MEETING THE MAASAI
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 they stand tall and straight… how the men once faced down lions.... how the women adorn themselves with unique, colorful beadwork.
Approximately 1.2 million Maasai live in parts of Kenya and Tanzania, an area known as Maasailand. They are one of the few remaining tribes still living traditionally, as herders. Many live within and near some of the most famous wildlife parks in in the world.
In 2012, while on safari, we were taken to 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, and were met by local chief Benson Kelembu. He led us through a gap in the thick, circular thorn fence that ringed the village.
Inside the outer circle was a large space rimmed with hand-made huts, constructed by women from ashes, dung, sticks and mud, but hard and light as fiberglas 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 their harsh living conditions.
Over 500 people depended on a single, barely functional pump, which produced only a trickle of clean water.
There was no sanitation or electricity. Chief Kelembu and kindergaren teacher, Moses Saruni, were the only people with cell phones . And they had to walk several miles to charge them.
Girls and women spent hours each day gathering firewood...
...then cooking on smoky fires inside their huts, causing damage to the eyes and lungs of both young and old.
We bought some Maasai beadwork that day, but left determined to do more.
Back home, we started by sending school supplies for the small on-site kindergarten. Alas, they never arrived. But we kept in touch with Moses and Benson.
Over the next two years, no rain fell, in what would become a six-year mega-drought. The hand-pump well dried up, and people were forced to drink from the nearby swamp, where dangerous wildlife also gathered to drink.
There was no food. Moses sent photos of bony livestock, too thin to sell.
To help, we started sending small amounts of cash via Western Union every few months.
Our new Maasai friends never asked us for money. They simply reported on the harsh conditions in the village, and sent pictures of the food they bought with the money we sent.
Only in 2014 did we learn about the patriarchal nature of Maasai culture, in which girls and women have few rights.
A neighbor introduced us to Maasai chief Joseph Ole Tipanko, from Ngong Hills, and his wife Cecelia. They were in New York to speak at the U.N.
Chief Joseph told us that upon menses, Maasai girls had to undergo the traditional practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), in preparation for forced marriage to older men as child brides.
Sadly, female cutting, 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.
Not only do these girls lose their personal freedom, some die in childbirth, some end up with fistulae, so that they cannot control their bodily functions, and others are left with infections and other serious, lasting health problems that often cause them to be shunned by their neighbors.
Moses confirmed the harsh truth - that female cutting and child marriage were ongoing in Ngong’Narok. So we asked Chief Joseph to visit the village, and advocate with Benson and the elders for an end to female cutting and child marriage there.
Benson, a father of young daughters, soon 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 shared with us that ending child marriage would be harder. Some fathers were reluctant to marry off their girls to older men at puberty, but they felt they had no choice. As they saw it, the only way to acquire enough cows to pay for their sons' education was to sell their daughters.
Benson identified 5 fathers willing to break from tradition by sending their girls to school instead instead of polygamous marriage - IF we'd agree to pay the girls' school fees.
The five girls went off to attend private boarding schools selected by the Chief and Moses.
The rest of us nervously awaited the reaction of the village when the girls returned school break...
The transformation was so striking that within two days, we were told that every girl in the village wanted to go to school!
We had willingly sent five, at a cost of $400 each per year (including tuition, room and board, uniforms, and books!).
But 21 was above our capacity. So, we appealed to the Pequannock Valley Rotary Club, where Avery is a member. They helped financially, and encouraged us to form a 501c3 charity that could accept tax-deductible donations.
With that, the Maasai Girls Fund was born, and we started on a journey we could never have imagined!
(The girls' shaved heads symbolize new beginnings. Their uniforms denote the special status they have as students.)
We now have 48 girls in school, including 8 in high school, and 2 college graduates!
BUT THAT'S NOT ALL!
Check out the OUR PROJECTS page to see what we've been doing for the girls' home villages...
On-site Program Director
Chief Benson 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 PARTNERS!
When Stephanie and Ryan Forest joined the team and sponsored 9 girls themselves, our initiative expanded to a second village - Natamuse!
Working with village teacher Luka Sante and Chief Nasareu Lebakuli, they also provided a water catchment system, a village car, and other improvements.