Respect for parents, elders blesses future, Masai warrior tells students

November 09, 1992|By Larry D. Phillips | Larry D. Phillips,Contributing Writer

A neighborhood free of drugs, alcoholism and violence. Children who respect, love and obey their parents. While this may seem a fantasy, that's what Mpeti "Tom" Ole Surum told Stevens Forest Elementary school students they would find in his homeland.

Mr. Surum, a Masai warrior from Kenya, brought his message of total respect for parents and elders to the school last Monday as part of the school's cultural arts program.

"Drugs and violence are so much a part of life in the United States," Mr. Surum said. "I am appalled at how disrespectful some American children are. A Masai child would never say no to his parents. The Masai say, 'If you love, respect and obey your parents, your future will be blessed.'

"A Masai warrior is happy when he knows his parents are comfortable and happy," said Mr. Surum, who lives in Boston and earns $250 for each of his school presentations. He has been able build a new home for his mother in Kenya. He also has spent some of his earnings to buy cattle to increase the size of his father's herd.

Mr. Surum wore a red robe and colorful earrings and necklaces, and carried a spear, a sword, two wooden clubs and a walking stick. It didn't take him long to enthrall the Stevens Forest students with Masai dances, songs and stories.

The children were told of a 2,000-year-old nomadic lifestyle spent herding cattle, sheep and goats. "We have no electricity, television, telephones, or monthly bills," he said.

"The Masai get everything they need from their animals so there is no need for money," he said. "The cattle, sheep and goats are our riches."

The Masai believe that Enkai, God, gave them all the cattle in the world and once raided other tribes to regain "their cattle."

Milk is the main part of the Masai diet, although meat is eaten on special occasions. When a cow is slaughtered, the Masai designate certain parts to be eaten by men, by women and by children. On occasion, the Masai drink warm blood because it "makes them strong."

The Masai raise no crops and don't eat lettuce or other vegetables, which they consider animal food. Mr. Surum is one of the first traditionally raised Masai to bring the rich history of his people to the outside world.

While he has spoken to audiences in New York, St. Louis and Alaska, Stevens Forest was his first performance in the Baltimore-Washington area.

Mr. Surum is scheduled to visit Dunloggin, Oakland Mills, Owen Brown and Patuxent Valley middle schools during the next two weeks.

Mr. Surum performed for members of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington last Monday night and will appear before the National Geographic Society before returning to Boston.

"This is an excellent cultural arts experience for our students. It's live, not television," said Stevens Forest Principal Earl Slacum.

Currently all Howard County public school students study Kenya in the third grade and the rest of Africa in middle school, Mr. Slacum said. "Tom's message of respect for all adults and unity within the culture is a powerful message," said Mr. Slacum. "It would be wonderful if we could get rid of drugs in this country." During his performance, Mr. Surum had Mr. Slacum, Jean Proctor, a special education assistant, and 19 students dancing with him on stage.

"I liked the dancing and singing," said Angel Belanger, a 7-year-old second-grader. Jason Abramowitz, 7, said, "I liked the first song . . . it made me laugh."

Melissa Seeze, 7, who liked Mr. Surum's outfit, said, "I wish so many people in our country weren't going to jail because of drugs."

Damon Foreman, cultural arts chairman for the Stevens Forest PTA, said, "I hope the students remember some of the things Mr. Surum said, especially the part about honoring your parents."

Mr. Surum said that while it is the dream of every Masai warrior to kill a lion, only one or two out every 100 warriors actually do. "I was lucky enough to kill two," he said. Mr. Surum pointed out that lions and hyenas are killed only when they attack the Masai herds.

There are approximately 500,000 Masai living in Kenya and Tanzania. The Masai feel they are under attack from the Kenyan government, which insists they send their children to westernized schools, Mr. Surum said.

"One of the things I want to do is build a school where my people can learn to read and write while also learning about their own culture and history," Mr. Surum said.

Mr. Surum began his formal education when he was about 18, going from kindergarten to the eighth grade in three years. He is not sure of the exact age he began school because the Masai do not keep track of ages. He chose "Tom" as his English name because it was the first he could read or write in the language.

His preparation to become a warrior began much earlier. At age 7, two of his front teeth were pulled to identify him as a Masai. This also enabled him to whistle loudly while herding his father's cattle. At about 12, Mr. Surum's body was burned and cut with a knife to show bravery and beauty. "The more body marking you have, the more women are attracted to you," he said, adding that in his culture men can have as many wives as they want.

"The more wives you have, the more you are respected," said Mr. Surum, who at approximately 29 has yet to take his first wife. While Masai girls can select two boyfriends, marriages are arranged by their parents.

At age 15, Mr. Surum's ears were cut and stretched with sticks to make the lobes longer. It was around this time that he was circumcised without the benefit of anesthesia. "As a sign of manhood and bravery you could not blink during this ceremony," he said.

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