Reading the Bible with Maasai Christians

Back in August, I (Joshua) posted a more academic essay sharing some of the behind-the-scenes linguistic and cross-cultural research that is part of missionary life — Enkiteng Hermeneutics:  Reading the Bible with Maasai Christians.  Further development of that resulted in two different publications.  I’d be pleased if you took a look:

  • “An Enkiteng Hermeneutics—Reading (and Hearing!) the Bible with Maasai Christians:  A review essay and proposal.” Global Missiology 18, no. 4 (October 2021):  2–16.
    read as pdf here
    read as html here 
  • “A Four-in-One Book Review:  A Four-in-One Book Review:  On the Bible and Intercultural Hermeneutics among the Maasai.”  International Review of Mission 110, no. 2 (November 2021):  358–363.
    read as pdf here

Some of my other research had also been published earlier this year.  Take a look, tolle lege (“take and read”):

  • “My God is enkAi:  a reflection of vernacular theology.”  Journal of Language, Culture, and Religion 2, vol. 1 (2021):  1–20.
    a pdf of the entire issue is available here
  • “Conversion or Proselytization?  Being Maasai, Becoming Christian.” Global Missiology 18, vol. 2 (April 2021):  11 pages.
    read as pdf here
    read as html here

These samples of our mission research aren’t as glamorous as sharing pictures of baptisms or of new church building dedications — but without this sort of foundational work, the glamor too often tends be temporary and shorn of lasting glory.

Enkiteng Hermeneutics: Reading the Bible with Maasai Christians

Here is something a little more academic than what I (Joshua) usually share here.  But to teach in African contexts well, to properly train Maasai and Turkana church leaders (as well as church leaders from other ethno-cultural groups in Africa) to effectively fulfill their role in equipping the Church — making disciples of Africans in African contexts, baptizing them and teaching them to follow the Way of Jesus in all aspects of life — it is absolutely necessary to understand African cultures well.  So here is reflection of some of the hard behind-the-scenes cross-cultural work in which we customarily engage.

(An earlier version of this was presented in an online PhD seminar, “TR 906 African Biblical and Theological Hermeneutics,” VID Specialized University, Stavanger, Norway, on 4 May 2021.)

Enkiteng Hermeneutics:
Reading the Bible with Maasai Christians

by Joshua Robert Barron
May 2021

…..We all read, or listen to, scripture through a hermeneutical lens. All such lenses are necessarily tinged by culture. No reading of Scripture is acultural (Ukpong 1995, 6) and “none of us has a neutral perspective on … the Bible” (Mburu 2019, 22). Some practitioners of historical-critical methods of biblical interpretation are convinced that they are just reading scripture with all culture cut away. They are, of course, gravely mistaken and confused by their own cultural myopia. A healthy hermeneutic will not only explain, insofar as this is possible, what the text meant to the original recipients in their cultural contexts but will also engage with the cultures of contemporary recipients. Just as “a Theologia Africana which will seek to interpret Christ to the African in such a way that he feels at home in the new faith” (Sawyerr 1971, 240) is necessary for a healthy African Church, so healthy African hermeneutics require “African biblical scholars [who are] wary of running away from their African selves or identities and relying heavily on Western paradigms” (Masenya and Ramantswana 2015, 2). Gerald West notes that

Interpreting the biblical text is never, in African biblical hermeneutics, an end in itself. Biblical interpretation is always about changing the African context. This is what links ordinary African biblical interpretation and African biblical scholarship, a common commitment to interpret for contextual transformation. (West 2018, 248)

In the specific context of the Maasai people of East Africa, “while there are certainly areas where Maasai culture can benefit from Christian transformation, a recovery of traditional Maasai cultural values through a theologically robust process of inculturation can strengthen the Maasai churches as well” (Barron 2019, 17). This process will necessarily require a contextual African (Maasai) hermeneutic.

Ordinary Reader Hermeneutics is Vernacular
…..It is increasingly recognized within the discipline of African Biblical Hermeneutics that “both scholarly readers and the ordinary readers [are] capable hermeneuts” (Kĩnyua 2011, 2; see also West 1999, Elness-Hanson 2017, Lyimo-Mbowe 2020, Nkesela 2020). Ordinary readers, of course, are those who are not part of the scholarly guild or who otherwise lack training in interpreting biblical texts. As someone who is a scholarly reader with a commitment to equipping ordinary readers, I must ask myself whether “our biblical scholarship is committed more to our (elitist) peers than to people on the grassroots” (Masenya 2016, 4). It is also apparent that ordinary readers are most at home when approaching the biblical text in their own vernacular. Kwame Bediako saliently reminds us that “Mother tongues and new idioms are crucial for gaining fresh insights into the doctrine of Christ” (Bediako 1998, 111) — this is true not just for Christology but for biblical interpretation generally. As a foreign missionary myself, I remember that access to vernacular bible translations necessarily results in African hermeneutical agency as well as placing foreign missionaries in a subordinate position to the local Christians (Sanneh 2009, 196; West 2018, 245) — I am a partner of ordinary Maasai readers, but I am not in charge.

