Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Culturally Speaking: the Masai Market

The heat prickled my skin through the non-tinted windows of the vehicle. Madison, Spencer, and I bounced around in the backseat as Andy drove over innumerable speed bumps and pot holes. I enjoyed riding in the Whitman's Toyota Land Cruiser through the narrow streets of Nairobi. Every trip was like a carnival ride because of all the speed bumps that made my stomach flip. This trip was particularly exciting, however, because Andy and Stacey were taking me to the Masai Market!

Hello Everyone!

Today I will take you back in time to Friday, January 28, 2011. On this particular Friday I visited a foreign market, the Masai Market, for the very first time. I will now give you a narrative of this exciting experience.

Our destination was the Village Market (think mall but with outdoor sections a grocery store) which contained the Masai Market. I had heard little about either of these places, so I had no idea what to expect. The word "market" invoked images in my mind of exotic and sandy open air bazaars filled with spices, fruit, and jewelry. Despite my knowing we no longer live in the 20th century, my imagination wandered to scenes from movies like Indiana Jones and the Lost Ark.

When we arrived at the Village Market, we went through a guarded gate into the parking lot. As we parked and exited the Land Cruiser, Ms. Stacey began to drill me. "Now, people are going to be very pushy. They will call you out and try to sell you anything you look at. Just stay close to us and don't encourage them if you can help it. Tell them you are just looking, and if you do see something you want to buy, tell me and I'll help you negotiate prices."

My heart beat faster with anticipation as we ascended the stone steps up to the market. "See," Stacey pointed out, "they're already starting to swarm." Indeed, several men stood in the entryway waiting for customers.

As we entered the market, I gasped in awe and pleasure at the scene I witnessed. Before us lay a large, open-air room packed with hundreds of vendors. A dark canvas covered the area, providing shade while still allowing a nice breeze to move through the congested bazaar. The hundreds of craftsmen and merchants had spread their wears out on blankets or rugs on the floor. Purses, jewelry, bags, and fabrics hung from standing racks. The variety of items was endless. Silver and jade, baskets and carvings--all spread out over the vast space.

Noise all around us: the noise of people talking, sellers selling, buyers buying, and bargain hunters rejoicing over their catches. Foreigners and nationals alike searched through the handcrafted goodies. I overheard British accents and German conversations. We were not the only Caucasian onlookers, but we could have been the only Americans. I also noticed a Middle-eastern family wandering through the market.

My purse hung diagonally across my body with my hands ever on it. I walked closely behind as Stacey and Madison led Spencer and me down the different aisles (Andy had gone off to get a haircut at a barbershop within the mall). We came to one vendor who sold fabrics, and Ms. Stacey bought a conga--a large piece of colorful, patterned, cotton fabric that can be made into numerous types of clothing items. Madison bargained with the same vendor over a pair of earrings. Shrewdly, Maddie eventually worked the woman down to a reasonable price. Madison's bargaining skills impressed both the seller and me.

We finally worked our way through most of the Masai Market. Stacey asked me what I thought of it. My response: "OH MY GOODNESS!!! I want three of everything!"

Andy rejoined us and interrupted my exclamations. Andy and Stacey led us out of the market into the mall and to a bank where I exchanged some of my American money for Kenya shillings, the Kenyan currency. After the exchange, we went to the open-air, multicultural food court. Stacey gave me a tour of the different restaurants: Italian, Chinese, Greek, even a French bistro. I had long decided on what I wanted to eat, however; and on my first outing on the continent of Africa, I chose cheese pizza and a Sprite. I inhaled that small pizza. It was exactly the piece of home I needed in the midst of jet lag and mild culture shock.

After we finished our food, Andy and Spencer went back to the vehicle while us girls went back the the Masai Market to revisit a few aisles. This time around, I did buy a few items, and Ms. Stacey negotiated appropriate prices on my behalf. I bought a cloth bag and several paper bead necklaces at prices lower than any I would find in the states.

One thing that struck me about my experience at the Masai Market was the different types of vendors. I do not mean the different types of things they sold (though the variety was truly impressive), but the different personalities selling them. Without meaning to, I think I just put all of those merchants and craftsmen in a box. I guess I assumed all of them would ask for unfair prices at first, and several of them proved me wrong (though, there were several who attempted to prove me right). As we talked with one craftswoman, it became apparent Stacey had a relationship with her, and she was a very honest dealer. Another lady I met quoted me a very good price right off the bat. Still another vendor gave Stacey amazingly low prices on baskets.

This experience taught me another thing: bargaining does not just occur between a dishonest dealer and/or a penny pinching buyer. Stacey explained to me how the people at the Masai Market enjoy the ceremony of the haggle. One time, she had just finished bargaining with a man, and after they agreed on a price, he said, "Now I have worked today and can accept your money." I had no idea some (if not most) vendors "must" haggle over prices in order to feel a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction in their work. And I must admit, it's kind of fun to watch people bargain. You hear things like, "Oh, madam! That price is killing me," and from prospective customers, "You want that much for this worthless item!" It reminds me of Proverbs 20:14. "'It's no good, it's no good!' says the buyer; then off he goes and boasts about his purchase."

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Adventure of a Life Time! Week 1

Hello Everyone!

I am so excited about writing to you all and telling you about the experiences I have had so far. This first week has flown by; and with jet lag, getting settled into the Whitman's home, helping the kids with school, and several cultural experiences, it has been hard for me to communicate with everyone. Your patience, dear reader (or listener), I will now reward.

