Branding is important. This is why Madison Avenue (the global center of the advertising industry in New York City) is a center of influence and of wealth. This is why the hosting television network charges millions of dollars for a thirty second commercial during the Super Bowl (the championship game of professional american football). A cowboy in America’s Old West — or a Maasai olchekut even today — could identify the owner of the herd with a mere at a glance at a cow’s branding mark.
(Note: the Maa word olchekut is usually translated as “shepherd” but is used of cowherds and goatherds as well.)
Branding can work for weal or for woe. If a Maasai teen-aged boy so much as flinches when he is circumcised, he is branded as a coward for the rest of his life. In the 1985 film Back to the Future, George McFly suffered the effects his whole life of having been branded as a weakling as a youth, until his son Marty altered the present by changing the past. Currently nearly half of Americans are horrified at the prospect of their country being branded as “Trump Nation.” Yet nearly half of Americans were terrified at the possibility of their country being branded by the “progressivism” of another Clinton presidential administration. Branding matters.
Countries in Africa (including Kenya) are often branded as backwards, undeveloped, and primitive. This is often done by NGOs and even by missions agencies as they are seeking financial support for various developmental projects. Sadly, this branding often first creates and then perpetuates a cycle of dependency. But this is often done by comparing the poorest of those in the slums with those comfortably middle-class (economically speaking) from suburbs and cities in the West.
Many of you have seen pictures of endemic poverty in African slums in Nairobi (Kenya), Lagos (Nigeria), or Johannesburg (South Africa) and been told “this is Africa.” Others have seen the perpetual corruption and impunity of dictators like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and been told “this is Africa.” Those of you at least our age remember the popular song “We Are the World” and pictures of emaciated Ethiopian children with the swollen bellies of starvation and think “this is Africa.” Still others hear “Africa” and think only of stories of genocide (e.g., Rwanda in 1994), perpetual civil wars (e.g., Democratic Republic of the Congo, DRC; formerly called Zaïre), Boko Haram’s atrocities against christians (mostly in Nigeria), social unrest and violent atrocities after a contested election (e.g., here in Kenya after the December 2007 election), or even just of “zoo animals.”
But how many Americans would like the USA to be characterized, branded, only by images of Old West gunfighters, or urban rioters, or the terrible morals in so many Hollywood movies, or the ostentatious conspicuous consumption of wealthy celebrities, or the gruesome practices of abortionist Kermit Gosnell, or by the divisiveness of “the other side” during the 2016 elections? Most Americans would protest, “that is not my America.” And so for those of you who do not live in Africa, we invite you to take a second look with new eyes at the various countries of this continent.
It is as important to celebrate glorious success as it is to bring needs to light. So when we host visitors here in Kenya, we want them to see the rich texture and vibrancy of Kenyan life. We’ll visit a church in the Kibera slum, talk with successful Nairobi entrepreneurs and artisans, swing by a world-class Nairobi shopping mall, sit with small-town church members in their large stone church building, and drink tea in a remotely rural Maasai hut.
Here is one example of positive branding for Kenya. It’s a music video / commercial for Safaricom, the largest telecom and micro-finance service provider in East Africa. It is a celebration of Kenyan life, culture, and people. Like the best advertising, it is not pushing a product so much as celebrating a vision for life. I invite you to watch and listen to this short video (less than two minutes). The lyrics (in kiSwahili) and translation (in English) follow below. This is the Kenya we know and love. These are the Kenyans with whom we partner. Yes, there is still need, which this branding doesn’t depict. But in this season of America’s Thanksgiving, celebrate with us the greatness of Kenya’s people.
….. LET’S UNITE, LET’S LOVE
Kitu gani chatuunganisha,
….. What is it that unites us,
Mume kwa mke, ndugu na dada,
…. husband to wife, brother and sister
….. friends whom we care about,
Washiriki hata makazini,
….. colleagues with whom we work?
Jambo la muhimu,
Kwa hamu na gamu,
ndoto, zote zetu
….. The most important thing is
….. earnest anticipation of
….. a nation which carries
….. all of our dreams.
Ungaana (ungaana), Pendana (pendana)
….. Let’s unite together (let’s unite),
….. Let’s love each other (let’s love)
….. We have united, we have seen that
Tuko huru tuko sawa,
….. We are free, we are equal
Ungaana (ungaana), Pendana (pendana)
….. Let’s unite together (let’s unite),
….. Let’s love each other (let’s love)
Dunia ijue tuko sawa,
….. Let the world know that we are equal
Twaunganisha ndoto zeta
….. We bring together our dreams
Ungaana kwa upendo
….. Let us unite together in love
Ungaana kwa upendo
…. Let us unite together in love
Ni Upendo watuunganisha,
….. It is love which unites us
Mume kwa mke, ndugu na dada
….. Husband to wife, brother and sister.
Cross-cultural life & work are exhilarating. Asking what it means, practically speaking, to live with Jesus from the view point of a different language and culture can open your eyes to the teachings of Scripture in new and profound ways. We have found this to be especially true as we have struggled with culturally relevant and biblically faithful ways to teach stewardship.
