Checkers with Maasai Kids

I’ve dealt with a lot of kids in my life – but I have never met a crowd that was as easy to please as the kids in Naro Osura. It’s a village in the heart of the Maasai land – Loita Hills – on the outskirts of the famous Maasai Mara. When I say village, I mean dirt paths, chickens and goats running around, ramshackle shops with handpainted signs and a lot of people sitting. All day.

I walked into a store that had the word “Internet” printed in large bright letters on the front wall. I inquired about the computer services, somewhat skeptical when I noticed  the bags of flour and candies behind the counter. “Oh, no,” the woman explained. “That’s just the name of the store.”

An indefinite but long period of time after lunch, when our guide was on one of his classic “disappearances” (Meeting the local ladies? Dealing drugs? Running away from us?) I was getting bored, and I couldn’t look through the pictures on my friend’s camera any more or stare into space any longer.

I looked around for something to do, but we were outside some dirty, sketchy pub and all I could find were some colorful beer caps scattered around the muddy entrance. I started collecting them, hoping we’d find a good use for them. One of the guide’s brothers, who also served as an assistant guide and porter, found a used cardboard box, and together we drew a checkers board.

Even before I knew what we were going to do with it, people who were sitting nearby came up and helped me collect caps. I tried to explain that I wanted only “Tusker” or something else of uniform color, but eventually I just took whatever people handed me. Everyone seemed thrilled to have something to do.

And so we played checkers on a cardboard box with beer caps.  And we had about ten spectators from the moment we set up the board. We got a little tournament going, and when I realized how thirsty the kids were for something to do, I began to pull out some more tricks from my dusty youth-movement-and-babysitting sleeve. I taught them how to play thumb-war and “Dag Maluach” (Red light green light one two three) and even a silly dancing game where you run around a circle and then shake your booty. They taught us the Swahili equivalent. No matter what we suggested, they were all in.

One of the boys, who was wearing a blue sweater that resembled a school uniform, was holding a plastic bag with a few books inside. I asked to see, and suddenly I realized it was storytime in Swahili, and somehow, I was the reader (Swahili uses Latin letters).

When our guide finally came back and we continued our trek, three of the boys joined us. They didn’t want money, or our walking poles (which they looked at and held very curiously) – they just wanted something to do.

Filthy hands, open scabs and tattered clothes – but just the same as kids in any other place – hungry for fun and games, wanting to beat each other up and be hugged at the same time, craving attention and more than anything, in need of something to do.


3 thoughts on “Checkers with Maasai Kids

  1. Fanatastic story Danya…I could see all of it as I read…great! Two things come to mind…when I was in graduate school another student there, who became my friend, had a brother (still has, as far as I know) who went to Ghana to study drumming with a local man he’d met in NYC and also found children doing nothing. He started a school. Actually, he raised funds to build a school so the government would then be compelled to send a teacher. It’s amazing how easy it was for him to change the lives of so many children and families in that one village.

    Secondly, if you aren’t already familiar with it, learn Mancala, an African stone game that is a wee bit like backgammon and has a strategy element. If you can’t find someone to teach you, here’s a link:

    On a completely different note, we have submitted a “note of interest” to the city council for a property and I think we may change the name we’ve chosen to “Internet”!

    Love you, travel safely!

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