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Maasai Movie Night

By Kate Thompson, Safina Center Kalpana Chawla Launchpad Fellow

Before I tell you how the first Maasai Movie Night went, let me tell you about the second, and the third and every one after that.

Maasai child at movie night. Photo: Kate Thompson

We established a routine. Around 6:30 (roughly sundown on the equator) our red and rickety tok-tok would roll in through our gate. It’s a boxy cart that looks like the front half of a motorcycle and back half of a pick-up truck. We generally use it for hauling cut grass and bags of corn. Twice a week, Gideon (our manager), Joseph (our translator), Michael (our driver) and I would load it up with a lightweight projector, a large white sheet, a portable battery like the type you’d see in your engine block, and a tangle of cables. We’d then push the tok-tok until its battered engine rumbled to life, clumsily vault into the truck bed and be on our way.

For half an hour we’d bump along the dusty savannah into Maasai land. We move slowly, constrained by the old engine and mounds of sand. The view of the stars, the horizon fringed with acacia trees and the humps of mountain tops, never failed to lull me into a state of silent wonder. Some nights the moon would be so low and bright that the grasslands were awash with silver, and I could watch tiny hedgehogs tottering along the dry lakebed like suddenly-animated stones. Occasionally we would slow to ford rivers of dust, the silt deep enough to engulf the tok-tok’s tires. In these moments we felt uneasy. Out in these dry places are hyenas and in the rainy season there are elephants and lions that make daily commutes between the forested hills and Lake Manyara National Park. People are another constant threat, both to the animals and to us. All though the village elders promised us adequate protection to conduct our outreach, Gideon is protective. One night, while waiting to hitch a ride back to the center, I asked him if I could walk by myself to the main road to improve my chances of flagging down a passing motorcycle.

He grimaced. “It depends how many pieces you want to arrive home in. One or fifty.” I decided to stay waiting where I was.

Despite dark humor, we always arrived safely to the boma. A boma is small constellation of squat, cattle-dung huts circled around a thornbush paddock of sleeping sheep and cows. One boma generally houses a Maasai man, his wives, and their children. The kids were always the first to great us, bounding up to the tok-tok and murmuring in KiMaa. It’s a beautiful language that remains incomprehensible to me. It’s rich in rolling o’s, r’s and l’s so that words tumble forward fast and round like water over stones. As a crowd assembled we’d pin the white sheet into the side of a hut, hook up the projector and select a movie. We cycled through both Planet Earth I and II, as well as a handful of National Geographic documentaries on lions. We learn quickly that lions and the rest of the cast of the big five are the crowd favorites.

Maasai children at movie night. Photo: Kate Thompson

Photo: Kate Thompson

Photo: Kate Thompson

This fall, we launched the Maasai Movie Program without the expectation of lofty changes, victories for conservation awareness or environmental sensitization. Our goals were far simpler: to connect people with wildlife they generally only see in moments of conflict (elephants in the garden or leopards in the cattle pen), to test how movie nights would be received as a vehicle for sharing information, and to spark conversations within the community. And the movies were a hit. Families requested more boma visits than we could keep up with. Although the program had a rough start – the first visit canceled halfway through due to an exploding power converted which stole the show and nearly fried my laptop – it became a huge success and I was sad to have to put it on hiatus once I wrapped up my time in the field.

We hope to launch it again soon, if we can find the funding to pay the 5 dollars per facilitator and 10 dollars per gas per movie. Money is tight and our program visions extend beyond the constraints of our budget. My latest idea to is work in short Swahili segments on hygiene and health issues before each movie, like commercials before the real show. This way we can blend in public health information addressing issues village members have highlighted. It will take illustration, translation and time but pole pole, slowly slowly, we’ll get there.

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