Ole Koringo’s Malaria Medicine

May 10, 2010

I woke up to the hee hawing of a very articulate donkey. He seemed to be practicing his hee haw for one of those pull string toys with recordings of farm animals. The donkey says… Hee Haw. (clearing of the throat)… Hee Haw. No, once more with feeling. HEE HAW! Well done!

Today we picked up Ole Kiringo and one of his many sons, William, at his relative’s house. We were driving through Rumbo when we passed one of many people walking along the dust road. There was a commotion in the car and Komande put it in reverse. The man appeared in the window and the door was slid open with a lot of hand shaking and greetings. It was Stephen, another of Ole Kiringo’s sons. We drove on to the next boma in Ol Girro where we were greeted by Ole Kiringo’s second senior wife and a smiling but shy entourage of children. The children quietly come at you with their heads bowed so you can touch them. I had to work hard to remember the correct vowels. Women are greeted with “Habari mama” and men are greeted with “sopa.”

They led us through the door in the briar wall of their boma to an inner circle of briars and brambles that lined the perimeter of their cluster of about three smallish mud and log houses. There were baby goats everywhere.

Kathleen asked Ole Kiringo to show use several plants that were used to prevent or cure the symptoms of malaria. A group of several men gathered and we wound our way through the grassy fields with low growing acacia trees. Steven stopped to show us something that wasn’t on the itinerary. The tissue plant, as in toilet paper. The leaves were softer than any toilet paper I’d ever touched. He said not to confuse it with wild peppermint or else you’d be jumping up and down for five hours. The wild peppermint is however used as perfume for the warrior age set and an insect repellent to put under their cow hide mattresses.

Stephen started hacking away at the roots of one tree with his sword. There was much discussion about when he should switch to the Maasai spear to sever the root once it was dug up. They collected a few more roots including the desert date or green thorn tree which were everywhere. We returned to the boma and Ole Koringo started making the preparations. He whittled the bark of the roots with his knife and rolled the next layer of fibers off by rolling it on a rock and slipped out the inner layer like a tube. He worked it into a fibrous mush by wringing and twisting it in his hands. He put it in boiled water and mixed it with an apothecary tools that looked like an upside down walking cane.

All of the mixtures seemed to give you diarreah. Steven said “Maasai like to have diarreah.” As counter intuitive as this is for a people who don’t have toilets, it makes sense that they prefer to clean out their systems regularly. Similarly, Paul was telling us that he can only drink a few sips of water at a time, because it’s easier to walk long distances when you are dry. I assume it’s the same with other matter clogging up your gears. Diarreah also helps purge your system to help with the symptoms of malaria and reduces fever.

Ole Koringo and Stephen strained the mixtures and poured all the anti-malarial concoctions into one cloudy, steaming bowl. Somebody joked that Kathleen should take a sip. Her reaction is pretty apparent in the photo Jenn snapped just at the right moment.

Word got out that a whole hoard of mazungus were hanging out at Ole Koringo’s boma, because the neighbors started showing up. An old man in a red shupa and not much else, bent over in a perfect “L” shape and using his stick for more than weed wacking came creaking around the corner. He was smiling from ear to ear. He looked like the Maasai version of a Charles Dickens character.

He was in Ole Kiringo’s age group which means they came up together and are in a sense in eachothers’ army. He sat down with the men and started singing loudly. Everyone started laughing and covering their faces. When it seemed like he was finished his last verse, he started singing again with the same zeal, obviously hamming it up for the camera. Kathleen came around with grilled ham and cheese sandwiched for everyone and he grabbed a stack of about 8 and asked Jen to dump out her ziplock bag full of animal toys so he could take them home for later.

Ole Koringo managed to collect all the animals Jenn had given out and put them on a window sill and ordered them in a line from biggest to smallest.

Eventually the women were coerced into singing a song, led by kathleen’s co-wife. Some of them were shy and finished the last of every measure with giggling. Paul later told me this was because the song was for elder women and they felt awkward singing it.

Stephen called for me to come over and heralded the introduction of a boy of about 15 years old announcing that he was “freshly circumsized.” “Fresh” was an odd choice of adjectives, it conjures images of water-beaded apples or a set of teeth white as piano keys going “ahhhhhh.” I was looking through the viewfinder of my camera and swung it around to find the boy. My American sensibility prepared me to encounter a very embarrassed, unwilling and snippy teen, but there was a proud 15-year old boy wearing black and blue shupas, standing proudly smiling into the camera.

The eldest age group decides when the youngest age group should get circumsized. Stephen said he’d show us pictures of the ceremony. The boy is not allowed to flinch, not even raise his fingers when it happens. Afterward, he is considered an “untouchable” although I distinctly remember putting my arm around his for several group shots. The untouchable also can’t touch water for 6 weeks.

Back to Stephen’s boma there were several children who spoke perfect English. I spent half of a video tape talking to a 5 year old boy named David.

When I asked what his favorite food was he said, “Ugali, chapati and fish.” Two other little girls had the same answers. It’s refreshing not to hear food mentioned by their name brand. I hope these kids never come within a mile radius of a hotpocket.

We left the boma in a parade of children, goats, hand holding, and a caucophony of swahili and maasai goodbyes. “Olesere! Sere!”

The only word I could think of to describe this Maasai family picnic/botany experiment was a German word: gemϋtlich. I still have yet to find another word or phrase that can express the same thing.