by Tim Wilson
Her first mother called her Kiserian because she was a peaceful baby. She would follow her mother, as a young girl, listening carefully as her mother showed her how to check for disease and wounds in the cattle and goats. Together, they would milk the cows. After the milking and inspections, her mother would signal her brothers, who would drive the cattle out of the enclosed manyatta for grazing in the grasslands. She would help her mother set the milk filled gourds in the sun and drop smoldering charcoal in each to maximize the curdling process during the day.
She would often sit with her mother on the flat roof of the enkaji, smearing on the mixture of twigs, soil and cow dung to patch holes from the rains. On the days when it was her mother’s turn, she would help repair the roof of her father’s enkaji as well. She knew her mother was her father’s favorite wife because he always complained that his other wives did not repair the roof as well as she did.
Her mother was also a favorite of many of her father’s fellow moran warriors. When they would come to her house and plant their spear at the entrance, it was rare that she did not welcome them to her bed. Despite her mother’s many lovers, Kiserian had only two brothers and no sisters.
The uncircumcised boys would tell Kiserian that she was as beautiful as her mother and when she was circumcised, they wanted to be among her lovers. At times, she would let the boys play with her and she let a few attempt to penetrate her. She would laugh at their frustrated attempts but between their embarrassed smiles, they said that when their strength came in they would be back. Sometimes even the morans would pay her compliments and tell her to grow up more quickly, but they would not touch her until she became a woman.
But those days were becoming memories to her, her world had changed. Every day, the gaunt figures of her brothers brought back fewer cows into the kraal then they had taken out in the morning. Every day, she and her mother separated out more cattle who were too sick to live another day; their skins were stretched on the outside walls of the houses to dry for sale to the Agikuyu traders in exchange for food. So many cattle did not make it back anymore.
Her father could no longer sat up when her mother came to tell him the condition of the herd. His thin body, once so strong and fit for battle, lay on the ground outside of his enkaji, covered by a single skin of a once prize bull. He always kept his spear by his side but Kiserian knew that he was too weak to stand.
He barked angry orders at her mother as he listened to her report on what remained of his wasting cattle. Her mother patiently gave him the report despite his outbursts. She was the only wife still living. He was not angry with Kiserian’s mother; he was scared. A Maasai who could not take care of his cattle was not worthy to be a Maasai. But the cattle were dying everywhere and along with them, the Maasai people. The famine was too long. The cattle’s disease raged on despite the best Maasai medicines and the sacrifices of the medicine men remained unheeded.
She watched her father and mother talking late into the night with the few remaining adult survivors. Their voices vacillated between loud and animated to quiet murmurs as they sent fugitive glances to where Kiserian sat silently in the distance. The stench of death was all around. The sound of hyena feasting on the corpses of Maasai and livestock outside the manyatta filled the night air—a sound she heard every night for months. She fell asleep hungry but everyone was hungry. She did not complain because she was Maasai.
Her mother woke her early and gave her a small gourd of milk boiled with bitter herbs to keep the feeling of hunger under control.
“My daughter, we will take some cows to meet the Agikuyu traders.”
Kiserian liked going with her mother to see the Agikuyu traders. Mama would usually trade skins and cows for spears for her father or the other Moran warriors. Recently, however, Mama traded only for the Agikuyu yams, millet and sorghum. Kiserian never liked Agikuyu food. It made her stomach hurt and growl. The Maasai complained that it was food for cows, not people. But, without the Agikuyu food, many more Maasai would have died already. Kiserian was looking forward to the feeling of a complaining stomach full of food.
“Mama, we are taking all of our father’s good cows to the Agikuyu. We are leaving none behind that are healthy.” Kiserian knew better than to question her mother’s actions. Her observation was as close to a question as a child dared venture.
“Yes, my child,” Mama stated. That was all the answer Kiserian was going to get. “Before we go any further, go back to your father. He has words to speak to you.”
Kiserian knelt down next to her father’s slumped figure. She offered him a gourd of milk mixed with blood and bitter roots. He faintly motioned the gourd away.
“My child, Enkai is the great god of the Maasai but he has two faces. Enkai gave us all the cattle on earth to sustain us. But there are times when the kind face of Narok becomes Nanyoki and is vengeful on the Maasai whom he loves. For years now our god has shown us only the anger of Nanyoki. Our labion have offered sacrifices of cattle and sheep to appease his anger and have petitioned him to turn the face of Nanyoki away and return the kind face of Narok to us once again. But instead, Nanyoki gives our cattle and our people as gifts to the hyenas.”
Kiserian sat quietly. There are no words between a daughter and her father. She already understood who Enkai was. She had learned from the knee of her mother all the things that are necessary to know about his two faces. She was well acquainted with the angry face of Nanyoki. She waited to see if he had finished.
