Maasai Mama

Kathleen Ryan with her main Maasai consultant, Parmitoro ole Koringo, in southern Maasailand.

Kathleen Ryan with her main Maasai consultant, Parmitoro ole Koringo, in southern Maasailand.


Parmitoro ole Koringo's wife whom Kathleen refers to as pakitang, the special name to honor the relationship between co-wives.

Wife of Parmitoro ole Koringo. Kathleen refers to her as pakitang, the special name to honor the relationship between co-wives.

Kathleen was telling me about some of the people we will be meeting including Paul Kunoni, our Maasai translator and other archaeologists from the National Museum of Kenya, when she referred to a Maasai woman as her “co-wife.” Risking bad manners for the sake of curiosity, I asked her what she meant by co-wife…

She and I have a special relationship because we have exchanged gifts over many years. In 1997 she officially gave me a gift of a goat as from one wife to a new wife who is entering the family, enabling us to address each other as Pakiteng (‘gift of a goat’) as a reminder of our ‘co-wife’ or ‘sister’ relationship. At that time ole Koringo had three wives, she being the senior wife. I tried not to accept the goat because it was a favorite of hers but her husband said ‘No, she really wants to give you this because you have given her so much and this goat is the most precious thing she can give you. It will cement your relationship as ‘sisters’ and/or ‘co-wives.’ So I accepted it and we have been friends ever since. My chosen role as ‘honorary’ co-wife is varied, usually raising funds for school fees or school uniforms for the children and grandchildren; transporting members who have become ill to the hospital and sometimes paying the bills; making sure that young women have the very best beaded jewelry for their weddings, and so on. They also appreciate that I never come empty handed even if it is a supply of tea and sugar, maize meal etc. I have been requested by my co-wives not to bring beer so I no longer do that, much to the regret of the men. Meantime I have many goats, nine at last count, that the family takes care of. But perhaps my claim to fame is as a rain maker that I always bring rain even in the middle of drought.

My relationship with ole Koringo himself is more formal. He has been my main Maasai consultant in the southern part of Maasailand since 1988 when he agreed to talk to me and my Kenyan team and even to take a photo of him with his youngest son when all of the other elders refused. The following year he gathered together a group of other elders and urged them to work with us and we continued until 2002 with various research questions mostly focussing on strategies of cattle management, herbal medicines used to treat diseases of humans and animals, and environmental concerns such as ‘global warming’. We still visit every year to see old friends.”

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