Enkiteng Hermeneutics?
…..After observing that “the Bible in African languages remains the most influential tool of rooting the Bible in African consciousness,” Masenya (Ngwan’a Mphahlele) and Ramantswana go on to note “the limitations of foregrounding the Bible as written word within aural contexts” (2015, 5) of Africa. These twin realities loomed large for my wife and me when we moved in 2007 to “the bush” of Maasai Land in southern Kenya in order to assist the local churches with curriculum development. Our work must be grounded in the Maa translation of Scripture and must take account of the importance of orality in Maa culture. The first matter at hand, of course, was to learn the Maa language. But eventually we had to begin writing curricula! We had previously taught at a small bible institute in South Africa (2000–2001). We had seen that simply transplanting western ways of thinking and studying simply wasn’t working. Pastors could be trained to preach a good sermon in English, but they weren’t being equipped to exegete Scripture in their own vernacular. (Of course, we’ve also seen American seminary grads who could pontificate doctrine but who couldn’t connect with the ordinary readers in the pews of their churches.) So we were committed to finding a different way. First of all, we knew that Maasai church leaders needed to teach in the Maa language and as Maasai Christians instead of just reproducing a British style lecture. What would that look like?

…..We learned that traditionally, the Maasai teach and engage in character formation through storytelling, parables, drama, and proverbs — and never through a western style lecture! This, of course, is common across much of Africa. Kĩnyua, an Agĩkũyũ biblical scholar from Kenya, proposes that scholarly readers and ordinary readers alike should “engage the Bible through the language of the African theatre and storytelling” (2011, 322). Why, we wondered, weren’t we seeing that in the local Maasai congregations? Why were Maasai Christians instead trying to imitate foreign models? We set out at once to learn as many traditional Maasai stories and proverbs as we could and to learn traditional Maasai modes of communication. Effective communication had to be appropriately contextual for the culture. This brings us to enkiteng.

…..Enkiteng is the Maa word for “cow.” Traditionally, the Maasai are semi-nomadic herdsfolk, raising cows, sheep, and goats. Culturally, cows are the most important animal. To be wealthy means to have cows and children. The Maasai will see the wealthiest world leader who has neither cows nor children as impoverished. The plural of enkiteng is inkishu. Interestingly, the Maa word for “life” is enkishui. This points to the integral and intimate connection in the worldview of the Maasai between cows and flourishing human life.

…..So when we were asked to teach an “inductive bible study” course at a local Discipleship Training School (in 2008), we started with a parable about cows. Cows, of course, are ruminants — they chew the cud. They don’t just swallow chunks of food down without chewing. They chew it thoroughly before swallowing. Later, they regurgitate the grasses they have eaten and chew the cud a second time. In that way they can extract all the goodness out of the grass — this is something elephants, for example, cannot do, as even a casual comparison of cow and elephant dung will reveal. Likewise, a good shepherd — the most common Maasai word is olchekut (for men) or enchekut (for women); it refers to a shepherd of livestock generally, not just of sheep — knows the importance of pasture rotation. Only grazing in one spot is bad for the pasture and eventually bad for the cows as well. Instead, it is necessary to migrate to new pastures to allow the grass to recover at the former one. In the same way, Christians should intake Scripture as the cow intakes grass, taking time to “chew the cud.” Similarly, Christians should “graze” throughout the whole of Scripture, not just from their favorite Gospel or Epistle. I should mention that “eating” or “chewing” is a common idiom in Maa. Where Hebrew speaks of “cutting a covenant,” Maa speaks of “eating an oath.” Traditional greetings include elaborate exchanges of “eating the news.” When you want to catch up with someone, you will invite them, mainosa ilomon! (“let’s eat the news!”);* the word ainos is one of the verbs for eating; enkinosata refers to the act of eating. Thus we speak of enkinosata Ororei le Nkai, “eating the Word of God,” anaa enkiteng nanyaal ing’amura, “as the cow chews the cuds.” We have developed this more fully in Maa elsewhere (e.g, Barron and Barron 2008, 27–28 and 48–57).

[*footnote: The Maa phrases meaning “eating the news,” using the verbs ainos or anya, are usually translated as “chewing the news” in English, though anyaal is the proper term for “to chew;” this is probably due to the influence of the English idiom of “chewing the fat.”]

