First, a few words about Mathew: Mathew Ole Lona grew up in a boma with one father who had four wives, twenty eight brothers and sisters, lots of uncles, aunts, and cousins, plenty of visitors and friends to play with, and a more than countable numbers of cows and goats. He remembers the pandemonium with fondness.
Though Mathew long ago moved out of the boma and traveled the world, he returns as often as he can. He keeps in touch with his brothers and sisters, those who are still alive, though they often live many days walk into the Maasai Steppe.
Mathew, when not running his consulting business, is working on a book of short stories about life, in particular his childhood, in Maasailand.
Mathew's story: I am not at all sure about the date I was born. Through many inquiries, however, I have come to believe that the period must lie between late 1956 and early 1957.
When I was initiated to be a Maasai warrior by the rite of circumscion, it was like I was enlightened. I decided I would claim that date as the the same day I was born. From there-on, my official birth date became December, 28th 1956.
I was born in the village officially known as Lemanyata in the land called Olkokola, situated in Arusha, in the northern region of Tanzania bordering Kenya. It is at the slopes of a big Meru mountain, several kilometers from the snowing Kilimanjaro Mountain. The seldom volcano erupting mountain of Lengai can be seen far away jutting from the flat Maasai savannah.
My father was a World War II veteran. He told us from 1941 to 1946 he fought as a rifleman, all the way from Kenya to Sinai, through Abyssinia country. He was discharged at Kenya with a rank of a private soldier. He was no longer a good Maasai warrior, but a fierce soldier, honest like a child and workaholic.
My father learned the importance of school when he was at the war. He learned a little writing and reading. The kind soldier who taught him must have used hard and straight sticks on the ground for my father’s handwritings were stout, straight characters with precise angles and never rounded.
My father helped me to go to school at age of seven, a remarkable little age to start school at that time in the Maasai land of Olkokola where most had never even thought of going to school at all.
It was never my father’s plan to let me school beyond knowing writing and reading. I heard him telling my mother, a beautiful daughter of a Maasai ‘foreseer’, "I want this boy just to open an eye. Too much time at school will dent his good Maasai characteristics and loosen his attitude of being a shepherd.”
And he was right.
My father had up to 500 head of cattle and close to 700 sheep and goats. We herded them in four areas in a nomadic life. However, he maintained a steady home for his family of 4 wives and about 30 children at Olkokola. My own mother had 6 children; 4 boys and 2 girls.
I will never forget the first day my father took me to start school. He made me march in a soldier style, him shouting to me; left, right, turn left, about turn and so on, the military language of tasteless Kiswahili in chopped English. He wanted the head shaking on-lookers to know that I was the real son of a tough soldier.
Unfortunately, it turned out that day was Sunday and as he commanded me into the supposed school building, I found a white man teaching some children about Enkai, our Maasai word for God. Thinking my father erred; I came out and told him. He dryly smiled and said, "It is all part of foreign knowledge I want you to acquire”
Once joining school, I was forced to like it because I would have been in trouble if I hadn't. It was a lot easier than looking after the animals. Looking after animals is very tough. It is done alongside of dangerous wild animals in the very hot plains. It's an extremely lonely life for a young boy, especially if his seniors are a bit militaristic.
However, I was forced to look after the animals during the school holidays. The seniors assigned to me dangerous routes to take animals through because they hated my schooling. They believed schooling was kind of lazing around. They wanted to teach me other lessons
I faced the first cultural shock in 1968. I had passed well the fourth grade examination and went to a boarding school in Arusha town. I found pupils and grown-up school staff from various tribes. I was more often surprised to find some of tenets of Maasai culture applied differently in this way.
Getting away by cheating and lying is a fashionable act among pupils. The one who confess gets flogged. In Maasai, it is vice versa.
Pupils are taught about obedience. In Maasai, the youngest is always at the service of the older. It is beaten into youngsters by severe physical punishment.
Pupils steal items without asking. In the Maasai culture, there exist an un-written rule that youngsters are allowed to steal foods if they are overwhelmed with hunger and have no other means of getting something to eat. They have great ingenuity in stealing. For other things, the punishment of stealing diminishes if there had been a request that was refused.
Telling the truth and to be frank, ingenious stealing according to our set rules is an adored and most revered habit in the Maasai. But, at school, I found this habit tended to be seen by other tribes as associated with ‘un-civilized people’. If you are frank and truthful, as Maasai are when they get caught, you look like a fool.
A Maasai youngster who goes wrong is sure that by telling the truth, not only will his or her skin be saved from physical punishment, but esteem will also be raised in the community.
I was also amazed by the way elders interact loosely with pupils. It wasn't official as the way Maasai act between age-sets. There were again array of items and services that I will now say are very normal and trivial but took me a long time to learn how to use.
In short, most of the time I was really a ‘bush boy’.
I was good in my studies though, especially mathematics. I was known as the bush boy who lead most of the times in examinations results. That made teachers and other pupils more astounded than I was to the new environment I found myself in.
Later after three years, in 1971, I joined a secondary school also near Arusha town. I took science subjects. I had a friend, who I still see often, who was taking arts subjects. He liked reading English novels and as he finished reading, he would let me read also. It was from this time that I developed the hobby of reading novels and writing stories.
In 1975 I went to a high school in Dar Es Salaam. I remember I was thrown out of mathematics class by an East German teacher for reading English novels. Actually I found that mathematics was easy and could use that time to read something else not being taught at the school.
After I finished high school, I had to participate in a National Service. For the whole of 1977 I learned military ways and I told my father. He was very happy but was very surprised that I did not know well how to work fast with rifles and other non-automatic guns. It was later he found rifles are no longer used in wars but only the automatic guns.
In 1978 I went to college to study Building Economics and finished in 1981. My first job was with a Consulting Engineering firm in Arusha and I remained there until 1984.
From 1984 to 1994 I worked with a Lutheran church in Arusha as their projects coordinator. It was within this time, in 1988, I went to Nairobi to study management and during the same year, I went to study Projects Management in Scotland and was awarded MSc.
I married in 1991 and have two sons. I have also adapted my niece as part of my family and she became the eldest among our children. She has a child now, so I'm a grandfather.
Since 1994 I worked as a consultant to social and construction projects and also facility management, all based in Arusha.
My wife is a community development worker and works with the rural people. My children attended rural schools though we live in urban area.
Whenever I am not occupied by work, I attend Maasai traditional councils as an elder.
It is from this background, being with my family during lively evenings, that I am able to get many of my stories.
Mathew Ole Lona