NINETEEN-SEVENTY-THREE was not a good year to be a member of the Masai tribe. No rain had fallen in southern Kenya for over a year. The Masai depended on their cattle for about 90 percent of their diet. No rain, no cattle, and sooner or later - no Masai. Rain did not come until the early months of 1975. There were no late-night pleas on television or full-page ads showing children with potbellies and hungry eyes. Nor were there many people ready to put millions of dollars into temporary solutions. Relief
organizations had not found their way to Kenya either.
My parents were missionaries back then, and we lived on the outskirts of Nairobi. Although there was no famine relief, my parents wanted to do what they could. I was nine years old the first time I went with my father to distribute food to a village that had been ravaged by famine. We loaded a Volkswagon minibus with as many hundred-kilo sacks of dried beans and corn as it would carry, and then we started out on a 60-mile drive to a place south of Kajiado, where we were to meet other missionaries who wer e coordinating the relief effort. They were waiting with a load of donated instant chocolate milk.
We left paved roads behind and drove across savannas with no grass, only scrub thornbush and widely scattered acacia trees. For me, this was still just another adventure in which I got to tag along with Dad.
We could smell the village from several hundred yards away; not the usual aroma of cow dung, woodsmoke, and goats. All those smells were there, but there was something else underneath it - what I later discovered was the smell of starvation.
As we pulled up, the people of the village gathered around the van. Most were wearing traditional dress; the men draped blankets over themselves in toga fashion, while beaded leather shukas covered the women from neck to mid-calf.
All wore smiles and shouted out the traditional greetings: "Sopa! Sopa!" Everyone had to be greeted individually, and we were repeatedly asked in Swahilli, "Habari ya safari?" or "How was your journey?"
As the greetings continued, we, along with a few Masai helpers, began organizing the food distribution and the anxious crowd that had quickly grown in numbers. Flies crawled everywhere. At times it was difficult to work because we had to use one hand to hand out the food and the other hand to wave the flies away from our faces. The Masai were not particularly concerned by the flies and let them roam about their faces freely.
The head of each household clutched a card that identified him to us so that no family could get more than one ration each week. Some card holders were barely in their teens and had recently become the oldest in the family.
There were those with no cards who were only trying to receive an extra portion. We didn't blame them, but we didn't give them the food either. We couldn't. With the meager food we had, we were only trying to help them stay alive.
I manned a burlap bag with a gallon-sized tin can and began scooping beans into baskets, plastic bags, or sometimes in the corner of a tied basket. Each week we handed out one can of corn, one can of beans, and four packets of chocolate milk to feed a family of four. Each one who passed whispered a single word, "ashe," which is Masai for "thank you."
It only took a couple of hours before we ran out of food.
Under a nearby tree the people sat down to sing hymns and listen to a short sermon delivered by a native pastor from Nairobi. The sermon had to be delivered in Swahilli and translated into Masai.
The combination of speaker and translator gave the message a rolling cadence that added fire and melody to the words, even though I could only understand half of them. When the service was over, people gathered around to discuss mambo - important matters. They almost always addressed my father as Olelashe (Brother) or as "The man with a beard like a goat."
`WHEN can you bring a doctor? Do you have medicine for malaria? May I ride with you to Nairobi to look for work?" As the elders spoke with my father, children would come silently up to him and nudge his legs with their foreheads. This was the proper way for them to greet him and receive his blessing. As he talked, he would lay his palm on top of each head presented. Sometimes a short exchange of greeting passed between them:
Roughly translated, it went something like:
"How old are you?"
"All is well."
Dad was very popular with the children because he almost always had a toddler in one arm, even when he was filling baskets. By watching him as he lovingly held the smelly, ragged, little children, I began to appreciate the depth of my dad's love for me.
After the meeting with the elders, we were invited to have chai (tea) in someone's house inside the village. It was the first Masai hut I had ever entered, and it resembled a huge loaf of wheat bread that stood about waist high. To build it, the women had made a framework of sticks and then plastered them with cow dung. The hut we were invited to was dark and cool, but I could barely breathe because of the smoke from a small cooking fire.
The conversation inside the hut was less formal. We could be serious or just swap jokes. The woman of the house boiled milk, sugar, water, and tea leaves in one pot to make a thick, sweet drink. Each of us was handed an enamelled tin mug of chai in order of strict seniority - from oldest to youngest. I loved the chai because it was strong, sticky, sweet, and tinged with smoke. But I felt guilty at the same time, because I knew that for this woman to offer me chai would mean that she would have one less c up for a hungry child of her own. Yet I drank it because I knew that declining her offer would be the ultimate insult. Later I figured out that if I drank slowly enough, the woman would not fill my cup so often.
It was late in the afternoon before we started home. The children's cries of "Serenaduo!" "Goodbye!" - rang in my ears. I sat in the back of the VW and said nothing.
During the year and a half that we distributed food, we helped save hundreds of lives. We lost thousands more. In the years that followed the famine, we returned to work with the Masai in agriculture. But it was that first day I participated in famine relief when I learned of love, of suffering, of pride, and most of all, equality. For all that, it was my turn to say "Ashe."