Thursday, 23 August 2012

More Goat, Brother?

I have a “goat brother” somewhere in Kenya.

After six months of living in a remote location north of Nanyuki, I at last made a friend.  This was a Masai elder called Letai. He was one of a handful of local people who stopped short of ignoring the couple of Mzungu (white people) who had come to live in the empty house of a teacher of a school that never got built.
I had got into the habit of sitting on a log in front of the house during the afternoon, learning to do nothing in particular. If you’ve never tried this, I recommend it. Almost everyone in the world knows how to do it better than we do. You don’t read, look at your wristwatch or fiddle with your keys. You just sit.  If you sit long enough, and earnestly enough, someone will come and sit down next to you.

Letai sat down one day.  After the obligatory greeting, we just sat. An hour or two of nothing much happening will teach you a lot. I used to sneak looks at his left earlobe, which had been pierced and stretched to receive an aluminium film can which held his tobacco, matches and cigarette papers.  He carried an orinkaa, a knobbed club, wore a red plaid sarong and sandals made of old tyres.
For some weeks we just sat. Sometimes I would bring him some tobacco from the trading post at Dol Dol, some 14 km away on my motorbike. My Swahili improved enough so that we could talk if we wanted to. One day he told me that he wanted to become my goat brother, and that I was to appear with any wives I had at his nkang (log stockade) the following afternoon.

I was delighted. I didn’t know what a goat brother was, but I didn’t care. I ran inside and told the only wife I had the good news. She gave me her customary sceptical look. I should have paid attention.
When we arrived the next day, I was carrying a small gift of tobacco, which Letai accepted without comment. He gestured for me to follow, and I set out behind his lean, imposing frame along a path through a patch of woods. Barbara was captured by the women and taken elsewhere. We emerged into a large clearing, where ten or twelve goats were clustered suspiciously together. Letai told me to choose one.

I didn’t happen to need any livestock, but I pointed to a reddish animal. Letai’s eldest son called out a name and the goat came forward, just as a dog would when called. We all stroked him for a moment until I felt a prodding at my back. I turned to find a Masai man, who shoved a knife into my hands. It was a big, chunky knife, made from the leaf springs of a car. It dawned on me that I was not going to take a live goat back to the teacher’s house; I was to be its executioner.
For the squeamish reader, I will leave out some of the gorier details. I’ll just point out that the gesture of running a finger across one’s throat in pantomime of slaughter doesn’t tell it like it is. In the end, I had to be thrust aside so that the animal didn’t suffer needlessly. Some of the Masai grimaced in dismay at my efforts, but Letai was unruffled. He knew I was a Mzungu, and what can you expect?

Feeling like I wanted to find a church and pray for forgiveness, I followed the men back to the nkang. This was cedar posts, cut from the forests of Mt Kenya, driven into the ground and sharpened at the top to deter leopards, the main local predator. We walked across a spongy yard, which was years of animal manure compacted into a mattress-like surface, and ducked into the home of Letai’s eldest wife. Two other houses were in evidence, belonging to wives two and three. I guessed that one of them contained Barbara.
A Masai house is like a beehive. It is too low for a man to stand up in, which is fair, because they belong to the women.  A Masai elder has to ask permission to sleep in any one of them, which is sometimes denied. Letai had been known to sleep with the cattle and goats on the bare ground when all of them were angry at the same time.

The houses are made of bent branches, covered with woven matting and smeared with cow manure.  They have the shape of a conch shell, curving toward the hearth at the centre.  There are no windows, just holes poked through the wall that allow small beams of sunlight to enter. A single bed space is filled with a leather sheet attached to four stakes. This can be occupied by the woman and any man she invites to share her bed.  If a troop of warriors asks, they will be given priority over everyone and all pile onto the bed. That is one of the reasons that of Letai’s 28 children, very few were genetically related to him.
We sat in front of the hearth, a fire of sticks burning between cooking stones.  A beam of light from a window hole made patterns in the smoke. There was another man already there. He looked different from the Masai, and was introduced as the Doctor of Boys. He wore face paint and an elaborate necklace of shells.  He was utterly terrifying. He was the only one who could perform the ritual circumcision of young men about to become warriors. This was done with a metal disc which he showed me, grinning and demonstrating how it worked. You can’t have any sort of ceremony without the Doctor of Boys, even if you wanted to, say, become someone’s goat brother.

