Friendship bracelets: International Festival souvenirs distributed in Africa
For the last couple of years, brightly colored rubber bracelets have been distributed as a fundraiser and promotional tool for Worthington’s International Festival.
Now, those same bracelets are being worn by the residents of Maasai villages in Kenya — symbols of a friendship that transcends the miles and the cultural barriers between Minnesota and Africa.
The bracelets’ journey to Kenya began with a conversation during the 2012 International Festival. Event volunteer Marilee Hartman, of Okabena, was talking about her desire to return to Africa, where she and her husband, Bob, had first visited three years ago when their son, Thomas, was teaching in Kenya. That initial trip included a safari, which took them into Maasai territory. The Maasai are a semi-nomadic people who live in the arid regions.
“On the way, we went through a village where there was a little brown building with a cross,” explained Marilee. “It was Sunday, and I asked, ‘Can we stop here?’”
In the village, the Hartmans conversed with two Maasai — Muterian, who could speak English, and Pastor Moses. In appreciation for them stopping instead of just passing through as most tourists do, Muterian presented the Americans with a talking stick made by his father, one of his most treasured possessions.
Upon their return to the U.S., the Hartmans shared their experience at Worthington’s Solid Rock Assembly, which sent Bibles in the Maasai language and Swahili to the village.
“For three years we communicated with them and prayed together,” said Marilee. “Then we decided to go back and actually stay with them.”
Fellow International Festival organizer Leann Enninga, of Fulda, jumped at the opportunity to visit Africa and stay with the Maasai.
“I sort of invited myself along,” explained Leann. “Marilee and I were visiting at the International Festival, and she was telling me about her son living in Kenya and said she wanted to go back. I said, ‘I want to go, too.’ I had been considering going to Africa for many years because I’ve gotten to know so many of the Africans who live here now. Walking on their ground is the only way to get a better understanding of where they come from and what they carry with them.”
Flying into Nairobi in mid-August, Leann made arrangements to meet up with Marilee and Bob, their son, Thomas, and friend, June Omwega, a native Kenyan who now lives in Windom. The Hartmans had already spent a couple of weeks in Africa with Omwega’s relatives.
“It wasn’t a tour,” stressed Marilee. “We didn’t know how we were going to get from Nairobi to this village. … We just had total trust that God would take care of things.”
“We were trusting that somehow or another, everything would be OK, and ultimately it was,” added Leann.
The southwest Minnesota residents spent a week in the Maasai village, sleeping in beds vacated by their Kenyan hosts.
“Their huts are made out of cow dung and urine,” said Marilee. “They’re in bomas, which is a grouping of huts.”
Each boma is surrounded by thorny acacia bushes to keep predators out at night and stop their goat herds from straying. Water had to be carried from a nearby well.
“I had such admiration for the women, who had to carry these big plastic jerry cans” full of water, described Marilee. “I couldn’t even begin to lift one that was full, and they would have two on their back and often a baby on their front. When they gave us a little bowl of warm water — what a sacrifice it was.”
The children walk 17 kilometers to go to school, but they are determined to get the best education possible in order to improve their circumstances, the women shared.
“One girl told me that if you don’t get a good education, then you will be promised in marriage to someone when you are very young,” Leann related. “Their cultural traditions are changing, but they are slow to change.”
The Minnesotans were afforded the best hospitality possible in the remote village. The Hartmans were given the bedroom of Pastor Moses and his wife, which had a wooden bed covered in mosquito netting. Leann and June shared a room in an L-shaped hut, their beds made out of boards with blankets on top.
“They went out of their way to make sure we had food we could eat, all cooked outdoors over a fire,” described Leann. “The first morning we were there, they had these plastic deck chairs. They don’t really use chairs, but they made sure we had chairs to sit on, and they put them under this tree.”
Monkeys sitting in the tree made that location unpleasant, however, so the visitors were moved to an open area away from the pesky animals.
Transportation — a van with an English-speaking guide — arrived each day to take them to churches and schools around the area. Wherever they went, the Americans were treated as honored guests — and curiosities, with people asking to touch their fair skin or hair.
“Each church we went to, we were greeted by members of the church,” explained Leann. “They would dance, they would sing and praise God, there would be a short program, and we were expected to speak. … There was a feeling I got that they were holding us up as something special that had come to them.”
“In some of these remote places, we were the only white people they had ever seen,” agreed Marilee.
And everywhere they went, the visitors handed out the rubber International Festival bracelets, of which the women bought up the surplus in anticipation of needing gifts for the trip. The trinkets were eagerly grabbed up and donned, especially by the children.
“It was a great International Festival connection, so fun to see,” said Leann. “We were amazed by how much they loved these little rubber bracelets. It’s a testimony to the simple things in life. They were absolutely thrilled to death.”
As Leann and Marilee reflect on the people they encountered and the experience of living with the Maasai in their village, they are both overcome by emotions.
“I think for me, there are two things,” to take away from the experience, said Leann. “First is how much I appreciate what I have and that we are simply a product of where we are born and what we are born into. What makes me so much better that I have clothes I can wash whenever I want, adequate food, an education? Just where I was born. Every person in the world should deserve that. Secondly, just a great desire to figure out what is my place in all that. What is it I want to do that could make a difference someplace else — or here? … Having walked on those soils and being part of people’s lives for a short time — two weeks — gives me a very different understanding of life.”
For Marilee, this journey of faith and friendship started when she made the decision to stop in a small village three years ago.
“God introduced me and my family to brothers and sisters in Christ,” she said. “It is a lifelong friendship, as well as a responsibility. I just see it as they are my neighbors who I love. Whatever the Holy Spirit sees as the next step in this friendship, that’s what I’ll do.
“You learn more about yourself than you learn about their culture,” added Marilee. “I was personally challenged, and I hope I am a better follower of Jesus coming back.”
Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers
can be reached at 376-7327.