions. He is harmless, Swelali, yet there is a power about his presence that we all feel. But Enkai willed him to meet us, and so we allow him in, so that he may sit among us and be joyful in his own way, and we do not bother him. He is always gone before dawn.”
“You are saying Enkai sent him? He is no Neiterkob.”
Ngidaha shook his head. “I do not know what he is. It is plain he is not like us. He came first when I was a child, and he has come for years since. We call him En-tórós, the one who walks alone.”
Swelali stared at him in surprise. “But Pápa, he is too young to have come when you were a child!”
Ngidaha gave a shrug that expressed his lack of knowledge on the subject, and he turned to her once more with that strange smile. “As I said, he is not like us. Perhaps for some N-kɛ́ɛyatín comes later, and their lives walk slower.”
And even as the wind came and stirred the necklaces around her neck, an unusual idea found its way into Swelali’s mind. “Perhaps N-kɛ́ɛyatín does not come for him at all.”
Ngidaha frowned. “Ɛyɛ̂ kɛnyá aké pɔ́ɔkɨ ŋâɨ̂” he said.
Everyone will die someday.
A-iwuatiwúát – To change.
Swelali has known fear of all kinds; her skin, her mind and her heart have felt it through the years. She has known the thrill of fear in the face of a savage lion hiding in the brown grass, the heart-numbing terror of the emorata, the world-stopping shock of the sight of a dying loved one, the slow overpowering despair of sickness and famine.
Yes, Swelali knows fear intimately. It is strewn on the grasslands, mixed with the tears and the laughter in equal amount. Her worn out pairs of namuka have taken her over many miles of the country they call Kenya, and she has found fear in the people as well as in the cattle. Fear is a part of life, the inseparable companion of peace and joy. It comes as stealthily as a leopard, and leaves with the speed of one. And in its wake it can leave life, or it can leave death.
The savanna gives, and the savanna takes. As does Enkai as he watches from the sky.
She had already lost two children before she saw him for the third time. Her husband was a tall and strong man who was kind and compassionate with her. She was his first wife, and in time she came to bear him four children. Those first years were painful, however, as she watched her babies grow and could do nothing more than watch helplessly as they died.
It was her cousin’s wedding celebration, and she sat beside her husband’s other wife with her fingers crossed over her thin knees while everyone sang the joyful songs blessing the couple. She had counted the years, now. She had not forgotten.
And her eyes were not disappointed. The sun had just sunk below the horizon when she became aware of him, sitting in the shadows once more, the darkness not quite enough to cover the brightness of his eyes or the startling whiteness of his skin, bright as ivory against the dark background.
She noticed now, with the experienced eye of one who was lived among the people for years and has learned their manners, the slight rustle as one by one, the elders and the morads and the rest of the people became aware of his presence and rearranged themselves so that he was not exactly looking from the outside but was rather a part of them, the missing piece, like a herd that welcomes the lost cattle.
Silent acknowledgement; eyes that avoid but eyes that are aware.
Swelali’s long, strong fingers caressed the bracelet on her arm. Red: the color of bravery and strength, symbolizing the blood of the cow when slaughtered, and white: the color of a cow’s milk… holy and pure to the people, meaning health and life. The beads jingled slightly as they moved against each other on her wrist.
He was white, but she could not be sure if it meant health or holiness. It did not seem to fit with those eyes that were too bright, that skin that was too pale, those movements that were too elegant, too smooth, too cat-like. That is what he reminded her of, she realized. A predator, crouching in the grass. But not a leopard watching with stealth, awaiting the moment to pounce. No, he reminded her of the lions she had seen from afar, sitting under a tree in the shade on a hot day, surveying the world with calm eyes, their powerful haunches relaxed, the very incarnation of peacefulness.
She used to watch them silently, seized by a strange desire to approach them and feel their soft, smooth fur under her fingers, the color of the savanna. As a child she would linger by the limits of the village and ask those who cared for her for permission to go further. Kégól inie amʉ̂ kétíī lŋatúny sapʉ́k they used to say. It is dangerous.
She always had a childish idea that if she approached the lion while it was relaxed, it would not pounce. It was not true, she knew. She had seen the wounds a lion could inflict upon a human body. But she could not help but revert to that idea as she sat watching him. Her curiosity, it appeared, had not diminished from the time she was a small child… no, it had grown.
She was among those who sang the loudest, that night, as if she could coax the presence from the darkness, invite it to come and explain its story. Because she was as wary as she was curious, and the fear she felt was not one she could explain properly. She stayed in her place through the night and watched him watch them, and she wondered if they looked as strange to him as he looked to them.
In bed, that night, beside her children, Swelali dreamt of bare roads of blackened dirt, of streams that rushed too loud in the darkness, of bright lights towering high like a thousand moons stacked one on top of the other. And there was beauty, but there was also sadness.
A-kás – To keep safe.
Swelali can feel the world changing around them, like the soft whispers of the wind before a thunderstorm. It is slow, but it is constant. The savanna still holds the wildlife and wears its Shúkà of grass and bushes, the leopards and the hyenas have cubs and wander almost silently in the distance, the elephants cross from afar with their beautifully intelligent minds, and the herds still feed and grow and thrive. The savanna has not changed, and neither have the Maasai.
But the world around the savanna changes, and Swelali knows it even before she begins to see the flying birds that are not birds roar over the sky, before strangers cross the savanna in their rumbling machines. When the dirt roads on the way to school hold tracks that are not those of feet or hooves, Swelali resigns herself to a world that will forget about cows and the beauty of the wind in the grassland, that will not learn of peace and fear or songs around the hearth, or long walks over the savanna. She looks at those from other tribes that leave to the large cities she has never seen, and knows that they believe her children envy them.