For the first five or six days, I really struggled with the jet lag. Nairobi is 8 hours ahead of US Eastern standard time; I had a lot of trouble sleeping at night, and in the mornings, I felt like going to bed. I think my body is beginning to adjust, though, and I can now go to bed before midnight and sleep through the night.

On Monday, everyone let me adjust. I had gone to bed at 3 am and woken up at 5 am; so at around 9:30 am, I went back to bed and slept until 1 pm. Tuesday was a little easier, and I started helping Ms. Stacey with her home schooling. I mainly help Spencer (age 9 and in the 4th grade) by reading him his history and correcting his grammar and math work. Sometimes Madison (age 12 and in 7th grade) asks me for help, too, and I usually help her by giving her questions about what she has read in her school readers and making sure she understands her books. I have gained a whole new perspective on homeschooling now that I am observing the process instead of actually doing the school work. Indeed, as I stay with the Whitmans and assist Andy and Stacey, my main responsibility is to help home school Madison and Spencer. Once a month, or so, I will spend several days either helping another missionary in his or her ministry or helping in a local ministry such as an orphanage.

Every other week, the Whitmans plan to take me on a field trip where I will see the different sights in and around Nairobi. On Sunday, they took me to the Great Rift Valley, and I... walked into a cave, looked into the crater of a volcano, and observed Masai herdsman tend their herd at a watering hole.

The day started out beautifully! Andy drove us and another missionary couple (Bryan and Kim) and their daughter (Raelyn) an hour and a half outside of Nairobi to Mount Suswa, a dormant volcano in the Rift Valley. After an hour driving on asphalt roads, we turned off the main road and onto a dirt one. We drove through country belonging to the Masai people-Kenya's most well known group of native peoples. The road was extremely rough. We jostled each other as Andy avoided ditches and ruts around the path. We laughed at how the GPS actually included this "road" in its maps. In some places, people had dug a ditch right across the pathway, and we had to drive off the pathway to get around it. It was one wild ride!

On our way to the crater of the volcano, we stopped at Kenya Assemblies of God-a small, aluminum church. Bryan had built a relationship with the pastor of this church, a Masai man named Jackson. When they heard our vehicle approaching, Pastor Jackson and several other people ran out to meet us. We stayed and talked for a few minutes, but they had to leave to get back to their Sunday morning service.

After another ten or fifteen minutes of driving, we reached a clearing containing a set of caves. We parked the car, got out, and climbed down a steep ravine to get a closer look at the caves. Some of the Masai had dropped cement in various places around the rocks leading down the ravine, making footholds. The Masai will rent themselves out as guides to tourists who want to explore the caves. When we got down to the caves, the air had cooled off and the vegetation was lush. After a few minutes looking into the mouths of the two caves, we went back to our vehicle and ate lunch. We ate sandwiches and chips, and Kim had brought enough Dr. Peppers for everyone. Over here, you can only find a few varieties of soda, and they are pretty expensive. Never has a cold soda tasted so good to me as that Dr. Pepper!

The desert we traversed was hot, dry, and dusty; whenever I opened my mouth, I got dust in it (of course, that didn't stop me from talking as much as I usually do). We must have seen at least fifteen dust devils throughout the day. But despite the dust and the heat and the bumpy, bumpy road, we finally reached the inner crater of Mt. Suswa at about 1 pm. Wow! It was certainly a sight to see. We stood on the edge of a cliff looking down into the lush, verdant crater.

I was a little disappointed at the lack of lava flow, but the view was spectacular. Mountains lay all around the crater.

Here is a picture of me sitting on the cliff with the view of mountains in the background.

Here is a picture of the Whitmans and their vehicle parked on the edge of the crater:

While up on Mt. Suswa, I saw a Masai woman near her home. I motioned to my camera asking her if I could take my picture with her. She nodded, and Ms. Stacey gave her one of our water bottles.

On our way back from the crater and towards the main road, we stopped by Kenya Assemblies of God again. Their service had let out, but the area around the church was not deserted. A group of Masai herdsman had gathered their sheep, goats, and cattle, and we watched as the herdsman watered all the animals.

It was a sight to behold! I don't believe I have ever heard so many animals bleat at once. I loved the sounds the animals made as they gathered around a stream and a watering trough. One sheep jumped right into the trough and drank the water coming up to his neck. The scene at the watering trough reminded me about the way Jesus described Himself as "the good shepherd." It takes a lot to be a good shepherd. There must have been about ten or fifteen men taking care of all the animals. At one point, we saw one of the herdsman take a young goat and put in the trough, making the goat drink by pushing its head down to the water. The Lord is our shepherd, and He takes care of us like a shepherd takes care of his sheep. Psalm 23:2 says, "He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters." This verse took on new meaning to me as I watched the herdsman water the animals. Sometimes, we can act like that young goat, not wanting to drink the life-giving water, even though we are in a dusty and dry desert. But the Lord knows we need to drink; so sometimes, he puts us in situations that make us so thirsty and desperate for Him we simply must drink of His Living Word. I want to be like the young sheep who did not just drink the water, but who jumped into the water in order to be immersed in it. This lamb recognized his need for water, and he did no settle for just a little bit.

I praise God for this wonderful experience He is giving me. He has already put me in situations I could never have dreamed about. I used to think I could never be a missionary. I have thought things like, "Oh, I could never rough it," or "I don't think I could handle living in a foreign culture." One thing I know for certain now is this: when the Lord commands you to do something or go somewhere, He equips you with all the tools you need. Fatigue has swept me away and dust and sweat have made me sticky and gross, but my God is always with me, and He has given me the grace to handle anything that comes my way.May His strength overcome our weaknesses. Truly, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness," (2 Corinthians 12:9)