“My child, the Agikuyu are a strange people. They work very hard from morning to night and the backs of their women labor under the load of heavy food that they pull from the earth. Their god, Ngai, has not been angry with the Agikuyu like Enkai has been with us. For the Maasai, the food of the Agikuyu is fit only for cattle. However, they are well fed and their children do not go hungry at night. Perhaps Ngai of the Agikuyu is stronger than Enkai. Perhaps they are the same god who has chosen to show kindness to the Agikuyu and anger toward the Maasai. I do not know these things. My child, you should know that there is no shame in living among the Agikuyu and taking an Agikuyu name. I have one word of instruction for you, my daughter: you must do as I say.” Kiserian tilted her head slightly to let her father know she would obey him. “My child, on this journey, listen to your mother and not refuse her or her instructions.”
Kiserian did not understand her father’s words. He motioned her to leave him and rejoin her mother. She saw the straggling remains of adults in the manyatta looking at her from their houses. Their eyes told her that everything had changed.
Mama walked ahead, leaving Kiserian with the task of prodding the cattle along. This is the way it should be. It was a mother’s task to build the shelters for the family, dig for roots, and to tend to the sick animals, but it was the task of the children to move the cattle to grazing lands and to meet the Agikuyu. Usually, other young children were brought along to help bring back the heavy Agikuyu foods, but this time it was just Kiserian and her mother. Agikuyu women carry food on their backs, but a Maasai woman would not carry burdens that belong to an animal. “Mama, it will be a heavy task to bring back the food from all these cattle.”
“We will purchase donkeys for the food,” Mama said. Kiserian wrinkled her nose at the thought of donkeys, disgusting animals with little use other than carrying the frames of the huts when the Manyatta moved to better grazing lands. Donkeys did not add to the wealth or status of the father. The Agikuyu seemed to have no pride in their women or their animals.
The sun was high and the sweltering heat slowed the progress of the cattle across the grasslands. Three jackals followed closely behind them and further back slumped two hyenas, all waiting for the first victims among the cattle. “Go away,” Kiserian shouted. “Today the cattle are strong and your bellies will not be filled.” The jackals sat on their haunches, their silver backs glistening in the sun. They waited until she turned to continue their vigil behind her.
By late afternoon, the little girl and her mother began to see the tops of the tall acacia trees where the Agikuyu would be waiting. It was a strategic spot, about a day’s journey from several Maasai manyattas. The yellow bark and dark green leaves stood in stark contrast to the dirty yellow savanna lands. Kiserian waived at the figure of her mother and pointed to the trees. Her mother nodded only slightly.
Before they reached the trees, Mama signaled to Kiserian, who circled the cattle, pulled thorn bushes up by the roots, and stacked them around the herd, leaving two small openings. Mama built fires from the same bushes and placed them in front of the openings. Negotiations would begin in the morning and no Maasai wants to spend the night in the same camp as the Agikuyu. Mother and daughter sat listening as the night air filled with the sounds of hyena and jackals and the distant grunts of lions.
The sounds of the lions grew louder and the cattle stood to their feet, their wide eyes reflecting the firelight. Mama stood up and walked outside of the fence encampment. She brought back long green sticks and broke them into small lengths. She placed a small stick between each toe and handed the rest to her daughter to do the same. She lifted her hands above her head. “Enkai, hear my voice. I am your daughter and I can neither breathe nor speak unless you give me breath. I call upon your protection tonight. We do not fear the lion because you alone can open and shut the mouth of the lion. We call upon you to protect us against the spirits of those who would do us evil and against the lion who would do us harm.”
With that, Mama lay down and fell asleep. Kiserian curled up beside her.
At first light, they approached the Agikuyu women waiting next to their heavy baskets, waiting. As the girl and mother approached, they could hear the chatter. Kiserian found the Agikuyu language repulsive but the leader of the women, and sometimes others, always spoke Maasai. Mama had told her that these women had once been Maasai. Kiserian found this abhorrent. Why would a woman leave the Maasai and become a beast of burden for the Agikuyu?
The women stood up at the arrival of the cattle and carefully inspected them. They looked in the mouth for signs of fever and in the eyes and nose for cloudy discharge—any of these indicators, and they would reject the entire herd. Kiserian and Mama had chosen carefully. Mama only negotiated for food. She did not inspect the spears or swords. The Agikuyu women seemed to understand the singular purpose of the visit and quickly loaded two donkeys with the food. Kiserian spotted some arrowroot and yams among the grains on one of the donkeys.
Kiserian spat on the ground in her disgust at the sight of a woman doing the work of a child as the Agikuyu women took control of the cattle.. Mama turned and with a glance stopped her from any further displays of disrespect.
The young girl watched as her mother took the oldest woman aside. The two leaned close together in a hushed conversation until the older woman turned and called two others to join them. Then Kiserian’s mother signaled her to come too.
