Maasai - Feature Articles - Agnes Maasai
The Courage to Speak Out
|In October 1998, I was driving out of Maasai Mara National Reserve on my way to Narok, when the warden at Talek gate stopped me and asked whether I could give a woman a ride to Narok. Sure...
"Hi, what's your name?"
"Agnes," she said.
"Pleased to meet you, Agnes," I said. She didn't reply. In fact, she didn't talk much the entire journey. She said she was going to Nairobi. I thought she was probably going as a prostitute, but I didn't ask. She seemed embarrassed.
"I work in Nairobi," she said.
"Oh, what do you do?"
"Okay," she said. Similar questions, same response. She would smile uneasily, then fall silent again.
I slowed down a few times back in the park for wildebeest, giraffe, and comical warthog. I saw the old bull elephant before she noticed it. When she saw, she grabbed my shoulder in a fit of sudden and extreme fear, saying only "Bai sana, bai sana," meaning "very very bad".
"It's only an elephant," I said, joking. It was facing us about fifty metres away, flapping its ears to keep cool.
"Bai sana, bai sana," she repeated. I actually slowed down before realising that she wasn't joking, and really was petrified of it. We sped by, and she sank back into her seat, her eyes wide open, glistening, looking dead ahead.
The conversation died again, until I picked up another couple of women hitching to Narok outside Sekenani Gate, though at first they didn't talk much either. I thought at first this might be some strange politeness or something in the presence of a man, especially a mzungu man. Perhaps I needed to give them permission to talk, I wondered. But after half an hour, they talked a little, fell silent again. The first 40km were bad, rutted mud, and there were many more puddles than the evening before, even though it had only drizzled for about an hour. The earth is like a sponge, and holds water easily. We passed a few Maasai men, three guys on the right holding spears. Two held them upright, while the third held it out at the car as we sped by. I wasn't sure whether he was joking.
Then kids, similarly dressed in red shuka cloths, threatening to loose an arrow into the car, or else chucking yellow clubs (wood or giraffe leg bones), or just sticks or stones.
Back on the tarmac, I hit a pigeon. It bounced off the bumper with a dull thud and I saw it flit past on my right.
A week later, I read in the Nation newspaper about a Maasai woman who had taken the unprecedented step of taking her husband of 12 years to court for continuous battery. To everyone's surprise, the male judge had listened sympathetically, and ruled in her favour. The newspaper article was full of praise for the woman, for she had had the courage to outrage not only male Maasai society, but all upholders of tradition, including her mother. Her mother, she said, no longer spoke to her.
The shock waves have only just started in Maasailand, where it had long been thought the right of the husband to beat his wife senseless whenever he wanted, even if only to assuage his ego. The court sentenced the husband to either 6 months imprisonment or a 5,000 shilling ($80) fine. He chose the fine.
The woman's name was Agnes Siankoi Moita, but she told me that her name was Maasai.
For the full Nation article ("Agnes' Daring Move"), see the Nation Newspaper online for October 14, 1998.