I saw this poster at the Zoo and it brought back memories from a long time ago, in a far away place…
It was the Spring of 2002. Eric and I had either packed up or sold our entire house of belongings a few months before. We had 2 small children, Laura,2 and Ben, 11 months. We had boarded a plane and flown to the other side of the world. We were living with a nomadic people group, in northern Kenya, called the Turkana Tribe. We were 2 degrees north of the equator, a full days drive from civilization.
The Turkana are a remote people group. They have wandered the desert for many generations. They herd sheep, goat and camels. They live in grass huts and can pack everything they own into a little box. They speak the tribal tongue, and a few can speak the national language of Kenya. The children rarely go to school, as the cost of $20.00 a year is much too expensive for most of the families. They have never had running water or electricity. Most of them have never showered or taken a bath in their entire life. They wear clothing made from goat skins or hand me downs from the missionaries and flip flops made from old tires. The little children run around naked and barefoot.
Our time with the Turkana people was exhilarating and exhausting. We were in Kenya because Eric had fallen in love with Africa on one of his ARMY missions and had decided at that point that he wanted to come back with his family someday as a medical missionary doctor. This was the trial trip. We were staying with a missionary doctor and his wife for 6 months. They had been missionaries for over 40 years there and Eric thought this would be a good place for us to see “real missionary life”. And see it we did. Life, death, sickness, the harshness of one’s life in the dessert living with nothing. We were sick from drinking contaminated water and our little Ben was the sickest. He lost 25% of his body weight in the first six weeks we were there. We had no phone to call home or mailbox to check for letters. No email or even a car to drive to town. No electricity or running water or indoor plumbing. For me, this time was the closest and furtherest I have felt to God in my entire life. Leaving behind my whole life, everything that I had ever known, my securities and comforts was the hardest thing I have ever done. Living in the middle of no man’s land, with only a husband and 2 missionaries who could even speak my language left me feeling very alone and isolated. Yet I saw Eric energized and exhilarated with the work he was doing. My days were filled with hand washing clothes, two very sick children, trying to sterilize enough water to keep us hydrated from the scorching sun and then trying to find ways to minister to the women and children.
Eric’s days were filled with working at the little medical clinic run by the missionary doctor we were staying with. His daily routines included vaccinating, working in the lab, and basically filling in where ever he was needed. Setting bones, suturing up cuts, and anything else that walked, crawled or was drug into the clinic. He even did his first tooth extractions there in the desert, not having a clue that someday he would be a dentist. He also spent alot of time on what we called “Water Works”. This involved putting in new wells for the people to have fresh water to drink. It was during a well installation project that it happened…
It was a hot day. Laura was running around in her underwear with the other Turkana children. Eric had been working on this particular well for over a week. Digging, laying down pipes, putting in the sand point and pump, trying to manage all the men that had shown up to help with the help of the missionary we were staying with. My days were a little more restful. I would have chai in the morning with whomever showed up from the village. (Free chai always brought people to the house) And then I would head down to where the well construction was going on and sit in the shade with the Turkana women and watch the small children at play.
It was during one of these mornings, under the shade of the Acacia trees while I was trying my best to communicate and learn a language that I really couldn’t speak, that I was given the “Turkana Blessing”. The conversation was on children. How many children did I have? The answer to be given is to count every pregnancy one has ever had and every child that has ever been born. In Kenya, the infant mortality rate is very high. So high, that often a child is not even given a name until they turn one or two, so the parent will not attach themselves to the baby in case of a death. So most of the women when asked, will give you a very high number of children that they have. But, they may only have 2-3 children that are alive and living with them. Although that fact is not given.
(This conversation was mostly done in hand gestures and pointing)
Turkana woman- “How many children?” (pointing at her baby and then at me)
me- “two, how many do you have?” (two fingers held up, then me pointing at her)
Turkana woman- ” Twelve, Are you nursing a baby” (Ten fingers held up, then a flash of two more, then pointing to her chest and then to Ben)
me- “no” (shaking my head)
Turkana woman ” Are you pregnant?” (Rubbing her belly and then touching a baby and then pointing to my belly)
At this point, the group of woman that I am sitting with begin to talk amongst them selves. Their voices get louder and more excited. One of them yells over to her husband who is working near Eric, that maybe it is all Eric’s fault that I am not pregnant. Maybe there are issues there.
The men began to talk amongst themselves, and the interpreter refuses to interpret for Eric. And of course the missionary has gone back to the house for something. So here we are, in the midst of a very awkward moment, with no clue really as to what is going on or for that matter what is going to happen next.
At this point I need to explain that a Turkana women is either pregnant or nursing from the time she is around fifteen until she dies, which is around fifty. They may have 15-20 pregnancies, but only end up with 4-5 children. They all nurse each other’s babies. And even after a women has finished her years of child bearing, she will continue to nurse her grandchildren and any other child who might need it. Why so many babies? In hopes that you will produce girls, that will bring a bride price when married, gaining wealth in animals to the family.
So here I was, white American girl, with only 2 children, not pregnant or nursing, no miscarriages, not able to speak their language to even try and began to explain I was plenty fertile, just not currently pregnant because I had chose not to be. A concept inconceivable to them.
What happened next was so shocking to me, that to this day I still wonder if it really happened or if it was just some crazy figment of my imagination from the heat of that day. But Eric remembers, and the missionaries caught wind of the story, so I guess it really happened.
The woman who had asked me the questions had been nursing her little baby. She unlatched her breast from the child’s mouth and began spraying breast milk all over me. I was stunned. In America this is absolutley and completely unacceptable. Evening nursing in a public place with a blanket covering you and baby can get you frowns and stares and rolling of eyes. But here I was, being sprayed in milk that was from another woman, and everyone seemed so happy and excited for me. I on the other hand was very embarrassed and completely clueless as to how I should react to this event. She eventually stopped. And what was probly only 5 seconds, felt like 5 minutes.
It wasn’t until later that day that I was able to figure out what exactly had happened and why. The women were very concerned that I might not be able to get pregnant again. So in the culture of this tribe, if one woman who has had many children (or pregnancies) sprays her milk on a woman who is not having children, then this is considered a “Blessing” and hopes that she would soon conceive a child. So there I was, blessed with the “Turkana Fertility Blessing”.
So back to the sign at the Zoo. When I read it, even though it was the Massi tribe (which is the enemy tribe of the Turkana) I immediately thought back to that morning and the woman with the milk. I thought to myself, “Man, if she could just see me now, 6 children and pregnant with number seven, she would be so delighted!” Even though there is not a doubt in my mind that her “Blessing” was completely superficial, and has no way had any affect on the number of children that we have, I do remember it ever now and then and Eric and I will sometimes even joke about my “Turkana Milk Blessing” and have a good laugh over it.
**I can not get any pictures to link to my blog tonight. Not sure why. I will try again tomorrow. I found a CD with pictures from our time in Turkana and am hoping to post a few of those!