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Clicking onto Masai Time


Carmine flows smoothly across the open plain, followed by four goats, two donkeys and a cow.
The Masai herdsman is heading in my direction for it is dry season and where there is white man there is water.
I’ve come out here to the Olduvai Highlands in Tanzania to accompany a crazed French photographer intent on finding the perfect acacia tree. He’s somehow convinced the local park authorities to grant him a pass that allows us to roam anywhere in this protected area – which means we are the only white people in a few hundred square km’s. How I got to join this man on his arboreal vision quest is the subject of long tale. Suffice it to say we have been driving our ancient Land Rover “Granny” across the plains, searching high and low for that outstanding specimen of thorny brush. The Frenchman has walked off to snap some photos when the warrior approaches.
He holds the used engine coolant container up and imploringly mutters “magi, magi.” I gesture by raising my shoulders, implying that I simply do not have any, which is not entirely true — it is just that I’ve already given away 30 liters in similar situations today, and in the end I have to think of my own well-being in this arid land. I am at least 100 miles away from the nearest running water.
The Masai is adamant.
Experience has taught him that persistence gets rewarded.
I’m resolute in my refusal.
We stare at each other in silence for what seems like five minutes.
He notices my watch, which is an old Timex I like because it is a replica of one JFK wore – and he was a man of style, and therefore by default I fall into the same category.
“Hapana,” I mutter, shaking my head.
He looks at my ring, a wave pattern encircling an inner band that spins on an outer band — a nifty design if I say so myself.
I show him how it works and because he is so elated and gleeful at its functionality, I let him try it on.
We sit around like this for another half-an-hour – he checking all my things, and I checking out this nomad — his stretched ears, his robes, his beads, his pride, his manner. His looking at the things I carry with me in such a curious and admiring way makes me distinctly aware of how much I actually have – and how much I don’t really need.
Despite my excess, I slowly start worrying about my ring.
He is fingering it happily, smiling at me.
Did I, by letting him check out the ring, imply he could have it?
Damn. <!–page–>
I gesture at the ring and then at myself saying “Mi mi.”
He shakes his head and holds the ring to his heart.
Sheisse. I wish I didn’t care about the damn thing.
I repeat my gesture and try to look a little fiercer.
But what is my fierce look to a man who has killed four lions with his bare hands?
He is the new owner of my ring. What am I going to do? I’ve had it for many years, and it has great symbolic significance. I don’t want to lose it.
Think Derek think.
Wife!
Yes, that’s it.
This is my wedding band, ceremonial, symbolic — he’s got to understand that idea! He probably has about 4 wives himself!
“Wife, wife!” I exclaim hopefully.
He looks at me blankly.
I put my hands together and point at my finger and then hug myself and gesture as if my arm is around someone next to me and kiss the sky and smile really large and blink my eyes repeatedly, all the while pointing at the ring and saying “Wife, wife!”
He watches my antics for a while and then starts to laugh.
But he’s not just chuckling; he’s laughing as if it’s the funniest thing he’s ever seen.
What did I do?
Is this guy crazy?
Is a Masai with a mental disorder, with spear in hand wearing my sentimental ring?
His laughing continues unabated for minutes.
Then he stops, looks at me seriously and promptly takes off the ring and hands it back.
“Engitok” he says.
He then points at my watch and then at himself.
The earnest look in his face is quite touching, but I need to know the time.
I’m in an equatorial country ruled by the rising and setting of the sun, blessed with equal day and night, and yet I need to know the time.
I don’t know why – security? I don’t know, I just like the darned watch all right?
And it lends me a sense of style. Smilla’s Sense of Snow, Derek’s Sense of Style.
I’m considering giving it to him, but I’m so conditioned by my culture that I instantly assess his things and wonder what he can give in return – beads, a spear, a lesson in arrow shooting?
I’m reminded of the Burning Man event I attended in the desert of Nevada a year ago, and the blessed feelings of joy I got from giving things without retribution, and from receiving things in the same vein.
I notice all the things I have with me, and conclude that Western folk have many things they don’t need, Masai have only things they need. We are the “Takers” who commodify the natural world and utilize all resources without abandon. He is one of the “Leavers,” who lives in harmony with nature and use only the resources he needs.
I hand him the watch, show him how to press the indiglo button and absorb his joy.
He grabs my hand, gives me a warm smile, and walks away.
Carmine flowing in the wind.

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