…..That first course on Enkinosata Ororei le Nkai was so well received and proved so helpful that we developed it into a full curriculum which went to press in December 2008. The full title translates to “Eating the Word of God: Comprehending the Holy Bible: How You Can Really Listen to the Word of God in the Bible so that you grasp its meaning.” We wrote it with the understanding that the majority of the Maasai congregants in rural congregations were illiterate, especially among the older generations. Sometimes the teacher or preacher might be the only literate person in the gathering. (In other words, we took the African contextual reality of the importance of orality quite seriously.) After an introductory “instructions for teachers” which explains how to use the following lessons and demonstrates the importance of communicating in a Maasai fashion, there are ten lessons (though most Maasai teachers will take more than ten sessions to teach the material). All of the lessons are parable based, using parables which arise naturally out of Maa culture — just as the parables of Jesus rose naturally out of his surrounding cultural context — and include the frequent use of enkiguran (“drama”). We give examples of how one may, as a Maasai, “chew the cud” of the biblical texts in order to direct Maa cultural questions to Scripture. The Enkinosata book has since been translated/adapted for kiSwahili and NgaTurkana.

…..Charles Nyamati (a Tanzanian biblical scholar) taught that “the Christian has something to learn from the traditional African; not in the sense of new doctrines, but in the sense of new insights and new ways of understanding God” (1977, 57); I would add “new insights and new ways of understanding Scripture.” As we worked on the Enkinosata project and as I have continued to develop in my other research and teaching what I have here called an enkiteng hermeneutic, I have tried to encourage Maasai believers “to embrace and celebrate the use” of their Maa language in their biblical interpretations and in their theologizing and “to make full use both of Maa culture and language” in intersection with the Scripture as they build up the Church of Christ in Maasailand (Barron 2021b, 15). I hope that as a professional reader I thus have been able to join Maasai indigenous and ordinary readers of Scripture as “partners in an ethical way of relating the biblical texts to the context” (Nkesela 2020, 10).

…..Like Masenya and Ramastwana, I am convinced that

required to abandon their African optic lenses. Rather, it is through such lenses that they are called upon to contribute to the global intercultural theological or biblical hermeneutics table as equal partners. (Masenya and Ramantswana 2015, 3)

Through this enkiteng hermeneutics — an intercultural Maasai African Biblical hermeneutics — Maa culture and the cultural sensibilities of the ordinary readers among the Maasai people are privileged. This “encounter between the Maasai and the Bible provides conceptual tools for strengthening not only [Maasai culture] but also African culture and identity more generally” (Nkesala 2020, 194), enabling Maasai Christians to translate “biblical truth into [the] vernacular categories and worldview” (Shaw 2010, 167) “of the broader Maa culture” (Barron 2021a, 5). Masenya and Ramantswana correctly assert that “the survival of African Biblical Hermeneutics depends on African biblical scholars digging more wells from which Africans will quench their thirst” (Masenya and Ramantswana 2015, 11). Through enkiteng hermeneutics, I have seen numerous such new wells flow with the enkare namelok (“sweet water”) of new insights for Maasai Christianity (for some examples of possibilities of such new wells, see Barron 2019 and Barron 2021b; time does not permit me to share more).


Barron, Joshua Robert. 2021a. “Conversion or Proselytization? Being Maasai, Becoming Christian.” Global Missiology 18 (2): 12 pages.
NB:  a PDF of the article is available at Global Missiology’s site

Barron, Joshua Robert. 2021b. “My God is enkAi: A Reflection of Vernacular African Theology.” Journal of Language, Culture, and Religion 2 (1): 1–20.
NB:  a PDF of the journal issue is available here.

Barron, Joshua Robert. 2019. “Lessons from Scripture for Maasai Christianity, Lessons from Maasai Culture for the Global Church.” Priscilla Papers 33 (2): 17–23.
NB:  a PDF of the journal issue is available here.

Barron, Joshua [Robert] and Ruth Barron. 2008. Enkinosata Ororei Le Nkai: Enkibung’ata Bibilia Sinyati: Eninko Teninining Ororei le Nkai te Bibilia Nimbung Enkipirta enye: Inkiteng’enat Tomon. Nairobi: Community Christian Church.

Bediako, Kwame. 1998. “The Doctrine of Christ and the Significance of Vernacular Terminology.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 22 (3): 110–111.

Elness-Hanson, Beth E. 2017. Generational Curses in the Pentateuch: An American and Maasai Intercultural Analysis. Bible and Theology in Africa 24. Edited by Knut Holter. New York: Peter Lang.

Kĩnyua, Johnson Kĩriakũ. 2011. Introducing Ordinary African Readers’ Hermeneutics: A Case Study of the Agĩkũyũ Encounter with the Bible. Religions and Discourse 54. Edited by James M. M. Francis. Oxford: Peter Lang.

