The relationship between human beings and the land we occupy (indeed the universe we live in) is often over-looked in our increasingly urban society. Perhaps a look at how important the land - and even the humble grass that grows upon it - is for the Maasai people in Kenya may serve to help us refocus our understanding of the world that we share.
The Maasai Ritual of Tying Grass
The Kenyan ritual of tying grass represents a close union with God and with other people. In the life of the Maasai people, it plays a significant role in various rituals and blessings.
Grass is of prime importance in the life of the Maasai. The extent of their reverence for grass is demonstrated by the fact that in the days of Maasai raids on other tribes, they would spare the life of anyone who held up a tuft of grass: for this was a sign of peace and surrender. Small wonder, then, that the tying of grass plays a significant role in various Maasai rituals and blessings.
Rituals often provide some explanation for the beliefs of a tribe, which would otherwise remain inexplicable. Fundamentally, the act of tying signifies a close union - a togetherness of the individual with themselves, with others, and with Enkai (God). When a man's cows or sheep have strayed, he "ties" them symbolically by tying knots on a string or a blade of grass, while saying appropriate invocations to Enkai; or by calling down a curse on anyone who may try to steal the lost animals. This symbolic tying of the animals is believed to prevent them from wandering farther until the owner finds them.
A man may also "tie" a person whom he considers his enemy, or he may "tie" them out of envy. This is done by using various charms, and by tying knots on a girdle or on a string. In such maledictive rituals, seven knots or seven charms are normally used - because that number is considered unlucky.
Grass, strings, pebbles, and the fruit of the en-tulelei plant are all considered symbolically appropriate for use in rituals; but it is the words accompanying the act of tying that are considered most effective and therefore most important for the overarching symbolism. Ritual effectiveness depends on the importance of the person performing the ritual: the more important the person, the greater the effect of their words. This is why only an older person can bless a younger one.
The ritual of tying grass is most meaningful at Eneeni Inkujit, a place in the Loita Highlands overlooking the great Loita Plains. The Plateau is situated about 2,700 metres above sea level, and is marked by peaks that seem to pierce the clouds. This sense of mystery is further accentuated by the fact that this is the land of the Ilkidongi clan - the diviners.
Growing at the centre of this sacred place and surrounded by a number of different trees and shrubs is the Oreteti, a giant fig-tree which is regarded as sacred by the Maasai, and under which various rituals and sacrifices - particularly those dealing with fertility and nourishment - have always been carried out. The Maasai in Tanzania deliberately plant this sacred tree on their land, thus providing every family with a place to hold rituals in.
Whenever Maasai pass Eneeni Inkujit, they stop to pray to Enkai for peace and for his protection during their journey to or from theirolosho (clan). They pray, then knot a tuft of grass, undo the knot, pray again, and then remake the knot. While they tie the grass, they say a prayer: "O God, tie my heart, do not let it fall". Sometimes the elders pray for the whole olosho: "God, tie me to my olosho and do not let it fall". Finally, another prayer said at Eneeni Inkujit concerns peace: "O God, let us go in peace and return us in peace. O God, give us health, O God, give us peace. O God, give us heads which are wet [because of rain], and give us good care for our children and fertile young mothers. O God, grant to do everything well to us. O God, make sweet for us the grass so that the cattle may love it. O God, make sweet for us the water so that cattle and people may love it".
Pope Francis Mission Intention for April
"That Christians in Africa may give witness to love and faith in Jesus Christ amid political-religious conflicts." Let us Pray.
With over 420 million Christians (38.3 percent of the population), Africa is the fastest growing continent for Christianity. It is also a place where many Christians are threatened with violence. In 2013 in Kenya, where 60 percent of the population is Christian, a terrorist group attacked a shopping mall and killed 67 people. Last April the same group killed 148 mostly Christian students at Garissa University College.
In November Pope Francis visited African countries beset by violence with a message of reconciliation. He told the bishops of Kenya that the Church "must always be true to her mission as an instrument of reconciliation, justice, and peace. May you strengthen your commitment to working with Christian and non-Christian leaders alike, in promoting peace and justice in your country through dialogue, fraternity, and friendship. In this way you will be able to offer a more unified and courageous denunciation of all violence, especially that committed in the name of God."
He went on to say that " … the united and selfless efforts of many Catholics in Kenya are a beautiful witness and example for the country. In so many ways, the Church is called to offer hope to the broader culture, a hope based on her unstinting witness to the newness of life promised by Christ in the Gospel."
We have just celebrated the death and resurrection of Jesus, recalling that the hatred that killed him was infinitely less powerful than his love. Convinced of that love, we pray that our African brothers and sisters may give witness to it amidst their struggles.
Romans 12: 9-21 "Rejoice in hope, endure in affliction, do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good."
Pope Francis General Intention for April
"That small farmers may receive a just reward for their precious labour." Let us Pray.
Seventy-two percent of the world's farms are less than 2.5 acres in size and though prices have gone up in supermarkets and shops, the income of farmers has not. Clearly then, the number of people opting for farming as a way of life is on the wane. When the small farms go out of business, often large agri-businesses acquire the land and create greater potential for ecological damage and health risks.
For Pope Francis small farmers are essential to caring for the earth and safeguarding it for future generations. He said that "… in the work of farmers there is the acceptance of the precious gift of the land which comes to us from God, but there is also its appreciation in the equally precious work of men and women, called to respond to the mandate of tilling and safeguarding the land (Genesis 2: 15)."
Agricultural workers too should receive a just wage. As the Pope said, "The labour of those who cultivate the earth, generously dedicating time and energy to it, appears as a genuine vocation. It deserves to be recognized and appropriately appreciated, also in concrete economic policies."
With the coming of spring, we pray for those on small farms who are busy planting. May they not only have an abundant harvest this year but also "receive a just reward for their precious labour."
2 Timothy 2: 6 "The hardworking farmer ought to have the first share of the crop."
Institute Intention for April
"That the splendour of the Risen Christ may light up our "common home", move us to protect and care for it and always seek the good of all." Lord hear us.
Prayer of the Month
O God, Creator of the earth, you give life to the seeds that are sown so that they may grow and bear fruit. Bless the labours of those who work the land so that there may be an abundant harvest to feed the hungry of the world. May all farmers receive a just wage for their efforts so that they may continue their noble work of caring for the land and feeding us. Amen.