Who's Afraid of the Big Bad ... Hyena?

Eti Dayan, a tour guide who splits her life between Africa and Israel, is preserving folktales from Kenya's Maasai tribe and from far-flung Pacific communities in print and online.

Eti Dayan

One thing that bothers Israeli-born Eti Dayan is not knowing the ending of a children’s story told by the Maasai tribe in Kenya, which reminds her of the story of Little Red Riding Hood. In the Maasai tale, instead of a big bad European wolf, there is a bad hyena that devours goats (“Why do you have a black snout?" he is asked. "Because I ate from the pot and got dirty,” he answers).

But in the village in Kenya where Dayan has been living on and off for the past 15 years, no one remembers how the hyena was caught or punished. Dayan travels about in the villages and marketplaces, talking with old-timers, and is sure she will at some point figure out the end of the story, which is to be included in her next book.

Eti Dayan, 55, is a tour guide in Africa who grew up in Holon, and divides her life between Kenya and Israel (“I am a patriotic Israeli”). She lives part-time in a region where the Maasai live, and says her main objective today is to preserve the tribe's folktales for the first time, in writing, in the Maasai language. Maasai is part of a group of dialects called Maa.

It all started when Dayan wanted to tell one of her “adopted” grandchildren, Nanetya, children’s stories in the little girl's own language, but couldn’t find any. School curricula are taught in the official languages, Swahili and English, but other local languages, such as Maasai, spoken by only 1.3 million people in the world, are pushed aside.

"I discovered there were really no books in Maasai," says Dayan, so she decided to write one herself in that language, called “Nanetya Goes to School.” She printed it on a computer and illustrated it herself.

The book surprised the villagers. “I gave it to a fourth-grader to read,” Dayan recalls. “Children and adults came over and everyone listened. When I saw what one copy of a book could do, I decided to make more.”

After printing a number of copies of "Nanetya Goes to School," Dayan tried to figure out how to sell them, since there are no book stores in the vicinity.

“We started going to market days, traveling from village to village, and selling them. It was important not to give the book away as a gift. The printing cost me $5 a copy and we were selling them for $2.50. That sounds like nothing, but most people here don’t earn any wages; they somehow subsist. For anyone who is lucky and has a job, the price of the book is almost the average daily wage: $3," she explains.

"I would show up and simply start reading the book aloud, and old people who recognized the story would join in. Mostly the old women,” she adds.

Dayan has since established the Nanetya Foundation , aimed at furthering her storytelling project, which she has expanded to include tales in other languages to which she has been exposed during travels in Ethiopia and Tanzania. While guiding, for example, she also took advantage of a trip she made to Papua New Guinea to collect stories there in four of the 800 local languages. She managed to make contacts with natives, such as a linguist who speaks Iatmul – a language spoken only by some 8,400 people in Papua – and he and others are helping her find stories and write them down for posting on her foundation's website.

At the same time, Dayan has embarked on a historical project: compilation of a book about Maasai holidays and festivals in the Maa language, an album-like collection of mythological and ceremonial stories.

Dayan: “The Maasai have enlisted in this undertaking, since they understand that their culture is disappearing and their children are already not coming to certain ceremonies. The ceremonies I knew when I came here the first time have changed quite a lot. For example, the concept of female circumcision has been outlawed, but they still do it in secret. As a result of government publicity they have changed the ritual ... Among some, it has stopped completely. Without getting into the issue of whether it is good or bad, it is a tradition that has disappeared.”

So far 64 stories in tribal languages from Africa and the Pacific have been uploaded to the website of the Nanetya Foundation, and Dayan says she would be very happy if Israelis who travel around the world act would as her representatives and write down stories that they hear.

Despite the difficulty of selling the books, Dayan insists on not giving them away.

“It is a principle," she asserts. "Otherwise people will throw the book into the fire. I object to the view taken by various aid organizations – to give and give. The West has turned the locals into parasites who wait for help. They will not build a classroom since they know the Western world gives and gives, and in the end it really will have to give ... The approach of the West creates a difficult problem."

Gil Eliyahu
Gil Eliyahu