Maasai Visitor: Regina Nakola Speaks History to Save Tribe

By MAX HART

Tucked in along one edge of the Chilmark Flea Market, between a stone wall and a sea of fabrics, fine art and assorted kitsch, Naisiae Regina Nakola\'s jewelry stand is hard to miss.

And not just because it is the first tent you pass when you drive in, or even because of the tables full of elaborate and colorful necklaces.

It\'s the eye-catching outfit Ms. Nakola herself wears: a bright red full-length dress with ornate shawl. It\'s the accents of red, yellow, blue and green in her matching beaded bracelets, necklace and belt. And, or course, it is the headdress.

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\"I think I really stand out,\" Ms. Nakola concedes quietly with a soft laugh. \"People come and look, and then look again. I think they wonder what I am doing here.\"

Ms. Nakola is indeed an unexpected sight within the woods of Chilmark. Visiting from Kenya for the summer, she is selling traditional handmade beaded jewelry at the market Saturday and Wednesday mornings. And as she has for the past several weeks, Ms. Nakola wears a special outfit from home for the occasion: a traditional ceremonial dress of the Maasai, her tribe in Kenya. Against the background of muted gray walls and brown oak leaves, she is an explosion of color, a vibrant glimpse into another world.

\"People come to talk and ask me many questions,\" she says, smiling. \"And take pictures with me. They have many questions.\"

But Ms. Nakola did not travel more than 7,000 miles from her small village in the Narok District of Kenya just to sell jewelry on Martha\'s Vineyard for two months. She is here in part as an ambassador for the Maasai Oral Histories Project, a new endeavor aimed at preserving her heritage.

\"I am here because of Bob,\" she says with her trademark smile. \"He is the real reason I am here.\"

Bob is Island resident Robert Pearlman, one of the founders of the project. Mr. Pearlman, who lives in Oak Bluffs with his wife, Karol Rose, has traveled to Africa and been involved with the Maasai for more than 30 years, documenting various cultural aspects of the tribe. He created the Maasai Oral Histories Project after learning that much of the tribe\'s traditions and customs are being lost with the departing generations.

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\"The government\'s emphasis is on pressing the Maasai into modern society,\" Mr. Pearlman says. \"Globalization is often a double-edged sword, and can be fatal for tribes like the Maasai. The elders around Maasai lands have finally said ‘It\'s over, we can\'t resist any longer.\'\"

In recent trips to Africa, Mr. Pearlman says he has seen a disturbing trend. After years of shunning an ever modernizing world, the Maasai are now bowing under the increasing pressure to move into the 21st century.

The Maasai, a tribe of about 300,000 who live in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania, are mostly herders and have a long tradition of pastoralism, or nomadic grazing of their herds. But now their land is being threatened by overgrazing and soil erosion. The younger generations are being forced to leave the savannas for a new life.

Another clear threat, he says, can be found in the evaporation of Maa, the Maasai\'s tribal language. The Kenyan government has dropped Maa from the curriculum in Maasai school districts, instead focusing on Swahili, the national language, and English. No longer do the Maasai have textbooks to learn their own language, traditions and history.

\"They have to learn English and Swahili if they want jobs,\" he says. \"That only fuels the extinction of an ancient culture. Unwritten languages such as Maa disappear faster than languages that are disseminated through the written word. The whole story of the tribe\'s beginnings, its rituals, customs - its entire history - is also lost.\"

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That is where Ms. Nakola enters the picture. She met Mr. Pearlman in Kenya six years ago while working for a Catholic health organization in Nairobi. He was researching various types of elephant diseases at the Maasai Mara, the wildlife-rich grasslands of the northern Serengeti. The two exchanged contact information, and when he began the project several years ago he gave her a call.

Now, her primary role with the project is to record the stories of Maasai women and children in interviews that will be archived and preserved for future generations. The recordings will be translated from Maa into Swahili and English.

Another goal of the project is to provide educational tools and facilities to the Maasai. Mr. Pearlman says that Kenya, like much of Africa, is fertile ground for a new generation of leaders, and there is an abundance of children who want to learn.

\"Fifty per cent of Africa is under 15 years old,\" Mr. Pearlman says. \"A lot of aid is going toward refugee camps and is funding rescue efforts for famine and genocide. And while that is extremely important, we are forgetting the other kids, the ones from good homes, good families, who are starving for an education. How can we deny them? These are the kids that are going to be leading the country.\"

Ms. Nakola was one of the lucky ones. Her mother is a school teacher and insisted she get an education. She studied in Narok before going to a Catholic high school and then to college for two more years. She is even considering going back for more schooling.

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For now, though, she is enjoying her stay on the Vineyard, a trip made possible by Mr. Pearlman. Her journey to the Island is her first trip outside of Kenya, and while it\'s a long way from the savannas of the Maasai Mara, she does not seem to suffer too much culture shock. While she still hasn\'t mastered swimming, she enjoys the slow pace of the Island.

\"America is really, really different,\" she says. \"The Maasai are pastoralists, the culture is very different. I live in Nairobi, too, but it isn\'t the same. Here people are very busy all the time.

\"But everyone tells me I haven\'t been to America yet,\" she continues, grinning. \"They say I have to take the boat to see the real America.\"