Liew, Tat-siong Benny, ed. 2018. Present and Future of Biblical Studies: Celebrating 25 Years of Brill’s Biblical Interpretation. Leiden, Brill.

Lyimo-Mbowe, Hoyce Jacob. 2020. Maasai Women and the Old Testament: Towards an Emancipatory Reading. Bible and Theology in Africa 29. Edited by Knut Holter. New York: Peter Lang.

Masenya (ngwan’a Mphahlele), Madipoane. 2016. “Ruminating on Justin S. Ukpong’s inculturation hermeneutics and its implications for the study of African Biblical Hermeneutics today.” HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 72 (1): Article # 3343, 6 pages.

Madipoane Masenya (Ngwan’a Mphahlele) and Hulisani Ramantswana. 2015. “Anything new under the sun of African Biblical Hermeneutics in South African Old Testament Scholarship?: Incarnation, death and resurrection of the Word in Africa.” Verbum et Ecclesia 36 (1): Article #1353, 12 pages.

Mburu, Elizabeth. 2019. African Hermeneutics. Carlisle, England and Bukuru, Nigeria: HippoBooks.

Nkesela, Zephania Shila. 2020. A Maasai Encounter with the Bible: Nomadic Lifestyle as a Hermeneutic Question. Bible and Theology in Africa 30. Edited by Knut Holter. New York: Peter Lang.

Parratt, John, ed. 1997. A Reader in African Christian Theology. 2nd edition. International Study Guide 23. London: SPCK.

Sanneh, Lamin. 2009. Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture. 2nd edition, revised and expanded. American Missiology Society 13. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2009.

Sawyerr, Harry. 1971. “What is African Christian Theology?” Africa Theological Journal 4: 7–24.

Shaw, Mark. 2010. Global Awakening: How 20th-Century Revivals Triggered a Christian Revolution. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic.

Sugirtharajah, R. S., ed. 1999. Vernacular Hermeneutics. The Bible and Postcolonialism 2. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press.

Ukpong, Justin S. 1995. “Rereading the Bible with African Eyes: Inculturation and Hermenetuics.” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 91 (3): 3–14.

West, Gerald O. 2018. “African Biblical Scholarship as Post-Colonial, Tri-Polar, and a Site- of-Struggle.” In Present and Future of Biblical Studies: Celebrating 25 Years of Brill’s Biblical Interpretation, edited by Tat-siong Benny Liew, 240–273. Leiden, Brill.

West, Gerald O. 1999. “Local is Lekker, but Ubuntu is Best: Indigenous Reading Resources from a South African Perspective.” In Vernacular Hermeneutics, edited by R. S. Sugirtharajah, 37–51. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press.

Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!

