LANGUAGE IS FUN
If a stranger stops to ask for directions in parts of southern Appalachia, he might be told, “honey, you can’t get there from here.” Communicating in a different language can be the same way. Concepts that are as common as dirt in one culture might be unheard of in another. So you want to learn how to say “please” in Maa? Well, there isn’t a word for that. Or maybe you want to say “thank you” in NgaTurkana? Again, that vocabulary just isn’t there. But sometimes it’s the other way around. Turkana or Maasai cultures may have nailed down a concept in a single word that would take us a paragraph or a page to wrap our minds around.
This is one of my favorite Maasai words. If google translator worked for Maa (it doesn’t), it might translate osotua as “peace” or perhaps as “testament.” The first is inadequate and the second is misleading. Osotua is derived from the verb <asot>, “to join together.” The root meaning of osotua is “umbilical cord” (the thing which joins the mother and infant together). Consequently, one meaning is also “belly button” (the place where the thing which joins the mother and infant together was previously attached). But this is just scratching the surface.
Osotua also refers to “a deep relationship of shared profound peace” (think the hebrew shalom, שלמ) “that is characterized by a closeness, tied-together-ness, and unity like that shared between a mother and an infant while the cord is still attached.”
A common Maasai blessing is Osotua le Nkai! (“Osotua of God”). It means, “may you share osotua with God!” It means, “may you be bound so closely together in a relationship with God that it is like that between a mother and infant when the cord is still attached!”
Another way to put it is that osotua is that type of relational peace and well-being that can only be found within a covenantal relationship. Thus you will find that the Maa translation of the bible is divided into two parts: Osotua Musana and Osotua Ng’ejuk (“The Old Osotua” and “the New Osotua”). There isn’t really a word for covenant in Maa. Olning’o, which means “kept agreement,” is commonly used. But the bible translators recognized that a covenant is (or should be) something even stronger than an unbroken agreement. A covenant is an olning’o that results in shared osotua.
A common Maasai proverb says Enkoshoke naata osotua: “It is the stomach which has osotua.” When I’m teaching in Maa, if I say “enkoshoke naata …” then the whole congregation or class spontaneously answers in unison: OSOTUA.” At one level this is as obvious as it is humorous: “It’s the belly that’s got a belly button.” Or you could say it more staidly, “the umbilical cord attaches to the belly.” But both of those miss the point. Another translation is “the stomach creates friendships.” 1 This is a proverb about table fellowship. When we eat together, we have the opportunity to begin to build osotua in our relationships. This is, of course, perfectly realized by christians when we share together in the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, Communion. When we partake of loaf and cup, ah! (“taste and see that the LORD is good!”) then we see that it is true: enkoshoke naata osotua. When we break and eat the bread together, when we bless and drink the cup together, then we experience true osotua: that deep communion within a covenantal relationship characterized by holy peace and a closeness that is like that between a mother and an infant while the cord is still attached.
And so to each of you I bid: Osotua of God to you! Osotua of Christ to you!
Note: “Maasai” is the name of the people and the culture. “Maa” is the name of the language.
1 So S. S. ole Sankan, p. 92 in The Maasai (Kenya Literature Bureau, 1971).