This is how an anthropologist with only an outsider’s view of British society might interpret an ordinary greeting: ‘In Britain, people often greet each other with, “How are the kids?” This is wonderfully revealing about the values of British society – their first concern is the next generation. And the hoped-for reply is equally revealing: “All the kids are well.” Not my kids. Not some of the kids. All the kids are well. For the British, society cannot be well unless all the children are well.’
It’s a valid interpretation but it is, of course, quite wrong. “How are the kids?” is one of many questions that Britons ask when they meet someone - it’s not a profound philosophical statement. It’s much the same as “How’s the wife/old man?” or “How’s the new car?”
Maasai warriors, according to Secretary of State, Michael Gove
, greet each other with “Kasserian Ingera” which means “How are the children?” The answer is supposed to be “All the children are well.” This, according to the accepted Western interpretation, reveals the concern Maasai warriors have for their children. But according to the Guardian’s Nairobi correspondent
, “How are the children?” is only one part of a long greeting process and includes other questions such as “How are the cows?”
But does “Kasserian Ingera” really mean “How are the children?” The maa dictionary
doesn’t contain these words. Men are greeted with “súpa” not “éserian” which is given to women. “Lo murran” is used to greet a warrior. Words for children are “sompóye” or “l-arámi”. “E-ŋirô” is an uncircumcised boy and “enkéráí”, the nearest to “Ingera”, is a girl child. However, “enkéráí” or “inkéra” means child/children when used in sentences. One example gave advice about how to trick a child into coming near an adult who wanted to administer punishment: “Now that I want to whip the child, and you know very well that children will flee, deceive him/her to come.”
Does the greeting reflect Maasai society? An equally valid interpretation would be that children are valued in the same way as cattle – as a sign of wealth. Or maybe the number of children reflects a man’s virility.
So how are children regarded? Girls, like women, are subordinate to men. They marry shortly after puberty to a man chosen for them by their fathers. At puberty both boys and girls are circumcised. The 2011 Children’s Act criminalized female genital mutilation but the law is difficult to enforce. Not all children go to school. According to Laura Hauff’s thesis on the Maasai
, brighter boys tended to be kept at home to learn traditional customs and look after cattle. School was regarded as being for the “dumb” child.
Mr Gove may think the greeting, which first appeared in a 1991 sermon
by Rev Patrick O’Neill and widely posted on the internet, reveals valuable qualities to be emulated. But his advisers should have perhaps told him that in Kenya the children are not necessarily well, especially if they’re Maasai girls
or mischievous children lured to a beating.