«οὐκ ἔστιν ὧδε, ἠγέρθη γὰρ καθὼς εἶπεν·
δεῦτε ἴδετε τὸν τόπον ὅπου ἔκειτο.»
“He is not here, for He has risen, just as He said.
Come, see the place where He lay.”
Here’s this verse (Matthew 28:6) again in a number of other languages, chosen because we have (or have had) friends and co-workers who use these as a first or second language:
MAA (Maasai):
Metii ene amu etopiwuo ana enatejo ninye. Wootu eng’urai ewueji apa neirragieki.”
(There are some 2–2.5 million Maasai in Kenya and Tanzania. Most of our work is in Maasai communities. From 2010–2017, Joshua served as a translation consultant for The Bible Society of Kenya’s much needed revision/correction of the Maa bible. Our “Eating the Word of God” book was first published in Maa, Enkinosata Ororei Le Nkai.  The Maa language is Nilotic, and belongs to the same branch of the family as ancient Nubian; Nubian is important for the study of the late patristic and medieval period of Christianity in North East Africa.)
Hayupo hapa, kwa kuwa amefufuka, kama vile alivyosema. Njooni mpatazame mahali alipokuwa amelazwa.”
(There are about 1.8 million waSwahili people on the coasts of Kenya, Tanzania, and Mozambique. KiSwahili is spoken as a second language by 90–150 million throughout East and Central African countries, especially in Tanzania and here in Kenya. Swahili is a Bantu language with significant influence from Arabic.  While English is the official language of Kenya’s government, Swahili is the language of business and commerce and the market. The second edition of “Eating the Word of God” book was published in Swahili, Kujilisha kwa Neno La Mungu; Joshua was one of the editors as well.  We’re currently making progress in learning Swahili, in addition to Maa.  Though let the record show that in our last Swahili test, our children scored higher than their father!)
SAMPUR (Samburu):
Meti ene amu, kitipiwua ana natejo apa. Wootu entodol ng’oji neiterperieki apa.”
(The are perhaps 350,00 Samburu in Kenya; they were once a subtribe of the Maasai, but the Sampur language and the majority Maa dialect, Purko Maa, currently have only a 70% linguistic overlap. We’ve trained some Samburu pastors and church planters at our Maasai Discipleship Training School. Some dear friends of ours from Finland, bible translators with Wycliff, prepared the Sampur NT.  Whereas we have facility in Maa, we simply “get by” in Sampur.)
Emam ngesi kane, ayaru ngesi loger lokolong alimuniotor. Potu kingolikisi ni ngoon aperio ngesi ne.”
(There are over 1 million Turkana in Kenya. There are also smaller groups in Uganda and Ethiopia. Most years since 2010 Joshua has spent 2-4 weeks each year teaching at the Turkana branch of CCBTI, Community Christian Bible Training Institute. The third edition of “Eating the Word of God” book was in Nga Turkana, Akinyam Akiroit a Akuj.  Joshua ended up having to learn some Nga Turkana to help with the editing of the volume, though we make no claim to know the language … yet.)
GĨKŨYŨ (Kikuyu):
Ndarĩ haaha; nĩariũkĩĩte o ta ũrĩa oigire. Tookaai muone harĩa araarĩ.”
(The Agĩkũyũ are a Bantu group of over 8 million here in Kenya. In English, “Kikuyu” derives from the Swahili name of the language, Gĩkũyũ, and refers to the language and the people. Many of our dearest friends are Kikuyu.)
Ma komi yu; amu kagong’eet, ko uu ye ki kamwa. Obwa, ogeer ole korue Kiptaiyat,”
(The Kalenjin are a group of ten tribes in Kenya numbering over 6 million together; their language is Nilotic. Sometimes the term in English refers specifically to the Nandi and Kipsigis tribes.  We have a number of Kipsigis Kalenjin friends and Joshua has spent some time in Kipsigis villages.  One of Joshua’s fellow students in his PhD cohort is a Pokot Kalenjin pastor.  We found this translation, in the Nandi dialect, online.)
to oonge ka, nimar osechier mana kaka nowacho. Biuru une kama nende onindoe,”
(The Luo “proper”, or Joluo, live in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. They number approximately 7 million. More broadly speaking, “Luo” can refer to a Nilotic group of tribes spread from Tanzania to South Sudan to Congo.  Ruth’s best friend is a Ugandan Luo living here in Kenya.)
FRANÇAIS (French):
Il n’est pas ici, car il est ressuscité comme il l’avait dit. Venez voir le lieu où il gisait,”
(There are about 430 million French speakers, including those who speak it as a second or third language) spread throughout 29 countries in Africa.  We have good friends who are missionaries in Francophone West Africa — specifically Côte d’Ivoire and Burkino Faso.  One of Joshua’s fellow PhD students is from the Democratic Republic of the Congo; French is his second language … English is fourth or fifth.  Joshua has some reading facility in French from his public school days.)  
ESPAÑOL (Spanish):
“No está aquí, pues ha resucitado, como dijo. Venid, ved el lugar donde fue puesto el Señor.” 
(There are over 483 native speakers of Spanish around the world, second only to Mandarin Chinese.  It is the fourth-most spoken language in the world, after English, Mandarin Chinese and Hindi. Ruth learned Spanish well enough in school that she could communicate with an Italian bus driver when she visited Italy.  We have friends who minister in Spanish-speaking areas.)
Hy is nie hier nie, want Hy is uit die dood opgewek, soos Hy gesê het. Kom nader en kyk: daar is die plek waar Hy gelê het.”
(There are 7.2 million native speakers — both white Afrikaners, descended from Dutch settlers, and “colored” — and an additional 10.3 million who speak Afrikaans as a second language, mostly in South Africa and Namibia but with smaller communities in Botswana and Zimbabwe as well. We taught at a small Bible college in South Africa in 2000–2001, and learned a little Afrikaans.  A cute little three year old girl of an Afrikaans-speaking family “adopted” us as a second pair of parents, and so we learned the Afrikaans of a three year old!  At one point, Joshua had memorized the Lord’s Prayer in Afrikaans, but now he only remembers the first phrase.)
SETSWANA (Tswana):
“Ga a yo fa; gonne o tsogile, fela jaaka a buile. Tlaang lo bone felo fa o ne a letse teng.”
(Sestwana is the Bantu language spoken as a first by some 5.3 million people in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe, and by another 7.7 million as a second language in South Africa.  One of the two congregations we were involved with in South Africa was majority Sestwana-speaking.  We learned some greetings; Ruth also learned greetings in Sesotho and isiZulu.) 
Em i no i stap hia. Em i kirap pinis, olsem bipo em i bin tok. Yutupela kam lukim ples em i bin slip long en.”
(Tok Pisin is one of the official languages of Papua New Guinea. While there are only about 120,000 native speakers, it is spoke as a second language by at least 4 million. I, Joshua, preached from Daniel in Tok Pisin in 1993, when I was in PNG for an internship with Pioneer Bible Translators.  I wrote out a sermon manuscript, because I was terrified that I would reach into the “not English” part of my brain and either come up with nothing or French — that had already happened sometimes in conversations.)
Um don hangne; la pynmihpat ïa u, kumba u la ong. Ale hangne bad peit ïa ka jaka ha kaba u la thiah.”
(The Khasi language, with the Jaintia-Pñar dialect, is an Austroasiatic language spoken primarily in Meghalaya state in North East India, with smaller populations in Assam state and in Bangladesh. I spent two summers in Meghalaya, 1995 and 1998, the latter being for my MDiv internship. I composed some poetry and some choruses. I was told I spoke with a decided Pñar accent, rather than the “official” Khasi dialect — no bad thing, since most of my time was in the Jaintia area — and also that my syntax sounded more like that of the grandparents than of my peers.  In doing some research on the 1905-1907 revival in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills for one of my PhD courses —”Dynamics of Global Revivals” with Prof. Mark Shaw — I stumbled upon some videos of Khasi worship choirs, and was pleased, though surprised, to still understand some of the language.)