Swelali cannot help but smile when they voice concern, words of opportunity and fortune. She does not forget the words of her kákuyia, her grandfather. Man is always beaten by his own tricks. She teaches them to her children, and they understand.
The Maasai are made to walk on the savanna. They are the children of Enkai, and Enkai watches over his own.
Her children grew, and had children of their own. And as Swelali herself grew older and stronger, and later weaker, her skin wrinkling around her smiles, more necklaces decorating her neck and brighter colors on her Shúkà, she saw him, with many years in between. Ngidaha had been right: he did not change.
She came only a few hours before dawn, leaving an inkajijik to see if the en-kitóo were already sleeping from the aftermath of the emorata celebrations, and she found him sitting on a pile of sticks only a small distance away.
She was distinctly aware of how desolate and quiet the village was before dawn; the chill of the air and the distant sounds of the wildlife as it wandered free over the savanna under the last hours it could hide under the cover of the night. She breathed in deeply and could not tear her eyes away from his presence, as he lifted his eyes up to hers.
Silent except for her breathing, Swelali stood, transfixed, and she could feel the strange look of rapture she had seen on her father’s face all those years ago on her own. In those dark eyes that were fixed on hers, she saw places she had never been to, worlds of noise and light and speed she could not quite understand. She saw death and turmoil, but also love and joy.
And time. She could see lifetimes… and if she looked closely, she could almost see a small girl staring from a crowd, trying her best not to look a coward.
The question in her eyes never reached her mouth, and she never formed words with her lips. Indeed, she was not sure if he would understand her, if his words were the same she used, but his pale hand shone in the darkness of the shadows, tainted with blue from the lightening sky, and he reached forward, a stick in hand, and traced words on the dirt that were only large enough for her to see.
She read the words in her mind, tasting them on the tip of her tongue just as she had in school, just as she had taught herself to remember them through the years.
It was Maa, the words she herself had put into Swahili letters.
I am praising.
A-itutumó – To be together.
Swelali is old now, with long fingers that are rough from years of work, and a back that is not quite as strong as it used to be. Her eyes are large and wise, and her mouth often curls into a smile as she prepares the meals for her n-kakúyia, her grandchildren. She is firm, but she is kind, for the savanna has taught her to love and care for, through stormy nights and sunny days.
She spends more time sitting on a rock on the outskirts of the village, simply looking at the horizon. She knows it well and it knows her, though the position of the village is always changing. The Maasai are nomads, and wanderers at heart and in mind. Swelali loves nothing more but looking back at the place they came from and then looking forward towards the place they will go next.
Enkai shines from above, promising health and cows for her family.
As dusk arrives, Swelali fingers the necklaces around her neck and counts the years in her mind as if they were cattle. Each one a different personality, a different weight, a different color. Each one a different Swelali that learned from the people and from the land, each one a new place and a new joy.
Yes, she has counted the years, and she knows it is the right time; tonight, at the only wedding celebration of the year.
He does not disappoint. She turns her eyes towards the shadows, searching in the darkness, and finds the elegant, silent but strange presence, watching quietly as he always does. She feels the familiar ripple, the slow understanding that he is among them, and the odd rush of her veins, the strange pulsing of the ground under her feet, the respect of a land that knows one who is as old as it is.
Silently, she leaves the crowd in the midst of the singing, fading into the shadows herself and walking in silence until she has approached the silent figure that shines like a statue of ivory, or a white tree in the bright moonlight.
The smile appears, the smile that whispered Aŋ, home, into her ears, and she stands with her old eyes set on his face. She no longer fears him, not the excited terror she once had, but she is wary… her entire body is wary, just as the cows move restlessly in their pen.
She has spent years with this question on her mind, and she knows he can sense it. Perhaps that is why he turns his pale face to hers and meets her eyes even as she speaks.
“Why?” she asks, and in that moment she realizes that it does not matter that she speaks in Maa, or that her voice is now hoarse and worn from the years. He would always understand.
But she is not prepared for the look in his eyes. It startles her, and for a moment she sees Koyati, her grandchild, frightened before the opening of the skies as they prepare to shower rain down on the savanna. The look of one who is overwhelmed, who sees too much, who cannot understand the speed at which the world moves. She sees a weary soul, an old man, but at the same time she sees a young child.
And his words are simple. She cannot remember, later, if he spoke in Maa or Swahili or if he did not speak at all. But the meaning rings in her mind for years afterwards, until the summer morning when she left in her sleep to join Enkai’s herd in the skies.
“The Maasai never change.”
She thinks, that night, as her tired body relaxes and she drifts off into dreams that are oddly peaceful and show nothing but quiet sunrises and sunsets, that it is sad that he does not have an inkajijik full of children of his own to go to sleep in, or a herd of cows that he might follow over the grasslands and care for. And she wonders, for a second, if Enkai could do anything for him.
Just as the world fades into the peaceful darkness of sleep, it occurs to her that even though Enkai only shows his face in the daytime, perhaps he could send Olapa, the Moon, to care after a son.
Because he is also a child of Enkai, and Enkai watches over his own.
I wrote this in 2011 for the Lord of the Rings Fanatics Forum- Cottage of Lost Play Halloween Short Story Contest. The theme was vampires… I did something a bit different, and ended up falling in love with the Maasai culture.
Disclaimer: While I did extensive research on the Maasai, their language, their history and their way of life, I am aware that I can’t possibly have a complete understanding of what it is really like to be a Maasai. Therefore, I apologize if I failed to capture their culture and traditions accurately. I just hope I was able to make others feel the same love and fascination I did while reading about this amazing tribe.
Hopefully, I’ll travel to Tanzania sometime next year and bring back some knowledge.
Some information about the Maasai and their language (the dictionary is amazing) can be found here: