Feb. 24, 2003 – Robed in red and wearing multiple elegantly beaded necklaces, Kakuta Ole Maimai Hamisi of Kenya cut a dashing figure as he addressed a roomful of junior high school students Monday at the St. John School of the Arts.
Hamisi is on St. John this week as a guest of the St. John Arts Festival and will be making presentations to student groups throughout the week. On Thursday, he will be back at the School of the Arts in Cruz Bay for a program from 7 to 9 p.m. that also will feature a performance by students enrolled in African dance classes at the school.
On Monday, junior high students from The Coral Bay School and Julius E. Sprauve School filled the room.
The presentation was especially relevant for the Sprauve students because they are in the midst of raising money to build a well for an elementary school started by Hamisi in his homeland of Merrueshi. It is located in southeastern Maasailand, about 180 miles southeast of Nairobi, Kenya. (See "Unusual attire to herald an exceptional visitor".)
"Now they have an idea who they are helping," Sprauve School English teacher Martha Joseph said.
The students seemed impressed.
"We need to be more open to new cultures," Sprauve School student Claudia Verdant, 13, said.
Hamisi wove a tale of the Maasai culture in his native Kenya that is so different from that of the United States he has no words to describe it. "When I come to the States, I have to be a totally different person," he said.
Hamisi now lives in Seattle, where he expects to attend law school next fall.
He described growing up in a land with no electricity, no telephones and a nomadic lifestyle that included moving from place to place to find grass for the cows and killing lions as a male rite of passage.
In the latter case, "You have to wait until you're close to throw your spear," he said, fingering the lion's claw he wears as a reminder of that important event in his own life.
Clicking through a colorful slide show, he showed teen-age girls making beaded jewelry and young boys herding cows.
"At age 8, the guy can take cows out about 10 miles. He already knows his responsibility," Hamisi said. The boy spends the entire day out with the cows, he said, with no food to eat and cutting the bark of an acacia tree to get water.
At around the same age, girls are responsible for fetching firewood from up to three miles away from their village. They also must get water and prepare food for their families.
At about 16 or 17, the boys become warriors and begin to carry spears. At 18, they leave home for a two-year stint in living caves. "We learn how to hunt lions and fight," Hamisi explained.
At 28, Hamisi is now a junior elder, a status conferred on him in a ceremony in which he had his head shaved and daubed with red paint.
The Maasai people live in stick and mud huts which take about two weeks to build, thanks to communal help, he told his audience Monday. This information prompted Sprauve School teacher Elaine Jacobs to point out that as recently as 60 years ago, St. John residents lived in houses made of similar materials.
Jacobs also noted that in those days, people stopped on the street to exchange pleasantries, rather than just a quick hello. Hamisi said that the old way on St. John is still the way today in Kenya.
"You spend about five minutes. How are the cows? How are the children?" Hamisi said, describing a typical conversation.
Hamisi's first school was under an acacia tree. He and his fellow students wrote in the dirt because they had no paper or pens. "We sat on the rocks," he recalled.
He eventually attended a boarding school.
Hamisi said that the Maasai seldom use money. His parents sold many, many cows to cover his school fees. And he said he had to struggle to convince them it was worth while, because his people are fearful that education will undermine their way of life.
However, he said, the Maasai are becoming more accepting today of education as a positive thing. In fact, he sees it as the only common ground between his life in Kenya and his life in the United States.
Publisher's note : Like the St. John Source now? Find out how you can love us twice as much — and show your support for the islands' free and independent news voice … click here.