An African experience
- Cori Bolger
- Lake Oswego Review - News
Member of the Maasai tribe shares with local youngsters
For Salaton Ole' Ntutu, visiting the United States for the first time can best be compared to setting foot on another planet.
Unlike his country of Kenya, the water is clean and plentiful. The grass is lush, the trees are towering. Children are respectful, but they spend too much time listening to their iPods or using computers, he said.
And the homes in Lake Oswego are big. So big, in fact, that they could comfortably house 200 members of Salaton's village.
'We make our own huts,' he told students at the Riverdale Grade School gymnasium. 'We use sticks, leaves and cow dung. Do you know what dung is?'
'Poop!' everyone screamed.
'That's right. Inside, there are two beds, one room for a cow and one room for small goats to keep them safe,' Salaton added.
The Riverdale students listened in rapt attention as Salaton described his experiences living as a warrior and shaman with the nomadic Maasai tribe of Kenya.
He told them his people eat only twice each day - once in the early morning and once in the evening. Their food of choice involves a mixture of milk and cow's blood.
In response to that tidbit of information, a collective 'Ewwww!' echoed across the gym.
Towering over kids at six-feet and holding a spear just as long, Salaton has a commanding and regal presence, but when he smiled, they knew he was a friendly man.
Dressed in worn sandals, a red cloak, ceremonial leather cape and an intricately beaded headdress with long earrings and bracelets, Salaton is turning a lot of heads during his seven-week stay in Oregon. The visit is sponsored by Nomad Charities, a Bend-based non-profit organization.
Nomad volunteer Jane Tormey met Salaton when her family camped in Salaton's village, Maji Moto, two years ago. Salaton and other warriors taught Tormey's sons how to survive in the bush by tracking and killing their dinner.As their friendship with Salaton continued, Tormey asked him if he would come to the U.S. to further Nomad's cause as a cultural ambassador of goodwill. Her family is now hosting Salaton at their home in Bend.
Salaton has been filling his obligation of cultural exchange by giving several talks at local schools, including Park Academy, Riverdale and Sunset Primary in West Linn, captivating students and adults along the way.
The class at Park Academy studied the Maasai culture in preparation for Salaton's visit.
'We really wanted students to understand who he was so they had a deep respect for him,' said Devon Downeysmith Baker, Park Academy teacher. 'These kids had never seen anything like this in their lives. It was incredible.'
This trip has been filled with many incredible moments for Salaton, too. It's the first time he's been out of the Kenya-Tanzania area, the first time on a plane, the first time he's seen the ocean and the first time he's received a visa and passport.
'Everything is very new to me,' he said.
As part of Maasai tradition, Salaton left his family at the age of 14 to begin his 'warriorship' and live in the bush for seven years.
With nothing but a blanket and a spear, he learned to survive on his own. He single-handedly killed seven lions, two leopards and a buffalo in self-defense.
When he returned to his village, the elders recognized him as an equal and put him in charge of training and development of young warriors. He is now considered a chief of his tribe and a medicine man who uses roots and leaves to treat illness.
Dunthorpe resident Nancy Frisch facilited Salaton's appearance at Riverdale, where he answered students' questions including: 'How do you make medicine?' and 'Do you run from lions?'
He told the students about the rights of passage each Maasai child will experience.
'When we are young boys we get this traditional mark,' said Salaton, lifting his wrap slightly to show the scars on his thigh.
'After the traditional mark, we will have two teeth taken out. You put the knife under the tooth and twist,' he added, opening his mouth wide to show the two teeth missing from his lower jaw.
He also shared that responsibilities start early for the Maasai children.
'When you are four years old you take care of the small cows and goats. Then when you are eight years old, you take care of big cows, and by 9 or 10 you take care of all the sheep, goats and cows,' he explained.
He imitated several different bird calls, explaining birds will let you know if there is a dangerous animal nearby, if you listen hard enough. Knowing the difference could save a man's livestock, he said.
Later, Salaton selected 10 'young warriors' to surround him and perform a dramatic hunting chant and dance.
Although it was raining, Salaton invited the students to come outside and watch as he threw his spear and shot his bow and arrow across the soccer field.
Salaton, who does not read or write, speaks his native language of Maa, Swahili and moderate English, which help him make a living. As a safari tour guide, he often interacts with British or American citizens who come to Kenya for vacation.
'I cannot be tired of (talking) when I go to schools because this is what I do as a guide,' he said.
Salaton's passion is to preserve his tribe and its traditions while balancing the education needs of its children in a modern world.
He actively fundraises for his community and donated his own home, which became a Female Genital Mutiliation Rescue Center for young girls.
His future goals include drilling a well for clean water and establishing a community center to educate his tribe about alternative 'rights of passage,' HIV/AIDS, monogamy, health and sanitation.
He hopes his talks spark interest in Kenya, where - despite poverty most Americans cannot fathom - his people lead happy lives.
'My country is very, very safe and I want everyone to come and visit,' he said.