A wife appeared carrying chucks of the murdered goat.  She set them to boil in an aluminium pot and withdrew. After a few minutes, the Doctor began to chant. It wasn’t Swahili he was speaking, nor Ol-Maa, the Masai language. I later learned that he was a member of the Dorobo, a tribe of hunter-gatherers who had been in this place longer than the Masai. The goat boiled.  My eyes were burning from smoke and I coughed a lot. That’s probably why I didn’t realise it when the Doctor spoke to me.
I grasped none of what he was saying, so he addressed himself to my host. Letai, said, “My name is Letai, son of Letai.  I was born in 1938 and circumcised in 1952.” The Doctor turned to me.  I hesitated, then said, “My name is Arthur, son of Hugh.  I was born in 1943 and circumcised…” I hesitated, then said, “…in 1943.”

There was a gasp from someone.  I think it was one of Letai’s sons. Later I was told that I had either uttered a complete nonsense (best case), or a fact that, if true, would embarrass me forever. After a period of silence in which I resisted running for the exit only by praying for cross-cultural tolerance, the Doctor resumed the proceedings. He spat copiously onto a hot stone in the fire, reached into the bubbling saliva with his index finger, and smeared the spit on Letai’s forehead.  He did the same for me.  He shouted something in his language and everyone laughed, except me.  Then he lay back and unscrewed a pint of Kenyan whisky, which he nearly knocked off with a single gulp.
We had been blessed. We sat and waited. The goat meat bubbled.  A wife appeared with some mismatched plastic bowls and shovelled the meat into them. Letai opened a sack and sprinkled salt onto the chunks, which appeared to have bits of goat hide still attached.

If you’ve never eaten golfball-sized hunks of tough goat meat with your fingers, you may not understand why I’d rather live un-brothered by a Masai elder forever than do it again. My teeth weren’t up to the task, so I resorted to swallowing pieces whole, like big pills. There was enough water in the plastic bowl to wash them down with, but I knew that the experience was going to live with me for many days. When my first bowl was within about 12 ounces of being dealt with, Letail fished out some more chunks, put them in my bowl and smiled.
I reckon that I consumed something like three pounds of goat meat by myself that night.  I later learned that Barbara was being similarly force-fed in another house, while also being required to drink soured milk from a gourd. I refused a third helping by upending the bowl on a stone. The Masai were enjoying it.  They were chatting and laughing, but my peristaltic struggles blanked out my language centres, and I couldn’t understand a word. I finally managed the equivalent of, “Gosh—is that the time?” And got to my feet.

Barbara was waiting for me in the manure outside. I knew she would never be rude, but I realised that she had basically gotten up and run from the house. Just then, Letai joined us. It seems that the goat must be eaten entirely on the day of the ceremony. Every last chunk. Even the couple of dozen children and wives hadn’t quite managed it.  So Letai produced a leg and handed it to me with a generous smile. I took it, being careful not to let the blood drip on my shoes and thanked him effusively. In a few minutes we were outside the nkang and heading for the teacher’s house.
Like people who have survived a disaster, we could hardly speak, but I could tell by Barbara’s gait that her ordeal had matched, if not exceeded mine. We walked through the darkness by memory with a bit of moonlight to help. A few hundred yards from the nkang, I had a thought. The Masai built high walls to keep out leopards, nocturnal predators.  And here we were, carrying the dripping leg of a goat right through their hunting ground. As the thought occurred to me, I heard branches swishing and small twigs cracking. I didn’t have to say anything, I could tell by Barbara’s round eyes that the thought had seized her at the same moment.

We were far enough away from the nkang to risk it. I shouted out, “My name is Arthur, son of Hugh. I was circumcised in 1943, so come and get it!” I chucked the leg into a stand of trees, and we staggered home. There wasn’t going to be any evidence the following morning.
So Letai, goat brother, if you’re reading this, I apologise. You’re welcome to turn up and become a Caesar salad brother of mine anytime.




Friday, 17 August 2012

Coffee and Witchcraft

Up yours, Starbucks. That goes for you as well, Nero and Costa. I have been up on the mountain (literally) and found the ultimate cup of Joe.

           Marcelina was my next door neighbour in the mountain village of Rio Limpio, ten miles from the Haitan border. She was a witch, or so it was widely claimed, but the only magic she ever showed me was my morning coffee. I know she wouldn’t mind me sharing her secret.  Anyway, I’m too far away in time and distance to worry about spells and potions.

