WELCOME TO NGONG'NAROK VILLAGE
You may have read about the Maasai in National Geographic - how they’ve maintained their culture in a changing world… how the men once faced down lions, and the women adorn themselves with unique, colorful beadwork...
About 1.2 million Maasai live in parts of Kenya and Tanzania, known as Maasailand. They're one of few remaining tribes that still live traditionaly, as herders.
In 2012, while on safari, we visited a Maasai village near Amboseli National Park, Kenya.
Driving over the salt pan at the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro, we pulled up to what felt like the middle of nowhere. We were met by local chief Kelembu who led us through a gap in the circular thorn fence that ringed his village.
Inside was a large space rimmed with round, hand-made huts, constructed by women from ashes, dung, sticks and mud. hard as fiberglas or concrete to the touch.
A second, inner fence surrounded the corral, where livestock spent the night.
To the Maasai, livestock are wealth, income, and - only in dire or celebratory times - food.
In the inner circle stood a line of people, men on one side, women on the other. The men had a jumping contest while the women chanted and sang. They soon pulled us into the line to join them.
The people were welcoming. The tour was fascinating. But we couldn't ignore the harsh living conditions.
Over 500 people depended on a single, barely functional pump, which produced but a trickle of clean water!
There was no sanitation nor electricity. Only Chief Kelembu and kindergarten teacher, Moses Saruni, had phones, which they had to walk miles to charge.
Little girls and women spent hours each day gathering firewood ...
Women cooked on smoky fires inside their huts, causing damage to eyes and lungs of the very young or old.
We bought some beadwork, but left determined to do more.
Back home, we sent school supplies f or the small on-site kindergarten.They never arrived. But we kept in touch with Moses and Kelembu by tech.
Over the next two years, no rain fell, in what would become a 6-year drought. The hand-pump dried up, and people were forced to drink from the nearby swamp, where dangerous wildlife also gathered.
Food was scarce. Moses sent photos of bony livestock, too thin to sell.
To help, we sent small amounts of cash via Western Union every few months.
Our new Maasai friends never asked us for money. But they did send thanks and pictures of the food they bought with the money we sent.
In 2014 we first learned about the patriarchal nature of Maasai culture, in which girls and women have had few rights.
A neighbor introduced us to Maasai chief Joseph Ole Tipanko,and his wife Cecelia who were in the US to speak againt FGM at the U.N.
Chief Joseph told us that by tradition, upon menses, mostnMaasai girls under went full genital removal (FGM), in preparation for a forced marriage to older men as a child bride.
Sadly, FGM though largely illegal, occurs in many places, even "advanced" nations.
More than 200 million girls and women alive today have been cut in 30 countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, where FGM is concentrated, according to the World Health Organization.
In remote rural places like Ngong'Narok, girls are often cut with unsterilized implements.
A Maasai girl’s father receives few cows for his daughter, who then spends her life as a third or fourth wife - in other words, a household serf. Her main job is to produce babies, starting as a young teen.
These girls lose their personal freedom, some die in childbirth, some end up with fistulae, and others are left with infections and serious, g health problems.
Moses confirmed the harsh truth - that female cutting and child marriage were ongoing in Ngong’Narok.
We asked Chief Tipanko to visit the village and speak with the chief about ending female cutting and child marriage
Kelembu, a father of young girls, quickly declared his willingness to end FGM. He authorized a community wide celebration to commemorate the end of the practice in the village - forever.
But he explained that ending child marriage would be harder. Many fathers believed the only way to pay for their sons' education was to sell their daughters.
We offered to school fees, and he found 5 father willing to send their daughters to school.
The girls went off to private boarding schools selected by the Chief and Moses. The rest of us, here and in Kenya, waited nervously for the girls to return home on school break...
The transformation was striking! Within two days, every girl in the village wanted to go to school!
We had happily sent five,but 21 was above our capacity. So, we appealed to the Pequannock Valley Rotary Club,which helped us financially, and encouraged us to form a 501c3 charity.
With that, the Maasai Girls Fund was born, and we found ourselves on a journey we had never imagined!
(The girls' shaved heads symbolize new beginnings. The ties denote their special status as students.)
As of 2022 we have 48 girls in school, including 8 in high school, and even 2 teacher college graduates - who married men they chose!
THAT'S NOT ALL!
Check out the OUR VILLAGE PROJECTS page to see what we've been doing for the girls' home villages...
On-site Program Director
Chief Angirri Kelembu, (seen here with his first wife, Nataa)
Avery and Paul Mantell, co-founders (seen here with one of the first two college grads.)
OUR NEWEST PARTNER!
Stephanie Willeke joined the team and sponsored 9 girl our initiative expanded to a second village - Natamuse!
Working with teacher Luka Sante and Chief Nasareu Lebakuli, they also provided a water catchment system, emergency food village a car, eand other improvements .