Balloon Diplomacy

Making friends, one balloon at a time.

The little community on the edge of Kenya’s Masai Mara may have had a name; if it did, we never learned what it was.  Our driver Jeremiah had taken us there one afternoon, and the people of that nameless village clearly knew we were coming.  We were greeted by the chief, a group of warriors, and some women who had lined up to sing a sort of call-and-response song.  The village may have had 125 inhabitants, most of whom seemed to be children.

Before we had left the U.S. for Africa, a friend had tipped us off that if you encounter children in one of these rural places, it’s nice to have little gifts for them.  We had decided against school supplies, partly because we didn’t know if schools exist in that remote corner of the country.  Another consideration was that we couldn’t imagine any kid in any part of the world thinking, “Oh boy, they brought me notebook paper!”  So we had gone to a party store and bought a bunch of little toys:  finger puppets, spinning tops, and balloons.

It hadn’t occurred to us that they had probably never experienced balloons before.  In retrospect we slap our foreheads and think, well of course they hadn’t.  They didn’t have electricity or running water — why would balloons be a priority for them? 

Anyway, we seem to have been the outsiders who brought these novelty items to that village in western Kenya for the first time.  And then our challenge was to help the Maasai tribe enjoy this historic moment.  The chief spoke little English, and Jeremiah spoke Swahili — but basically we were on our own in trying to communicate how to blow up a balloon.

Sally inflated one and released it into the air; as it noisily exhausted itself, the children gasped in amazement.  We passed out several balloons to children — and warriors — and my dauntless wife managed to convey, without words, how to blow up these colorful little objects.  Either she’s a good teacher or they were eager students — probably both.  The villagers took to balloons quickly.

Meanwhile, the chief was more or less ignoring all the excitement and was giving us a speech, in his halting English, about Maasai tribal customs.  We were doing our best to follow the gist of it, but the kids were distracting us.  Within minutes, our brightest students could not only blow up their balloons, they had figured out how to make rude noises with them by pinching the neck as the air escapes.

The chief”s speech about his cattle and his multiple wives was punctuated by balloon-generated… um, you know, fart sounds.  Sally and I should know better than to make eye contact at a time like that, because the look we exchanged made it even more difficult to avoid laughing out loud.

Come to think of it, though, maybe the chief was trying not to laugh at these crazy balloon-bearing American tourists who were standing ankle-deep in the byproducts of his cattle.  Let’s just say it was a rich cultural exchange, and after all, isn’t that why we travel?

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2 responses to “Balloon Diplomacy

  1. Amazing. Felt like I was there. Wanted to hear more.

  2. Great story! I remember passing balloons around a boat in Guatemala and even the adults wanted balloons – a fun way to spread the love!

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