BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

Only the Mountains Do Not Move: A Maasai Story of Culture and Conservation by Jan Reynolds

Only the Mountains Do Not MoveSurely this is one of the most dramatic before-and-after reading experiences I’ve ever had: I read Mountains last fall when it first landed on my desk and then again just recently after I landed back from East Africa. What a difference a few thousands of miles and a couple of weeks make …

Globetrotting author/photographer Jan Reynolds takes young readers on a tour of a traditional Maasai village – an enkang – in Kenya, introducing some of the smiling inhabitants, their enkaji (traditional huts) and their prized cattle and goats, explaining their wandering, herding lifestyle which remains virtually unchanged over many hundreds of years.

In spite of their long history, today’s Maasai –predominantly living in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania – face new 21st-century challenges. Global warming makes their lands dry and barren. Tourism is encroaching into Maasai tribal lands, denying their herds necessary grazing space and unbalancing already delicate cycles of survival. In spite of the hardships, “the next generation of Maasai are also learning ways to adapt to a changing environment,” Reynolds assures near book’s end.

Without a doubt, Reynolds’ story is informative, the photographs striking, and her ultimate message inspiring and hopeful that the traditional Maasai way of life will continue. It’s also kiddie-age-appropriate in introducing the very real dangers of animal extinction, environmental threats, and cultural challenges.

And yet … oh, and yet. On the book’s final page, Reynolds offers a link to a helpful Maasai reference website: Here’s the last few sentences from their “Maasai People” page: “The level of poverty among the Maasai people is beyond conceivable height. It is sad to see a society that had a long tradition of pride being a beggar for relief food because of imposed foreign concepts of development. The future of the Maasai is uncertain at this point.”

That, unfortunately, is the Maasai experience we had. Tourism has tragically fueled a beggar society, where the sound of a vehicle brings children running with outstretched hands shouting for money, food, water. A visit to an off-the-beaten-path-but-tourist-approved (!) Maasai boma (or enkang) little resembled Reynolds’ Maasai adventure: from the comparatively minor (children encrusted with flies and other bugs), to the brutal (women bearing the heaviest physical labor), to the shameful (a teenaged third wife of a much older village ‘leader’ whose back bears both a young child and the purple marks of repeated abuse).

To echo the title, only the book did not change … but certainly my reading did. From a guiltily overprivileged ‘after’-vantage point, I wonder if in a future edition, the final single page might become a more robust appendix to help educators and parents share this cultural experience at a deeper level with younger readers. The “Children Helping Children” section that is just two lines now hints at both need and possibility; it could surely provide further opportunities to engage – and enable – children both here and there.

Readers: Children

Published: 2011


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