Deeper understanding

This past spring a remarkable reunion happened at Luther that involved not only the renewal of friendships but also the exchange of cultural understanding. Leboy Oltimbau and Musa Kamaika are members of the Maasai tribe in Tanzania. For more than 10 years, they have worked as cultural guides and translators with Luther anthropology professor Lori (Van Gerpen) Stanley ’80 and the students in her Tanzania January Term course.

Leboy Oltimbau and Musa Kamaika performed traditional Maasai singing and dancing as well as contemporary music in Marty's.
Leboy Oltimbau and Musa Kamaika performed traditional Maasai singing and dancing as well as contemporary music in Marty's.

But for a few weeks in late April, early May, the tables were turned as Oltimbau and Kamaika came to the United States for the first time. The Luther community became guides to their own culture.

While here, the East African men spoke on campus and in Decorah about how Maasai life is changing. Economic demands, formal education, and other outside factors are altering their once nomadic culture, which developed around livestock herding. Life for them is a blend of ancient and modern; Oltimbau and Kamaika fill traditional roles as Maasai warriors yet carry cell phones and Skype with Stanley’s classes in Decorah.

Their first journey out of Tanzania packed in one new experience after another. Asked what surprised them most, Kamaika responded with something that makes many Americans wonder as well. “It was our first time on a plane,” he said. “We thought the plane was small, and it surprised us when we saw how many people were in it.”

The relative lack of pedestrians in Decorah shocked them too. “Everyone has a car here, right?” Kamaika asked. “We were downtown and no one was walking. Usually when we are in Arusha [Tanzania]—it’s a big city—there are a thousand people on this side of the road and on the other side. . . . There are not enough cars. And here, everyone has one and no one is walking down the street.”

Another first for them was a train ride. Jon Jensen ’89, philosophy professor, traveled with them to Denver so they could see other U.S. landscapes—including a snow-covered Rocky Mountain National Park and Denver’s inner city, where they spent a night at the Urban Servant Corps.

The U.S. visit also included the Twin Cities and Chicago, and countless small gatherings with Luther faculty, staff, and students. At the end of April, nearly 70 alumni—about half of all past participants of the Tanzania J-term—returned to campus for a reunion with Oltimbau and Kamaika.

Leboy Oltimbau takes a selfie in Denver with Amanda Peck '14, Musa Kamaika, and Rachel Hodapp '13.
Leboy Oltimbau takes a selfie in Denver with Amanda Peck '14, Musa Kamaika, and Rachel Hodapp '13.

The turnout, Jensen says, was “a testament to the impact of that J-term class and of Lori Stanley, but especially the impact that these Maasai cultural guides have had on these students. I talked to alumni who hadn’t been back on the Luther campus for close to 10 years, but this was the thing that made them return. They had that shared bond.”

Rachel Hodapp ’13 shared one of those strong bonds. She became friends with Oltimbau and Kamaika during the J-term class and while conducting research on Maasai traditional medicinal plants in Tanzania the summer of 2011. The guides served as research coordinators and linguistic and cultural translators. Her project would have been impossible without their collaboration, she says.

A Denver resident, Hodapp was able to visit with them both in Colorado and at Luther. “There are simply not words to describe how it felt to see them again here in the U.S.” She worried seeing them in this new context might be a culture shock for all of them, but says “it was as though no time had passed.”

Nearly half of all the particpants in the Tanzania J-term class over the past 15 years returned to Luther to meet again with their Maasai friends. Here, Tyler Crowe '15 greets them.
Nearly half of all the particpants in the Tanzania J-term class over the past 15 years returned to Luther to meet again with their Maasai friends. Here, Tyler Crowe '15 greets them.

Bringing Oltimbau and Kamaika to this country was a way to keep the relationship between Luther and Maasai guides a bit more balanced, Stanley says. She had long wanted to bring the men to Luther, and Jensen was able to make it happen with funding through the Center for Sustainable Communities, which he directs. He had come to know the guides through a J-term and while leading an ACM study-abroad program in fall 2016, during which time he worked through the intricacies of obtaining passports and visas for their spring visit.

Stanley hopes the U.S. visit will help Oltimbau and Kamaika in practical ways. Gaining a deeper understanding of the culture and daily lives of the students, faculty, researchers, and tourists with whom they work will enable them to be even more effective as cultural guides and translators. They’re already patient in helping Luther students adjust to Tanzania, she says, but now they have a better grasp of the challenges students face on arrival, such as the differences in food and the exhaustion caused by such a long flight. “Now I understand why you get there and it seems like all you want to do is go to sleep,” Kamaika told Stanley.

Jensen would like to see such exchanges happen more often, he says, as ways to both honor and mine “the value that comes from these deep connections to the other side of the world and to cultures that are so different.”