"Wailin-kili" said the young mother as we stood to leave the shade of her thatched veranda to move out into the blazing African sun. "Wailin-kili" said the two men at another hut, as they carved on the haunches of a freshly slaughtered cow.
"What does it mean?" we asked Alex Natie, a Stanford-trained Kunama anthropologist who accompanied us as our guide and interpreter.
"Wailin-kili means goodbye, but much more," Alex said. "Go carefully. Be watchful of your step. We are connected now. We care what happens to you."
We stepped carefully as we left the Kunama compound and climbed the hill to our Land Cruisers. Six Americans, including feminist Gloria Steinem, had just connected with a fragile but precious culture, one of a small number of matrilineal societies remaining on the globe. Both the Kunamas and the Americans had been affected by this brief contact, hopefully with positive outcomes. We came away with a word, a blessing and a new understanding of how cultures can survive through sharing and partnership between genders.
For two weeks this May, I was fortunate to lead another group to my former Peace Corps assignment in Eritrea, East Africa. This time Gloria Steinem, who had joined our board out of concern for the education of girls in Africa's developing countries, helped set the itinerary. She spoke at girls' conferences sponsored by our foundation, and wanted to visit the Kunamas, a small minority in Eritrea's mostly patriarchical society.
Due to their isolation and tenacious adherence to old ways, the Kunamas have retained kinship, inheritance and child-rearing patterns that preceded the introduction of Christianity and Islam. Like Australian aboriginals or the native people of North America, Kunama people live in close harmony with nature and each other, maintaining a balance that works only by excluding the dominant culture of the outside world.
As we planned the tour last December, Gloria commented: "I look on the last 10,000 years as an experiment that failed." Behind the quip lay a serious concern that our own civilization was built on values that have suppressed or minimized the contributions of half the human race-the female half.
There is ample archeological evidence that women once played a much more central role in European cultures. The Minoan civilization of Crete, the goddesses Astarte and Nammu in the Fertile Crescent, even the Gnostic beliefs of early Christianity showed much greater appreciation of motherhood, wisdom and transgender cooperation than the traditions which have been passed down to us through the patriarchs. Perhaps, Gloria Steinem wondered, we can see remnants of the old ways among the Kunamas-if they would let us.
A matrilinear culture is not one which allows women to dominate; rather, it is one which allows women the same freedom as men. If a man can inherit property, so can a woman. If a man can choose a spouse, initiate divorce, or be elected to tribal leadership, so can a woman. No gender has a "natural" right to rule over another; roles are determined by clan relations, guild specializations and changing circumstances.
Although our visit to the Kunama village was brief (in order to minimize the impact of outsiders on the rhythms of the village) we learned a great deal from Alex Natie and Gudren Frank, a remarkable German artist who has mastered the Kunama language and was lovingly preserving Kunama culture on film and in her writings.
The most immediate impression conveyed by Kunamas (both men and women) is a sense of openness and generosity. "Come in," the mother in the compound beckoned us, as she showed us her grinding stone, granary and exquisite basket-work. Unselfconsciously, she suckled her baby as we exchanged stories on the low thatch porch. The men, busy butchering their cow, offered us strips of raw beef to eat or take home. We declined the offer, I hope graciously.
Despite their poverty, Kunamas have always been known for sharing. A decade ago during a famine, when aid agencies rationed food carefully to each ethnic group, the Kunamas gave their food away within a few days after each distribution. They are considered the most resourceful food gatherers in a parched region. Where other groups barely subsist with primitive agricultural methods, Kunamas use ancient knowledge of plants and wildlife to maintain healthy diets. During Eritrea's long war with Ethiopia, guerrillas would covet the assignment of a Kunama man or woman to their squad, because it would mean they would never starve.
Many facets of Kunama culture are common to other ethnic groups, and it is not unusual to find these qualities of generosity and resourcefulness among Americans (especially among poor minority groups). Our purpose in studying the Kunamas was not to set up negative comparisons with U.S. society, but rather to celebrate the feminine in all cultures, including our own. As we saw Kunama women take the lead in conversations, display their beautiful baskets or drum for the community's energetic dances, we caught a glimpse of what true gender equality could mean. Thanks to the struggle for women's rights over the past 150 years, we now can glimpse such equality in America. It remains to be seen, however, whether we can completely discard the hierarchies, violence and aggression which still dominate our idealized images and everyday lives.
"Wailin-kili" is a useful new word for those of us who shared, for a few hours, the harmony of the old Kunama ways. We should indeed go carefully, mindful of those who care for us. We need each other, Kunamas and Americans, men and women. We need each other because we are all precious creations, more similar than we are different. We need each other because we are one.
John Rude is a free-lance consultant working with community colleges. He is secretary of Thirst for Learning Foundation, which sends books to Africa and also leads tours to Eritrea.