Maasai Warrior Promotes Cultural Awareness

Colgate students got a taste of a completely different world when Joseph ole Tipanko, an African Maasai warrior, visited campus for two days last week.

Tipanko spoke in the African, Latin, Asian and Native American (ALANA) Cultural Center on Thursday and spoke at a Brown Bag luncheon at the Center for Outreach, Volunteerism and Education (COVE) on Friday. He also sold handmade Maasai jewelry at the O’Connor Campus Center (Coop).

Tipanko came to Colgate as a representative of his 5,000-person community. He sought to raise awareness about the Maasai culture and to bring an understanding and appreciation for the vast cultural diversity of the world.

Tipanko’s trip to Colgate was funded by the African Students Union and was made possible by his host, senior Michael Wenger.

Wenger originally went to Kenya through the Global Volunteer Network using grant money from Colgate’s Arthur Watson, Jr. ’76 Fund. While visiting the Maasai tribe, Wenger met Tipanko, whom he described as “a celebrity there.” Tipanko and Wenger installed a water tank, slept beneath the stars and chased giraffes together.

Upon his departure from Kenya, Wenger told Tipanko to contact him if he ever visited the United States. Two years ago, Wenger got an e-mail from Tipanko saying that he was visiting, and the Wenger family then hosted Tipanko in their home in New Jersey for one month.

Since then, Tipanko has spent more time both with the Wenger family and traveling around the East Coast, visiting universities in New York City, Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia.

Tipanko spent last weekend with Wenger’s family, learning about Easter traditions and driving a car for the first time. According to Wenger, Wenger’s parents think of Tipanko as a son.

Tipanko’s tribe celebrates different holidays than those that are celebrated in the U.S., and he is currently on a month-long break from school.

Before his visit to Colgate, he traveled to the United Nations in New York City, where Wenger picked him up.

At home, Tipanko is a schoolteacher at an elementary school. After a two-year teaching course in Nairobi, he returned to his village where he has been teaching for twelve years. Tipanko believes that “civilization is coming to my village.”

Tipanko teaches a class of 30 students in Swahili, math, English, science, social studies and Christianity. The only requirements for schooling are that elementary school pupils must buy a uniform and high school students must pay tuition. Tipanko does not know of anyone from his home who has gone on to university.

Tipanko is married with four children aged 11, six, three and a newborn. While polygamy is acceptable in his community, Tipanko emphasized that he has one wife, and that is enough.

During his visit, Tipanko wore a red sequined dress with glass beads, handmade by his wife, and carried a Maasai blanket to wear when he got cold, a likely occurrence at Colgate. Tipanko also wore a beaded ornament, which is a sign of respect and honor and a ceremonial marriage ornament.

Besides the lack of snow, life in Kenya is very different. According to Tipanko, there are frequent droughts, and the Maasai live a nomadic lifestyle — moving with the livestock whenever there is a drought.

The Maasai livelihood and diet depend on their cattle. During his lectures, Tipanko described how strange he finds it that in the United States, he never knows where the meat he is eating comes from. In his village they slaughter, cook and eat their meat all in the same place.

The Maasai believe that they came from the sky to a depression in the land and traveled from there in search of grass for their livestock.

According to Tipanko, they believe that “all cows belong to Maasai, even those in the United States.”

“We just don’t know how they got here,” Tipanko admitted.

In addition to describing Maasai traditions and beliefs, Joseph was careful to highlight the obstacles that the Maasai are facing.

These problems include AIDS, polygamy and a lack of female education. Joseph attributes the high HIV and AIDS rate to the fact that the same knife is used, and not cleaned, for numerous male and female circumcisions. Polygamy also contributes to the spread of HIV/AIDS within the community.

Another problem facing the Maasai is that the Kenyan government is partitioning and distributing the land in the Maasai’s region. The Maasai are not used to owning land individually and traditionally prefer to move and own land as a community.

This sense of community ownership is very strong among the Maasai.

“My children are mine but they are also my community’s children,” Joseph said. Thus, if a parent is mistreating a child, the community has the right to intervene.

There is also no divorce within the Maasai community. If a husband and wife are having a disagreement they take the issue to their parents and, if necessary, the entire community to settle.

Among the Maasai, women do 80 percent or more of the workload. Their tasks include getting water, firewood, cooking, building the house, making jewelry and raising the children.

Men are the head of the family, provide security for the community, obtain food, hold community meetings and run ceremonies. Tipanko expressed his belief that couples need to work on improving the sharing of responsibilities.

Sophomore Alexi Aberant was especially shocked by how much more work women do than men within the Maassai community. Aberant, like many others, found Tipanko’s lecture in the COVE extremely interesting.

Senior Katherine Pezzella, who has visited the Maasai tribe in Kenya, also attended the event.

“Joseph [Tipanko] gave a really great overview and raised a lot of the issues that the Maasai are struggling with,” Pezzella said.

Pezzella also thought that Tipanko provided the right combination of information intended to raise awareness of the problems the Maasai are struggling with and information about Maasai traditions.

Those in attendance felt that Tipanko served his role as a cultural ambassador beautifully. Many from both of his audiences remarked that his friendly, open and enthusiastic demeanor left them with a lot to think about.