Wahkohtowin: The Maasai Region, Kenya

Welcome guest blogger Shawn Arseneault! Shawn is a bilingual, Francophone educator currently working at Alberta Education. He has a wide range of professional experience in the education field, including teaching and administration. Shawn has participated in a several overseas professional development experiences. Here he shares some of what he learned about Indigenous Culture in the Maasai region of Kenya.

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In July of 2015, I traveled to southwestern Kenya with fifteen other teachers from Alberta and Ontario to work with local teachers and contribute to the build of a new school. Our assignment was organized by WE Charity (formerly Free the Children), which has a big presence in this area.  Our time spent in the country was just outside the Maasai Mara region, which is located along the border with Tanzania.

The Maasai People and the Maasai Warrior

Shawn and Robert, the Maasai Warrior

The Maasai people have long-standing cultural traditions and age-old customs that have withstood colonization. They are an Indigenous ethnic group of approximately 2,000,000 people located in both Kenya and Tanzania. Swahili and English are the official languages of Kenya but the Maasai people have been able to preserve their native language (Maa). While students learn primarily in English at school, Maa is the language spoken is most social settings. The Maasai people have opted to settle in smaller and rural communities in order to preserve their culture and language.

During our month-long journey in Kenya, we were accompanied by a Maasai Warrior, Robert. In order to become a Maasai Warrior, Maasai boys go through a series of challenges culminating with killing a lion. These challenges are cultural rites of passage ceremonies. Traditions have changed given the endangerment of lions on the continent. As they become Warriors, Maasai men are known for protecting their tribe and their land. They command respect in their communities and represent a symbol of power. Warriors are often seen in their communities wearing distinctive clothing such as their red shukas. Robert accompanied us to all of our outings during our time in Kenya in order to deal with any potential confrontational situation that may arise. 

Shifting Women’s Rights

Traditionally, girls do not study beyond grade 8. This practice is starting to change with emerging women leaders in the area. WE Charity has established several new schools and built an all-girls secondary school in order to help young women get an education. The all-girls secondary school that we visited is a campus where girls live for most of the year. The campus contains a massive garden with fruits and vegetables that are used to prepare meals for the girls.

Professional Efforts

The school

Collaboratively, my Canadian colleagues and I worked with our Kenyan counterparts to model new teaching strategies and to offer professional learning. In the classroom, I had the privilege of working with 77 grade five students. The students with whom I worked very much viewed education as a privilege and were excited for any new learning opportunity we did in the classroom.

This school was not a Free the Children school but the organization had contributed to the build of several new classrooms on the site. While I was there, we helped with construction by laying the new foundation of a classroom. Along with my colleagues and local construction workers, we mixed the concrete, fetched the water and dug in the ground. It was fascinating to see the work that goes into building classrooms when machinery and tools are limited.

Experiencing Holistic / Community Orientated Worldview

“Water Walk” Group photo

This overseas assignment truly brought things into perspective for me. One Saturday morning, we joined two Maasai women on a “water walk”. In order to fetch the water, we walked 3 miles in each direction while holding a 10-gallon jug. This practice is done by Maasai women, often twice a day, in order to fetch the water they require for the community’s basic needs.

Personal Learning

Upon reflection of this trip, almost 5 years later, I think about the relationships that I formed and sense of community emanated by the Maasai people. Two words strongly encompassed within the spirit of Wahkohtowin.

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Be well.

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