The morning we drove out to the Transmara in Western Kenya, I was sick, and asthma was reaching around my lungs with its familiar fingers, tightening. We drove down rolling dirt roads that cascaded into the green hills like cinnamon rivers. The tires rose and fell into puddles of dust that sent puffs into our windows and made me cough. When we were almost there, the driver declared that the van couldn’t make it quite to the top of the hill with so much weight so we all climbed out and walked. I followed the other Americans, the donors who had made the construction of the new Masaai school and church possible. I had been invited to come along. I took my steps slowly to prevent wheezing and looked around at the scalloped green land in the valleys and hills below and beyond me. It felt like something in The Sound of Music, like if I had more energy and no inhibition, I would break into a twirl with my arms stretched out under the clouds.
I didn’t do anything of the kind but as I made slow steps up the hills, the soft resounding sound of singing wafted down over the crest of the hill. Soon I could see them. They moved like a Chinese Dragon Dance, with rhythmic swells forward and soft ebbs back. This is how the Masaai move when they dance. With slow and rhythmic rolls of their chests, each step like a beautiful breath. Pulsing toward us slowly, smiles dressed in red, they sang in vibrant words we could not understand. The dance came to us like the rising of tide and engulfed us, until we were in the center, throbbing within the ebb of the tide to the trilling sound of ululation that swelled over the beating words of the song. They moved with us then, down to Joseph’s house where we were invited to stay.
Inside the house, I was shown to my room which was separated from Joseph and his wife Anna’s room only by a sheet that hung from the mud roof. I lay down on the bed for just a moment but I couldn’t get up for hours. I lay on the thin mattress and listened to my lungs. They grasped for air. They found some. They strained to spit it back out. Out it sputtered. Over and over. I listened to each breath under the distant sound of singing in Kimasaai.
The clouds were thick that afternoon and they wrapped the sky in a smooth darkness that made everyone that looked up at them nod their heads and say “It’s going to rain tonight.” But evening came and it had not rained.
Joseph came into the dark room in which I lay listening to my breath and said “wake up, my daughter. Dinner is ready.” He called me his daughter. He said he loved me like a daughter, and so now I was his daughter. He led his newest daughter to the main room where it was bright and noisy with lots of smiling and excited chattering. Anna brought out the ugali, sakuma, and chapatis, and her daughters helped serve everyone large portions. Soon the white people were whispering to each other that we couldn’t finish what was on our plate, as Anna and her daughters eagerly filled each plate with more food chiding the white people with small stomachs. “Eat more food! In Africa we eat lots of food!” they would say, and we white people would try our best.
After dinner I sprawled out under my blankets and listened to each well-earned breath under a silent roof and a silent sky. The rain had not come.
In the morning we took a walk. I brought my inhaler and we ambled through the hills into unending rolls of greenness. We saw the school they’d built and the church. We sat in a circle with the elders and prayed for the school and the church and the people. We walked back through cool wind under dark clouds that curdled in the dimming sky. There was a meeting at the house today and hundreds of Masaai women gathered outside to discuss community matters. The dark and moist swelled above them, and when little drops began to tumble down onto us, hundreds of women scrambled to get inside the house.
The cling of water drops on the tin roof amplified the sound of the rain. It rumbled and jingled above us as though it were a flood outside. I began to worry that the meeting wouldn’t end until after the rain had stopped so I edged my way between hundreds of women to the door and out into the falling water.
It was gentle compared to the sound on the tin. I walked away from the house and onto the hill. My flip-flops were slippery and it was hard to keep my footing on the steep slope. I stood in the mist and looked down on the valley, the sky softly descending on me in graceful drops.
I told myself that this wasn’t the best idea when I was already sick, but that didn’t make any sense to me at the moment. The cool moist air seemed to ease my lungs, filling them with cleanness and sweeping the rattly breath out into the valley.
The next morning we had chai and breakfast. “Last night we heard you breathing,” Joseph told me. “Anna said to me. ‘Listen to her. I can hear our daughter breathing. She is breathing. She is safe. She is alive.’ I said, ‘Yes, I can hear her.’”
That night was our last night. We all sat in the crowded room with cups of chai and overwhelmingly full stomachs. Joseph stood up and announced that having lived among the Masaai, we were now all Masaai and therefore needed Masaai names. When my turn came. Anna came to christen me with my Masaai name saying, “she is my daughter. I have to give my daughter her name.” Joseph translated as his wife told me about the meaning of my name, and I fell asleep that night whispering my new name to myself over and over again.
In the morning we left. The van edged its way over wavy roads and I inched farther and farther away from the Transmara. Farther from the land where cows had fatty humps on their backs that jiggled when they walked – I could only assume that, like camels, these were for water storage in times of drought. Farther from the people who would dance by jumping straight in the air, like slender sticks springing out of the ground temporarily, a people who would drink blood mixed with cow’s milk. Farther from a family who dressed me in their traditional clothes and called me Masaai.