Sing or Dance?

Translation is fun.

The middle line of Psalm 149:1 in Maa reads

«Entaranyaki OLAITORIANI osinkolio ng’ejuk»

This translates «שִׁ֣ירוּ לַֽ֭יהוָה שִׁ֣יר חָדָ֑שׁ» (Hebrew) or «ᾌσατε τῷ κυρίῳ ᾆσμα καινό» (Greek).  Some of y’all might know the King James:  “Sing unto the LORD a new song!”

But the Maa phrase can translate into English as “Dance unto the LORD a new dance!

Um, what?!  How’s that?

If we’ve visited with you, you may remember the answer.  The noun <osinkolio> means equally “song” and “dance.”  The verb <arany> means equally “to sing” and “to dance.” Thus “arany osinkolio” can be translated four ways into English:
……. • I sing a song,
……. • I dance a dance,
……. • I sing a dance,
……. • I dance a song.
In the Maasai cultural imagination, singing with the voice without also dancing with the body (or is that dancing with voice while singing with the body?) is unimaginable, except for the infirm or lame.

While other African languages have different words for singing and dancing, as does English, this lexical insight applies across many African cultures.

of COURSE we line dance during worship here.  What else?

Word of the Day


“to clean or remove charcoal
from the outside of the calabash gourd
after cleaning the interior of the gourd.”

The gourds — used as containers especially for milk and sour milk — are cleaned with a stick of wild olive wood (olóírién), the end of which is a live coal. This burns away any pathogens or other bad stuff and lines the interior of the gourd with charcoal, which has a filtering/purifying effect. It also gives your milk a smoky taste.  So if you’re taking chai in the villages and your tea tastes a bit like smoked cheese, this is why.

So AMESÚT only refers to the removal of olive wood charcoal from the outside of a gourd that’s just been cleaned on the inside.

How’s that for specificity?

love and action

Proverbs are delightful. They offer a window into a culture.  I especially enjoy pairs of proverbs which seem contradictory. One of my favorite pairs is found in Proverbs 26.4-5.  I’ll quote in Hebrew for our nerdy friends (and because Hebrew fonts just look cool) and in English.
אַל־תַּ֣עַן כְּ֭סִיל כְּאִוַּלְתּ֑וֹ פֶּֽן־תִּשְׁוֶה־לּ֥וֹ גַם־אָֽתָּה׃
עֲנֵ֣ה כְ֭סִיל כְּאִוַּלְתּ֑וֹ פֶּן־יִהְיֶ֖ה חָכָ֣ם בְּעֵינָֽיו׃
Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
lest you yourself also be like him.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own estimation. (NET)
A few months ago, I learned a similar pair of proverbs in Maa:
Ebaiki ninyor, nimiret.
Mebaiki ninyor, nimiret.
For those interested in such things, here’s the IPA phonetic pronunciation:
Ɛbáɨ́kɨ nɨ́nyɔ̄r, nímīrēt.
Mɛbáɨ́kɨ nɨ́nyɔ̄r, nímīrēt.
Perhaps you love him/her, yet you don’t help him/her.
It cannot happen that you love him/her and you don’t help him/her.
(My list of Maa pronouns includes over 200. This, of course, does not count the innumerable constructions which are possible through the use of pronominal prefixes and infixes. But Maa doesn’t distinguish between he/she/it — “ninye” does triple duty.  In these proverbs, ninye isn’t used.  Instead, pronominal prefixes/infixes indicate both subject and object.)
The initial verb in each of these proverbs is interesting; ɛbáɨ́kɨ / ebaiki is literally “it is reached” or “it is arrived at.” Idiomatically it is “maybe” or “perhaps”. The pronominal 3rd person prefix ɛ- is replaced with mɛ- in the second one. Depending on tone, this is either negative or subjunctive; here it is negative. Thus ɛbáɨ́kɨ / ebaiki introduces something that is conceivably possible whereas mɛbáɨ́kɨ / mebaiki indicates that what follows is inconceivable and impossible.
Ebaiki ninyor, nimiret. Perhaps you love him/her, yet you don’t help him/her.
Within human relationships, it is quite imaginable that we profess love for someone and yet there is no actual demonstration of love.  We say “we love you” but don’t help the supposed beloved, and in fact we often harm instead (whether by sin of commission or sin of omission).
Mebaiki ninyor, nimiret.  It cannot happen that you love him/her and you don’t help him/her.
Thus our actions (or inactions) will belie our words.  “The proof is in the pudding,” as the old English proverb states.
But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.”
Show me your faith without works
and I will show you faith by my works.”

