WOW Review: Reading Across Cultures Volume 3, Issue 4

Our Secret, Siri Aang
Written by Christina Kessler
Philomel Books, 2004, 210 pp.
ISBN: 978-0399239854

A silent agreement had been made in the late-afternoon African bush between the Maasai girl and the rhino. . . (p.8)

This silent agreement serves as the backdrop to Christina Kessler’s novel. Set in a Maasai village in Africa, Kessler develops well-rounded, believable characters who are faced with the conflict of staying true to their traditional way of life or converting to western ways. The characters are members of the proud Maasai tribe. Tradition rules their life, but as the western culture moves into their lands they are faced with difficult choices.

Namelok, the main character, is a young Maasai girl who cherishes her time alone gathering firewood. One day she stumbles upon a black rhino giving birth. She watches the birth encouraging the mother rhino through the process. She immediately feels a connection to the mother and baby rhino. This connection seems to be shared by the rhinos as well. Namelok names the baby rhino Siri Aang, which means “Our Secret.” She knows that the rhinos must be her secret. Her family would scold her for being so deep in the bush. They would also view the black rhino as dangerous and not allow Namelok to wander into the bush again. Namelok vows to the mother rhino and Siri Aang to check on them and to keep them safe from all harm.

In this vow Kessler reveals the Maasai belief that they are the protectors of all animals. The Maasai believe they are conservators of the ecosystem and must conserve all that nature has given to them (Hayes, Chong, Casper, & McDonald-Schmidt, 2003). Namelok encounters many obstacles in keeping this vow to the rhinos. Her first obstacle is that the time has come for her emuratare. Emuratare is an important Maasai ceremony when a young girl is circumcised, thus becoming a young woman (Maasai Association, 2011). This ceremony will prevent Namelok from being able to wander off alone; this means her visits to the rhinos will be ending. Namelok struggles to put off this ceremony as long as possible so that she can still have the freedom to wander and visit Siri Aang and the mother.

Namelok’s next challenge comes when she wants to go to school. A westernized school exists close to her village and the local teacher encourages her to come. When Namelok makes this proposal to her father, he is greatly angered. Attending school is against the Maasai tradition. This proposal provokes her father to move up the date of her emuratare, and so Namelok’s time with the rhinos is once again shortened .

Namelok’s tribe is confronted with many conflicts brought upon by western culture. Tourists stop by the village and offer money to warriors in exchange for photographs, seen as a disgrace by the Maasai elders even though the warriors desire the money. The Maasai elders view it as a selling of one’s pride and self-worth. As this conflict unfolds, readers can examine their lives and cultures to discover what they have “sold” to gain a bit of money. Poachers enter the land and threaten to upset the ecological balance. Namelok is challenged to keep her vow to the rhinos when she finds that the mother rhino has fallen victim to the poachers. Determined to avenge the black rhino’s death and to protect Siri Aang, Namelok stands tall and proud as a Maasai and enters the African bush in search of the “Beast” who destroyed the mother rhino. Her journey into the African bush also takes her on a journey of self-discovery. Namelok’s story ends with Namelok fulfilling her vow to Siri Aang and embracing herself as a Maasai.

Namelok’s journey to self-discovery mirrors the same journey that so many have taken throughout life. Readers are able to connect to Namelok and her journey as Kessler describes Namelok’s desire to be true to her people and traditions, but at the same time explore a new world. Kessler describes the Maasai world in such a way that the reader is drawn into and feels part of the Maasai world and struggles. The Maasai become the reader’s people and readers leave this book with a heightened sense of respect for Maasai people and culture.

The respect for the Maasai and their culture felt by the reader can be credited to the authenticity of the text in portraying the lives and cultures of the Maasai tribe. Living in Africa for 19 years provides Kessler with experiences and knowledge of the African bush that enable her to write with authenticity and accuracy. Though Kessler is not a member of the Maasai tribe, her writing does not betray her as a cultural outsider. Her writing is a window into the Maasai culture and their world. In order to frame the culture correctly, Kessler enlisted the assistance of a young man who is a member of the Maasai tribe (Kessler, 2010).

Due to her vast experiences in Africa and knowledge of Africa, Kessler has positioned other texts in Africa. She continues the theme of the journey to self-discovery in The Best Bee Keeper of Lalibala (2006) and the theme of the plight of the rhino in Jubela (2004). To continue learning of the Maasai, their valuing of animals, and their unique approach to taking action, 14 Cows for America (Carmen Agra Deedy, 2009) is a valuable read.

References:

Association, M. The Maasai Association. Retrieved March 30, 2011, from http://www.maasai-association.org/

Hayes, J., Chong, J., Casper, B., & McDonald-Schmidt, R. (2003). MERC. Retrieved

April 6, 2011, 2011, from http://www.maasaierc.org/newsandlinks1.htm

Kessler, C. (2010). Cristina Kessler, Retrieved June 20, 2011, from http://www.cristinakessler.com/homepage.htm

Kelli Miller, Oklahoma State University, Tulsa, OK

12 thoughts on “WOW Review: Reading Across Cultures Volume 3, Issue 4

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  8. This is a very unique book written about Maasai culture primarily from the perspective of a pre-adolescent female growing up in that world. A very engaging book in terms of background, cultural perspectives, and the surprising universalities of growing up, regardless of where in the world you are. The female protagonist, Namelok, will undoubtedly give new insight into what it means to be young in Africa to Western readers. This book is particularly enjoyable in terms of how it gives snapshots of what we have already seen about the Maasai culture, Kenya, wild African animals, etc. Yet at the same time, the viewpoint and perspectives of the people inside that culture take it a step further in terms of their modern struggles, survival, traditions, and what that means for the modern day Maasai. What I found particularly interesting are the explanations of how an African tribe views animals and their natural world, along with the ways in which they connect with it. Will that world be lost forever this century? It is a theme that shines through as a common thread running across the pages of this very original book written by a Westerner, Cristina Kessler, under the guidance of Kakuta Ole Maimai Hamisi, a Maasai who helped in the editing of the manuscript. This book stands out as another fine example of African literature, which is a literature that we know little of in North America, and that we undoubtedly need to get much closer to.

  9. For your in formation “wunschkind child without a country” by Liesel Appel as paired in your review of “Traitor” was written by Mrs. Appel where she adapted her memoir “The Neighbor’s Son”for young adult readers. The site is wwwtheneighborsson.com.

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