Bringing Africa into class Culture: A visiting Masai graduate student delights Carroll County middle schoolers with tales of his native Kenya.

March 02, 1997|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Eighth-grade students at North Carroll Middle School have had a textbook view of Africa, but Friday they studied the continent through the tales of a Masai tribesman.

Moses Olesakuda, whose formal name is "longer than a sentence," delighted his young audience with tales of fearsome lion hunts, charging buffalo and powerful snakes. The students saw the sword Olesakuda used to slay a lion, a rite of passage for boys about their age.

"Killing a lion is like getting a degree in our culture," Olesakuda said. "It is how you prove yourself to your family."

Had the classroom ceiling been higher, the 6-foot, 1-inch Olesakuda would have re-enacted the traditional reception for the returning lion slayer -- a dance based on escalating jumps. Dancers often wear headpieces woven from the lion's mane.

"We could use you in our basketball game today," said Erin Lamotte.

Although Olesakuda admitted to a mighty slam dunk, he declined the invitation.

He offered sketchy information on his early childhood. Masai keep no birth records.

The children estimated Olesakuda's age from 18 to 29; his best )) guess is mid-20s.

"I believe that one day I was born," he said. "Masai don't celebrate birthdays."

He speaks English in a sonorous voice with a British accent. English is the official language of Kenya, the East African homeland of the Masai and about 40 other tribes.

Swahili is the national language, spoken by most tribes and taught in schools.

"He has such a beautiful voice, I could listen all day," said student Pamela Carr. "His clothes and jewelry are really neat."

Olesakuda, on a break from his teaching job in Kenya, is studying in graduate school at the Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Harrisonburg, Va.

He often visits schools, capturing children's imaginations with tales from Africa. In May, he will take part in the International Festival at the Brethren Center in New Windsor, where he promises folk stories and African artifacts. The staff from the center brought Olesakuda to the school as part of a cultural program.

He talked constantly, stopping only to sip soda from a can. He often leaned on a beaded walking stick made by his mother. She also wove the two long, beaded necklaces that crisscrossed his dark business suit.

"If my people saw me in these clothes, they would run away from me," he said, pulling on his lapels.

He donned a Masai man's robes over his suit and asked for a student volunteer to show off what a tribeswoman would wear.

Liz Shaffer soon found herself decked in layers of deep red and bright-blue cloth, with a beaded leather choker at her neck. Large hoops in her ears and a shaved head would authenticate her look, said Olesakuda.

"I don't think so," Liz said.

As for the outfit, "it was hard to move. I was afraid it would fall off, but I loved the beads," Liz said.

Olesakuda showed the class hollowed-out horns used for drinking cups, an ornate fly swatter fashioned from a cow's tail and leather sandals -- rectangular so trackers cannot determine a walker's direction.

Except for the occasional lion, the tribesmen do not kill the wildlife that surrounds them in Kenya. But Masai consider all cows theirs by right.

"Other tribes end up not keeping cows," Olesakuda said. "Masai believe all the cows in the world belong to them, even the ones that are here."

The cow is integral to Masai life, a source of food, shelter, clothing and trade.

He drilled the class on African geography, pleased that answers came readily to his questions -- until he asked how many knew Swahili.

"We only study Spanish here," said one student.

As soon as their guest mentioned "The Lion King," the students spilled off words from the film and Olesakuda translated. He even danced a few steps to the theme song "Hakuna Matata," which means "no need to worry for the rest of your days," he said.

Every hand in the room went up, when Olesakuda asked how many like to complain.

"Hear my stories and you will never complain again," he said.

He described droughts, which meant weeks with no bathing; a constant diet of milk, cow's blood and beef; and the nomadic life of a people whose lives are linked to their herds.

Often, when the young Moses returned from months at school, it would take him weeks to locate his family's village.

One of 40 children of a man with six wives, Olesakuda nearly died in early childhood. Missionaries rescued him and invited him to a school in Nairobi. Because Moses was one of his weaker sons, his father agreed to let him go.

"A father doesn't want to lose his best children," said Olesakuda.

Masai rarely leave their homeland. Kenyan records show that Olesakuda is one of three Masai to travel outside the country, he said. He is eager to complete his studies and rejoin his family.

"I miss the animals and sitting around with the tribe," he said. "Life in America is so individualized."

Before he left the middle school, he taught the students a Masai greeting.

"The next time I come, you say 'jambo' to me," he said.

Pub Date: 3/02/97

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