(James 2.18, NET)
Love does no harm to its neighbor.
Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
(Romans 13.10 NIV-1984)
If we claim to love while either actively harming or simply refusing to assist, our actions prove that we do not, in fact love.
Mebaiki ninyor, nimiret.  It is not possible to love in merely word or sentiment.  Love helps those who are loved.
Beloved, let us love one another.
(1 John 4.7)

Lenana’s Oreteti

Lenana was a well-known Laibon (oloiboni, “ritual expert”) of the Maasai, b. sometime between 1860 and 1870 (he was circumcised in 1882, perhaps at the age of nineteen? … traditionally, Maasai did not keep track of their birthdates, but only of when they were circumcized) and dying in 1911.  The name Lenana means “of the gentleness.”  An important Maasai leader during the colonialization of East Africa by Great Britain, he is better known among the Maasai themselves by the other form of his name, Olonana (“he of gentleness”).

Lenana is a fairly common Maasai boy’s name. I’ve not heard (though I don’t know everything) of anyone else named Ololana, though.

The term, as an adjective, is a term of endearment —
Li alashe lai lenana is “O my brother of tenderness
Lo ltau lai lelana is “O my heart of tenderness, the dynamic equivalent of “Sweetheart in English.  I (Joshua) often address Ruth with the short form, lo ltau lai (O my heart!).

I probably hear the adjective more often than the name.  For “sweetheart” more literally, you could say oltau lemelok (or lo ltau lemelok in the vocative).

The feminine equivalent of lenana (pronounced, by the way, like LAY-NAH-NAH, for English-speakers) is nanana.  I’m not sure that I’ve ever heard it, though.  Namelok ([feminine thing or person] which-is-sweet) is more common as an adjective for females.

It is said that upon his death, Olonana’s corpse was secretly moved from his homestead (enkang) in Kiserian to this site, where his body was accorded the rare privilege of burial, marked by planting an oreteti sapling. (Historically, corpses were laid out on the ground and hyenas come to eat the body at night.  Burial is a rare salutatory honor in traditional Maa culture.) The oreteti is a sacred tree of ceremonial significance in Maasai culture. Oreteti trees are places of sanctuary and holiness.

Oreteti refers to fig trees:  ficus natalensis, ficus sycomorus, ficus gnaphalocarpa, ficus mucosa.  It is one of four types of trees considered sacred or holy by the Maasai.  Note the smooth green leaves (even in the dry season), and also that there are no thorns.

Lenana’s Oreteti:
(click pictures for a larger images)

This oreteti tree is now nearly 110 years old, and is an important landmark — geographically and culturally. The Oreteti AIC (Africa Inland Church) congregation has its building a short walk down the mountain from here, taking its name from this tree.

(Photos taken on 1 October 2019.  I was meeting with Benson ole Kurraru, the pastor of Oreteti AIC.  He also oversees AIC church planting and ministerial training in the Olalaiser area of Kajiado county.)


The Maa word for locust is olmaati (ɔlmáatî for linguists); the plural is ilmaat (ɨlmáāt). I don’t know whether these are the same species of locusts and plagued the ancient Egyptians (and others), but they are African locusts and can thus swarm.

Today I saw more of these ILMAAT than I’ve ever seen before in one place — not quite EMUS OOLMAAT (a swarm of locusts), which is probably a good thing. These were around the famous Oreteti Tree of Lenana, near the lower peak of the Ngong Hills toward Kona Baridi, Olepolos, and Kiserian.

