November 22, 2005

Masai at dinner

I’m cooking for 10 this Thanksgiving, and I’ve just set the table. There’s a little piece of Kenya there in the dining room. The yellow, green and black dinner plates sit atop a large rectangle of red plaid Masai material I use as a tablecloth.

Masai men wear the cloth tied over one shoulder and passed under the opposite armpit. The garment, often red to signify power, stops just short of the knees. The first time I spread the vivid cloth over our table I wondered what the Masai would think of my decorating an American mealtime with an article of their clothing. But they sell the cloth at souvenir stands, knowing, I’m sure, that tourists don’t buy it to wear to work. They must wonder what we do with it. I like to think my use would please them, that they’d like being a colorful, vibrant addition to our dinnertime gatherings.

I bought the cloth for a few dollars at a stall (above) atop the escarpment of the eastern wall of the Rift Valley, the mammoth geologic fault that runs from Syria to Mozambique. Although the day was foggy, the spectacular vista yielded magical views of Mt. Longonot and of the savannah and Masai lands spread across the valley floor. The vendors at the Rift Valley Lookout held out jewelry and wood carvings, beadwork and soapstone, but I headed straight for the tablecloths.

The stall owner asked what country we were from. “America,” he nodded, with a one-upsmanship smile. “Kenyans are famous in your country. As runners.” I laughed and told him we were from Boston and that we’d watched plenty of Kenyans burn up the pavement and earn the laurel wreath in the Boston Marathon. “Yes, we always beat you,” he grinned. I asked if he was a runner. He wasn’t, but he did count some of the distance greats as friends. “They train there, in Eldoret,” he said, and pointed toward the high altitude running mecca away in the distance.

Tablecloth bought, we continued down the Rift Valley escarpment road, built during World War II by British East Africa’s Italian prisoners of war. We passed a small chapel the Italian soldiers built so they could worship during lulls in construction. A group of baboons sat on the road edge across from the chapel. They chattered and ate and picked bugs from each other’s coats.

Between sips of wine, forkfuls of turkey and snatches of Thanksgiving conversation, I will look at my tablecloth and remember Africa.