Last weekend I went to the flea market at the Raleigh State Fairgrounds, where you can find just about anything antique or second-hand you can imagine. While looking for rare finds, I stumbled across an authentic Masai mask, from Kenya.
The lady I bought the mask from had the melodic accent I recognized; I had a Kenyan professor in college named Nyaga Mwaniki. He fascinated me, and I loved to hear his stories about growing up in Kenya. After purchasing the mask, I snatched the chance to ask a real Masai what the mask meant. She happily explained.
The mask was a person’s face, carved out of wood. On the forehead of the face was the head of an elephant, and on top of that, the head of a man. The man on top symbolizes the head of the family and household. Carved inside both eyes of the mask were the profiles of women, one in each eye. The woman in the right eye was the man’s first wife, who has priority over the second wife and makes decisions in the home. The first wife takes care of the husband and the second wife works for the first wife, taking care of her and the home. On the sides of the mask there are black stripes which symbolize life among the zebras; an animal that doesn’t need to live in the jungle, it can live anywhere, according to the Masai lady.
Fascinated, I took the mask home and thought a lot about the cultural arrangement of the Masai and how different it is from ours. What would a mask from America look like? I guess it would depend on where in America it was from.
If it came from the South it might not have a man on top of the mask. There may be a cross there, to represent that Jesus Christ is the man with top priority in the family. Perhaps it is the pastor. On the right should still be the woman with the man on her left, because women largely have a say in how the household is run. On the forehead of the mask, where the Masai have the elephant, in the South there may be a deer head instead, or the head of a bass. On the sides, to denote that our people live among some animals, I anticipate either a cat or dog, as is often the case.
Or perhaps there should be large car wheels on the sides of the mask, to honor the modified cars we live amongst today, with big wheels, bright paint and loud, crisp speakers. Depending on the family, there may be certain sports equipment depicted, ranging from golf clubs to crossbows to basketball hoops and soccer goals.
Maybe the president could find his way to the top of the mask, since there are people who think he decides our fate. Perhaps the White House should be on the mask, too, with the American flag on the sides, to show we live among patriots.
The mask got me thinking about pockets of culture. We don’t have just one American culture. Even the Masai differ from tribe to tribe. We aren’t segregated, but we have groups of culture and division in language and tradition. If we didn’t we would be hard-pressed for social roles and there would be confusion. We have church cultures, neighborhood cultures, school cultures, work cultures and political cultures. We have different foods, music, styles and words. Yet we all live together in this country, interweaving and assigning our own priority, just like on the Masai mask.
— Staff Writer Dawn M. Kurry can be reached at 910-997-3111, ext. 15, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.