The young Maasai girl came and stood stoically by her mother. The Agikuyu woman grabbed her arm. “This one is skinny, probably lazy too.” Kiserian almost laughed but caught herself. She did not expect a Agikuyu woman to talk like a Maasai. She glanced into the old woman’s face and was surprised by the kindness in her eyes.
“She is strong and her spirit is stronger,” Kiserian’s mother said.
“Does she still have a father on this earth or is he given to the hyenas?”
“Her father lives but the hyenas linger close by.”
“It is not proper to make this exchange without the father to give consent.”
“Her father’s strength is given to the earth. If he were to walk, he would belong to the hyena before he left the manyatta where he sits.”
“Does the stupid Maasai girl agree that her father’s weakness is too great to walk?” the Agikuyu woman asked.
Kiserian agreed with a slight tilt of her head.
“Did your father give you any instructions before you followed your mother?”
Kiserian felt weak as a realization of what was happening came over her. “My father told me to listen to my mother and to not refuse her or her instructions.”
The old Agikuyu woman looked with sympathy into Kiserian’s eyes for a moment and turned to the two other Agikuyu women. “You have heard this, now you must be witnesses to what follows, so we may tell the council.”
Kiserian did not look at her mother but felt her mother’s firm grip on her shoulder. Kiserian felt her mother tremble. The Agikuyu woman reached out and gently turned mother and daughter toward her and told them to follow her instructions. The old woman bent down and broke off the tops of the grass growing around the trees. When she was satisfied, she stood and faced them.
“We do not steal children—we do not force others to become Agikuyu. We will not take this Maasai girl to live among the Agikuyu. We have plenty of Agikuyu girls to marry our men and raise the children that Ngai has given us. We do not need more. If this lazy Maasai girl comes with us, she must be an Agikuyu. Ngai has given us our land but he instructs us to work hard with our hands to make it a land plentiful for us and for helping others like the lazy Maasai. If she comes with us, she comes as one who will plant the seed, pull the weeds, and learn the ways of the Agikuyu without reservation. But we ask the Maasai mother to take her daughter home with the food we have given her; we do not need this girl.”
Kiserian could hardly breathe as she waited for her mother to speak.
“It has been too many years since Enkai Narok has shown his face to us.” Her mother’s voice was determined. “We have only seen the angry face of Enkai Nanyoki. With this food, I may give my husband a few more days of life and after that, both my children and I will soon die. It is better that I give one of my children for food. With that food, those of us who remain may survive until the anger of Enkai is over. But this child will go with the Agikuyu as you have said, because Ngai of the Agikuyu has given you a land of plenty, and this girl who was until now my daughter will have plenty. She has a strong spirit and she will be a good Agikuyu woman.”
The old woman turned to the two women standing with her. “Have you heard all that was said here?”
“We have heard.”
The woman put the grass in her mouth and chewed it into a green mash. She motioned for them to extend their hands and form a cup. The woman spit a large wad of grass first into the mother’s hand and then into Kiserian’s. She looked directly at Kiserian’s mother. “It is time for you to give us instructions so that we and your daughter may know your decision.”
“I give my child to you and my instructions to her are to love and obey you. She is now born of your family and of your womb. Whether I live or die, I give only blessings and not curses to you and to her who is now your daughter.”
“Have you heard all that was said here?” The old woman glanced at the other two.
“We have heard.”
She turned again to Kiserian and her mother. “We will leave now. Our journey back to our lands is long. Speak what you must, and we will see if your feet are a good as your words.”
Mother and child stood under the big acacia trees and watched the Agikuyu women load the un-bartered supplies onto their backs and their remaining donkeys. They drove the cattle out of the thicket of acacia trees and back onto the trail toward the Agikuyu highlands. Still, the mother stood silent. Then she sat on the ground and looked at her hands filled with chewed grass. She let it drip through her fingers and wiped it on the grass. Kiserian sat down and followed her mother’s example. They watched the slow progress of the Agikuyu traders until they almost disappeared. Mama stood up. She picked up Kiserian’s herding stick and grabbed the sisal ropes tied around the donkeys’ necks. Kiserian stood and watched her. She had never seen her mother holding donkeys or a herding stick.
“Child, come here.” Kiserian came next to her. “The one who holds these donkeys will return this food to the Maasai people.” She handed the herding stick to her daughter. Kiserian took the stick quietly. “The one who holds the stick is no longer a Maasai; she now belongs to the Agikuyu who are now heading to her Agikuyu lands. The one who holds the stick will turn her back on the Maasai and she will not look back. Those are my final words; you must remember the voice of your father.”
Kiserian listened to the sounds of the protesting donkeys behind her. She listened as the sounds of the footsteps of the woman who had once been her mother faded into the distance. She wondered if she would ever see her face again. Kiserian tried to take a step toward the women in front of her. She felt riveted to the ground. She gathered her strength because it was a step she knew she must take.