Friday, 13 April 2012

Culture and Coiffure

We were living in northern Kenya, at in a place called Arjiju, 14 km from the nearest outpost, in a house meant for the teacher of a school that was never built. Around us were the nkangs, or stockades, of Maasai families, and very little else.

It took months before we had the first approach from our neighbours. We could see small troops of warriors skirting the roads to avoid being seen by government police.  They sometimes carried assegai, spears, and this meant instant arrest.
           As we gradually got to know the people around us, one character stood out. His name was Desi. He was physically intimidating and very dangerous looking. I knew that Desi had been in and out of jail for such things as fighting, causing pregnancies among the wrong tribal groups, and escape, but his main crime was rustling the expensive sheep of the white ranchers who had all the good land enclosed behind fences.

One day I glimpsed him across the road, inside the rancher’s fence. He cornered a long-haired sheep and darted forward, catching it by two legs and heaving it over his shoulders.  He climbed the fence with the animal and set it down in the road.  I noticed that he seemed to be glancing in my direction.  I waved, but he ignored me.
           He shooed the sheep into a run, and when it was about fifty feet away, hurled his orinkaa, a traditional club, at the sheep with great force.  I imagined that I heard the animal’s ribs cracking as the heavy club—topped with the lug nut from a truck-- struck. The sheep dropped dead in his tracks.  With a long—I thought defiant—glance at me over his shoulder, he picked up the animal and disappeared.  I enjoy lamb chops, but I felt as if I had witnessed a murder.

One afternoon Desi was lounging on the grass where the school was meant to be with another neighbour, Letai. He was looking at me and pointing. I was trying to act casual, but got nervous when the two men approached me. Letai asked me, in the polite form of Swahili he used for communicating with palefaces, if I had a camera.
           In those days of film photography, a camera was a rare thing.  I had a Kodak Instamatic, and told him yes. He conferred with Desi for a moment, then asked if I would be willing to take his picture. I agreed happily. This seemed a chance to get friendly with these scary guys.

 Desi spoke to me for the first time. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.” He left at a trot, and I went inside to brag to my wife that I had made contact with the locals. I got out the camera, loaded a new roll of film and went back outside to wait.
            And wait.

An hour passed, then two. The sun was slipping toward the line of trees to the west.  Sundown at the Equator comes very suddenly, and I began to think Desi might miss his photo op. Finally, three hours after we made the arrangement, I saw him walking with great dignity toward the house. He was dressed in Maasai finery: red plaid sarong, leather and bead necklace and bracelets.  His hair was smeared with bright ochre mud, making a damp mat on his head, and he wore facial makeup that gave him incongruously doe-like eyes.  He had his assegai with him, too. He looked like a postcard.
           “Sorry I’m late,” said Desi, the terror of Arjiju, “I couldn’t do a thing with my hair.”

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