In many western contexts, teaching on stewardship can be summarized like this:
That stuff you think you own? It’s not really yours; it’s God’s. So treat “your” resources accordingly.
This approach captures part – but not all – of the biblical teaching on stewardship. But in East African contexts, as soon as you say “it’s not really yours” you’ve lost your audience and thrown in the towel. The Maasai have a proverb that explains this: The cow says, “don’t lend me. Just give me away.” This is because the cow knows that if it is lent, it will not be well cared for. Only when there is ownership is there also proper stewardship. We also see this in the teaching of Jesus in John 10.12-13.
The hired hand, who is not a shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and abandons the sheep and flees. So the wolf attacks the sheep and scatters them. He runs away because he is only a hired hand and has no concern for the sheep.
Only when you can say “it is mine” or “it is ours” can stewardship be faithfully practiced. There is another Maasai proverb that emphasizes this: All things which their owners care for endure. The twofold implication (which is clear in the Maa) is that only owners properly care for possessions and only proper stewardship enables things to last.
There is a place to teach that stewardship is the management of someone else’s resources. (See, for example, Matthew 25.14-3.) But it is also necessary to recognize we are the recipients of God’s gifts. What God has given you is now yours.
ORE TINIATA MENYE, MIMURATA
Another Maasai cultural proverb suggests an alternative approach to the traditional western interpretation. Now if you have a father, it observes, you’re not really circumcised. For many tribes in East Africa, including the Maasai, boys are ritually circumcised during adolescence. This event marks a major transition. No longer a boy, the circumcised male is now a warrior and a man. So the proverb is saying that if your father is still alive, it is as if you are still a boy. Culturally, if your father is alive, it’s as though you are still a youth.
Why is this? Because you show natural respect for your old father. You honor him by consulting with him before you so much as a sell a goat to obtain school fees for your children. Are you 60 and a grandfather? If your dad is still alive, you will consult with him before you sell a goat to obtain school fees for your grandchildren.
Traditionally this is NOT abusive patriarchy. It is not just that the old man remains the nominal head of the extended family. Rather, he is recognized to have wisdom. He can guide the younger generations in the best way forward. Being past the point of self-seeking desire, he has a broader perspective about what is best for the whole family. The primary interest of the old man is in the well-being of his whole family. So he will advise them accordingly. He receives enkanyit (proper respect and honor) and gives in return counsel and blessing.
(Western cultures used to practice something similar. We called it “filial piety.”)
For those of us who follow Jesus, we know that our Father Papa God is alive. This does not mean we are not responsible adults. It DOES mean we should invite God into the process as we consider the management of our resources.
That stuff you own? It really is yours. But your Father in heaven is very much alive. Will you consult with him about how you use your resources?
[Updated September 2018: We just learned the second proverb mentioned above.]
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).
The Maa word for a wedding or marriage is enkiyama. Traditionally, there are two important parts of the ceremony. The first is “the wrapping with a skirt” or erotianaroto. A simple ceremony, sometimes this suffices (like going to a justice of the peace). But for a proper wedding, there is also “the leading away of the bride to her husband’s homestead.” Thus the bride is referred to as esiankiki narikitoi, “the bride which is being led away.”
This imagery is beautiful. The Church, of course, is the Esiankiki of Christ. We also have a sort of erotianaroto ceremony. We remember that Ruth told Boaz, “spread your skirt over your maidservant.” She was telling him to cover her with his protection, to claim her, to marry her. In the same way, each of us who is immersed into Christ have been clothed with Christ as with a garment — we have been wrapped with the skirt of righteousness. The ancient church outwardly symbolized this by clothing the newly baptized with a clean, white robe after they emerged from their watery burial.
We are also being led away from our sin and rebellion and towards the home of our Groom. Like the esayiunoti (a Maasai wife married properly, observing all fitting cultural customs, and who can thus hold her head high), we demonstrate our devotion and our pledge of fidelity by not looking back as we are led away. (Luke 9.62 and Genesis 19.26 come to mind.)
Upon being led away and settling in her husband’s homestead, the Maasai esiankiki leaves her temporary name behind and receives a new name. A young woman may have been known as Nashipai ene Sakat (“Joy,” the daughter of the Sakat family). If she marries a man named Saruni ole Yenko, she now will naturally enough be known as enole Yenko (the woman of the Yenko family or Mrs Yenko). But her husband’s family will also choose a new first name for the bride, perhaps Naramati (“cared for, the one taken care of”).
This sounds strange, and maybe even troubling, to western ears. But as I am reflecting, I see that this cultural practice reflects a divine reality. We, too, shall receive a “new name” (Revelation 2.17). But this will not represent an abrogation of our former name but rather a fulfillment of our true identity. As Jacob (the heel-grasping deceiver) became Israel (wrestles-with-God-and-prevails) and Lo-Ruhamah (not-pitied, not loved) became Ruhamah (compassion, lovingly-accepted), so in Christ we become whom we were created to be.
May we all be wrapped with the skirt of Jesus and led away by him, following without looking back!