Samantha du Toit and her daughter have a close shave at a traditional Maasai naming ceremony.
The Goliath heron has become a regular visitor. So regular we often don’t notice him standing still for hours on end opposite the cottage, feet in mud, patiently waiting to strike at an unsuspecting fish. The children are curious as to how he sees them, given how brown the river is. True to its name Ewaso Nyiro, meaning literally ‘brown river’ in the local Maa language, the river is a deep, rich reddy-brown colour, presumably indicative
of the soils from where it starts, up in the Mau complex.
The huge peaceful bird does not seem to mind life going on around him. He glances up at the resident baboon troop as they cavort around him, babies wrestling and hanging upside down from branches and the males coming to drink. The lone male Impala who is often with the baboons causes the heron only to walk a few steps away. Even our children, making mud slides into the river and shouting with delight as they catapult into the water, don’t disturb him. In the distance, I assume he can hear the Maasai women coming to the river to wash clothes, and to cut branches of Cordia bushes to take back to the boma to feed their livestock. The drought still has not broken to everyone’s disbelief. How long can they live without grass? How long can life go on this way we all wonder. Thank goodness for the brown river. At least there is water to drink.
I think of the women washing, enjoying the cool and tranquil air by the river. I think how stark a contrast it is to the life in the boma, a short walk away, particularly at ceremony time. Eyes on the heron, my mind takes me back to our daughter’s Maasai naming ceremony. The scene was hot, dusty and bustling with colour and life as we arrived early at the boma of my Maasai ‘mother,’ just as we had a few years before for our Maasai wedding. Graciously treating our family as one of their own, we were set to work.
Seyia and I joined the women making chapatis over an open fire and brewing huge pots of sweet tea. Johann, my husband, joined the men slaughtering goats and sheep. Despite our being ‘outsiders,’ this naming ceremony
was planned for a large attendance. Just as the temperatures were getting almost unbearable, we were ushered into a dark, cool hut.
As our eyes adjusted to the darkness, we noticed we were not alone. The same elders who had presided over our wedding were there now to preside over blessing Seyia and officially endorsing her name. Traditionally this involves shaving all the hair from both the child and the mother’s heads, chanting blessings and painting milk on the child and the parents’ foreheads. In our case, they kindly allowed just a snip of hair to be removed from both myself and Seyia, but the rest of the ceremony remained according to Maasai custom. It was Seyia’s first haircut, and a significant moment for us all.
The heron at long last moved, striking at the water, bringing my consciousness back to the river. It made quick work of the small fish and turned and walked away to find another spot at which to settle down to wait. The river continues on its way, spreading into the swamp where the sedges, or ‘water grasses’ from which Seyia’s name is derived, thrive. Perhaps she will never know how special her name is, but I hope that one day she will.
Samantha du Toit is a wildlife conservationist, working with SORALO, a Maasai land trust. She lives with her husband, Johann, and their two children at Shompole Wilderness, a tented camp in the Shompole Conservancy.
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