Enjoy the 27 second video clip:

(click on the photos to see larger images)

OLMAATI / ILMAAT can refer to a number of different species of grasshoppers/locusts, some of which are consumed by some African communities (though not by the Maasai). Don’t try to mimic John the Baptist and dip these in honey, though! — these pictures are of Green Milkweed Locusts (aka African Bush Grasshopper or phymateus viridipes for our latinophone or entomologist friends). They like to eat milkweed and various members of the nightshade family, and so are decidedly NOT good to eat.

Edit:  (5 November 2019)
What’s the difference between a grasshopper and a locust?
The difference between a locust and a grasshopper is that they’re locusts when they’re swarming, and otherwise just grasshoppers. (That’s a bit simplified, but close enough.)  Except in some parts of America, cicadas are called “locusts”.

Language is Fun

Maa (the language of the Maasai people) is delightfully reflexive.  For any of our friends who are language nerds, here’s a grammatical excursus.

Where English has simply “of“, Maa has six different prepositions.
So “o” indicates that what follows is grammatically masculine, “e” indicates that what follows is grammatically feminine, “oo” indicates that what follows is plural (without reference to grammatical gender), the prefix “L” indicates that what precedes is grammatically masculine, and the absence of the prefix “L” indicates that what precedes is grammatically feminine.

Are you confused yet?

Here are a few examples.
entito (daughter, girl) and enkitok (woman, wife; and, etymologically, the-[feminine]-great one*) are, naturally, grammatically feminine. (The plural forms are, respectively, intoyie and inkituaak.)  Note that the initial vowels will be dropped when following one of the prepositions for “of.” Thus
entito e nkitok (the daughter of the woman)
intoyie e nkitok (the daughters of the woman)
entito oo nkituaak (the girl of the women)
intoyie oo nkituaak (the daughters of the women).

*For an explanation of enkitok/inkituaak as
great one /  great ones, see Joshua’s papers:
“Lessons from Scripture for Maasai Christianity,
Lessons from Maasai Culture for the Global Church,”
Priscilla Papers 33/2 (Spring 2019): 17–23; and
“Mutual Submission, Mutual Respect:
Reciprocal enkanyit in Ephesians 5 in the Maasai context,”
Stellenbosch Theological Journal [forthcoming].

olayioni (boy, son) and olpayian (man, elder, husband) are, of course, grammatically masculine. (The plural forms are, respectively, ilayiok and ilpayiani.)  Thus
olayioni lo lpayian (the son of the man)
ilayiok lo lpayian (the sons of the man)
olayioni loo lpayiani (the boy of the men)
ilayiok loo lpayiani (the sons of the men)
entito o lpayian (the daughter of the man)
intoyie o lpayian (the daughters of the man)
intoyie oo lpayiani (the girls of the men)
olayioni le nkitok (the son of the woman)
ilayiok le nkitok (the sons of the woman)
olayioni loo nkituaak (the boy of the women)
ilayiok loo nkituaak (the sons of the women)

It’s actually quite logical and therefore simpler than you may think.

But here’s something that threw me for a loop back in 2007 when we were just learning.

Followers of Jesus” is ilasujak le Yesu. “Followers of the Lord” is ilasujak lo Laitoriani. Again, the “le” and “lo” are equivalent to the English preposition “of.”

To review:
LO” and “LE” —
• the -L- indicates that what precedes (in this case ilasujak / followers) is grammatically masculine (the absence of this consonant indicates that what precedes is grammatically feminine — thus “inkasujak e Yesu” is “the [female] followers of Jesus“);
• the -O- indicates that what follows (in this case Olaitoriani / the Lord; the initial -o- of the noun drops off for linguistic reasons) is grammatically masculine; and
• the -E- indicates that what follows (in this case Yesu / Jesus) is grammatically feminine.

Wait.  What?  Jesus is feminine, a woman?!

Nope, of course not.

But the Maa word for “name” — enkarna — is grammatically feminine. Thus as a class, in Maa *all personal names* are *grammatically* feminine, even though there is no confusion in the language between male and female names. (For example: Nashipai is a female name, Enchipai is the male equivalent; Lemayian is a male name, Namayian is the female counterpart.)

Both male names and female names are *grammatically* feminine.  Thus “ilasujak lo Yesu” (or for that matter, “illasujak lo Joshua“) is just grammatical nonsense.  It must be “ilasujak le Yesu” (or “le Joshua“) to be correct.  No Maasai thinks that Jesus is a female or feminine, just as I am male and masculine.

Thus while I am an olpayian, my children (inkera) could be referred to as either:
inkera o lpayian (the son of the man), OR as
inkera e Lemayian (the children of Lemayian).

(Lemayian, “the one of blessing,” is my Maasai name.)

This was a great puzzlement for me before I figured out what was going on. Because enkarna (name) happens to be grammatically feminine, all personal names are grammatically feminine, irrespective of the masculinity or femininity of the subject of the name.