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Editorial, Nonfiction, travel

Kenya Chronicles: The Maasai Poetry of an Acacia

From where I sit on the dining carriage of this train to Mombasa, a solitary acacia tree looks expansive against the crystalline azure of the Kenyan sunrise. Its pterodactyl wings stretch greedily and widely—eastward, westward, skyward—thirsty for amplification.
***
When I meet Ng’ang’a, I notice he is the only boy at Sanata who wears glasses; he shares that detail with my twin brother back home in Texas who’s worn glasses since he was two years old, and because it’s been long since I’ve seen my brother, and because Ng’ang’a makes me miss him, I linger unexpectedly. It’s my first day at the center, a Saturday afternoon, and everyone is slowly making his or her way back after the school day. Ng’ang’a rests his hands on the railing the same way I do. He is a little shorter than me but built lithely which gives him the air of a teenaged Maasai warrior without his traditional attire.

He is not yet a man, and standing next to him, I sense the dim remnants of his childhood fragility.

Together, we stare out into the courtyard and watch the much younger Sanata residents playing football, kicking at dirt with bare feet, wiping their faces with the backs of their hands, leaving streaks of powdery brown on their glistening brows.

I hear the pause that comes after a breath but precedes a question.

He asks, What do you do?
I tell him, I teach, and he nods his approval.
When I ask him what he does, he tells me he’s a poet.

***

On Diani beach near Mombasa, a red-clad Maasai warrior becomes a temporary merchant in an effort to raise money for a better life at home in the Maasai Mara. He sells me the beaded cuff off his wrist after I stop him as he walks along the shoreline. I admire it and ask if he’d consider selling it. He wears his machete at his waist and holds his eng’udi, a staff the Maasai use to herd their cattle, at his side; it is as tall as I am: on anyone else, these two items would trigger my wariness; in this case, his possession of them instills in me security.

He towers over me, and I’m awestruck by the serenity of his smile, and the richness of color hanging off his ears, chest, forearms, and ankles. As I place the shillings in his open palm, his English-speaking brother who has since approached us tells me his wife will purchase a goat with the money I just gave him. This will bring them happiness, he tells me.

The lips of the Indian Ocean brush its sands and straddle the space under and around my warrior; he looks celestial surrounded in liquid turquoise and white.

When I glance back, I trace the trail my bare feet have made on the sand—it leads straight back to him, where he stands waving.

***

The Maasai warrior protects his own.
His machete does not always shed blood.

***

While I’m in Kenya, his Maasai brothers hunt and kill seven lions because they, in turn, killed part of their flock of sheep. They clean their blades on the pale yellow of their victims’ fur.

Nature’s survival of the fittest.
Nature’s chain of command.
Maasai trumps lion.
King trumps king.
Poetic justice.

The Maasai warrior protects his own.
His machete is not always free of blood.

***

From this distance, the acacia is delicate; it’s an African bonsai; its calligraphy-brushed leaves are a collection of olive-tinted strokes etched into windless air.

It waits for me to pass it by; it waits for me; expects me to watch it disappear into the evaporating horizon.

It expects me to forget the inch-long thorns I know it wears under those deceiving pockets of green. It expects me to forget that like the Maasai, the acacia is also an African warrior that wounds deeply when I reach out and caress it thinking it needs me.

***

Recite for me, I say. Ng’ang’a closes his eyes and performs:

Wings To Fly, he says.

Morning comes, morning goes
Sun rises, sun sets
Still no signs of recognition
Why? Why? Why me.

Am none in a million
Like wheat in the desert,
Some suggest I belonged to the dead,
Some think I was born by mistake,
But I know my voice will be heard,

But who has time to listen?
To a madman’s child.
Why? Why? Why me. 

Drought, famine, and civil conflicts,
All perpetuated my afflictions,
Fatal disease having taken my relatives,
Parents being mentally challenged,
And I living a living hell
Why? Why? Why me.

 Suffering all my life all without future.
Future according to nature,
Nature of my culture,
Dear friends, was I really born by
Mistep the way they say?
No! No! I am not. 

My guardian angel developed interest in me
And wanted to know my situation,
He fed me, clothed me, educated me and
Gave all the comfort I ever longed for

Now I have a vision, a vision of hope
Am learned, educated and believe in
Perfection, now I am recognized in the
Society: thank you.

***

I have a future now. I can see it, Ng’ang’a says on the last day I see him. We sit inside the nursery classroom deconstructing his poetry. He tells me his life will be one dedicated to literature, and I applaud the nobility of his pursuit.

We stand, walk outdoors, and resume our place by the railing. We watch the children of Sanata kick at the ground and run from fence to fence under the spare shade of the acacia trees lining the courtyard. Next to me, Ng’ang’a recites his poetry by heart.

I smile and rub the tiny scar of the acacia’s thorn prick on the pad of my index finger—I exacerbate it, pushing myself to remember it, to keep it alive, to remember both sides of Kenya: its vulnerable beauty, its will to fight, to survive.

I thumb the beads of a warrior around my arm and listen to Ng’ang’a telling me the stories of his life.

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