          The local coffee was of the Robusta cultivar, not the Arabica that everyone seems to go for these days. The trees are actually a type of cherry, and harvesting the fruits could involve some climbing. They grew half wild on the slopes behind my house. When the berries were ripe, I used to slip on them en route to the outhouse. You can eat them, but the skins are bitter.

          When harvested, the berries were tossed onto the road, where passing donkeys and humans trod on them, birds pecked them and the sun dried out the flesh, leaving white seeds everywhere.  These are coffee beans. After a week or so, you could go out to the road and shovel them into a sack, along with the dust and other pollutants, and wash them clean.

          Every morning, Marcelina would take a double handful and dump them onto a cast iron skillet set on an open fire, where the smoke could get at them. She would add a big lump of raw sugar from the local cane fields and roast them until nearly black. Then she put them into a hollowed-out stump from a Bruscon tree and pounded them to pulp with a six-foot log, called a pilon. Pounding in a pestle and mortar, she told me, is always better than grinding the beans. If you are ever offered café de pilon, accept it. And give thanks.

          She put the pulp into an old nylon sock, tied the top around a stick and then hung the mixture in a pan of boiling water until the colour pleased her. My cup was the least chipped enamel one. The handle was too hot to hold, so I drank it with my hand in my shirttail. No sugar needed.  And no milk.  Ever.

          I just stopped writing this for five minutes, went across the road and got an Americano from a trendy café. Sorry, Marcelina. I should have known better.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Your Turn

          We were working in a village in the mountains of The Dominican Republic, ten miles from the Haitian border, among the poorest people I have ever known. Their problems would fill pages. I was there to help with what was idealistically called “appropriate technology”, and my wife’s job was health and nutrition among the women and children.

          One of the goodies in my kit bag was the Lorena stove, a way of using firewood that was twice as efficient as open fires. This was to help slow down the tree-felling that was causing erosion that in turn lessened crop yields. The stove could be made by compressing clay and sandy soils into a block, with maybe a touch of cement as a stabiliser.  Tunnels dug out of the block recycled the hot smoke and sent it up a chimney made of old tins, away from children’s eyes. Along with boils on people’s backsides, conjunctivitis, leading to trachoma, was a big health issue in Rio Limpio.
          Like the cliché of a volunteer from someplace rich, I went around cheerfully touting Lorena stoves, convinced that they had a lifesaving role to play. Surprisingly, nobody wanted one. We managed to talk a few of our acquaintances into letting me build one in their outdoor roofed kitchens, but we noticed that when we passed by the only fire to be seen was the traditional open flame. But I was convinced that if we kept selling the idea it would take hold.

          It never did. When I asked why, people sheepishly told me that the smoke from the old fires kept the insects away. And anyway, they liked looking at the flames when they sat around after eating.

          One of my wife’s friends was a pretty widow called Llo Lla (pronounced “Georgia”). Barbara used to visit her and her kids and take little presents—things like sugar and powdered milk. None of them had shoes. One day, Barbara decided to invite her to our house.  This was a 9 by 16 foot palm board shack with a thatched roof.  But it housed our one guilty secret.

          We had no vehicle, nor did anyone in Rio Limpio. The roads were impassable about half the year, and our sending agency believed in its volunteers living at a basic level. The sole exception to the rule was a camping stove with an LP gas bottle. The reckoning was that, if we spent all day as everyone else did, hauling water and firewood, that we’d have no time for teaching anyone anything. So every few weeks a guagua, or local taxi, would bring us a refill.

          Llo Lla was shy as she entered the shack. Barbara sat her at a table in a folding director’s chair we had brought from the capital.  She made Earl Grey tea, added a couple of biscuits from a tin and put a jug of UHT milk on the side. Llo Lla didn’t like the tea, but smiled anyway and finished the cup like cough syrup. She couldn’t keep her eyes off the gas stove.  I could see she wanted to say something, but just waited. Finally, she asked if she could try it.  I gave her a kitchen match and she lit the cooker, staring into the blue flame hypnotically.

          Barbara was moved.  She burst out, “Oh, Llo Lla, I feel so guilty because I have so much and you have so little!”

          Llo Lla was a woman of sweet disposition, but when she spoke, her eyes were hot with something like anger.

          “Listen to me, Barbara,” she said fiercely, “It’s your turn. If you don’t enjoy it, then how can I wish it was mine?”

          Twenty years later, I’m still working on that.