Along the Great Rift Valley in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania, the Maasai people live a simple, conservative life. It is one without modern conveniences: no running water, electricity, roads or vehicles.
A semi-nomadic people, the Maasai raise cattle, goats and sheep, which they follow seasonally as the livestock move to graze and find water. Women make the houses, loaf-shaped structures composed of mud, sticks, grass, cow dung and cow’s urine. Women supply water, collect firewood, milk cattle and cook for the family, while boys herd livestock. As the Maasai live in one of the few areas still populated by wild animals, the men — raised to be warriors — are equipped only with handmade weapons, like spears and clubs, to protect their people.
“The Maasai are an extraordinary people with an even more extraordinary culture,” Shari Young, co-director and co-founder of the local Amboseli Children’s Fund nonprofit, addressed the Tri-Lakes Women’s Club at its November luncheon and regular meeting. Young is also the TLWC’s newsletter committee chair. “They do have some ways that are controversial, but their story is a very human one.”
Rooted in tradition, the Maasai maintain today many of the same customs their ancestors have practiced for hundreds of years — but they face challenges. They have had their land taken from them by the government, and most do not receive an education.
“Over half a million Maasai are in this region, and most live in extreme poverty. They’re illiterate and they have very little chance to change their circumstances. … The Maasai people have come to realize education is the only thing that will help future generations of Maasai protect their interests and have a voice in government,” Young said.
Amboseli Children’s Fund was launched to help empower future generations through education. All administrative costs are covered by its co-founders, and donors and sponsors cover the children’s schooling costs.
Young co-founded the nonprofit with Leonard Mpaayo, a Maasai warrior she hired while living in California, then not knowing or understanding what it meant to be Maasai, she said.
Then while on safari in 2011, Young got to meet members of a Maasai village, and it became clear to her.
“When I saw that village, I (thought), ‘This is where Leonard is from. This is the type of environment he grew up in. How did he change his circumstances, to be able to come to the U.S. and work for me?’ Education is what happened with Leonard.”
The youngest of 11 children, Mpaayo is the only child in his family who is educated and literate. When he was 14, the Kenyan government ruled that primary education was compulsory for at least one child in each family; as the youngest, Mpaayo’s father sent him to school.
He struggled, he said, attending poor government primary schools where oftentimes the teachers — government employees — would not attend or would attend only for a short time, as they were required to travel, often long distances, to teach at the public schools. Not knowing English or Swahili, the two official languages of Kenya, also posed a challenge for Mpaayo.
He overcame those challenges, eventually attending Olchekut Supat Apostolic Secondary School, a boarding school run by missionaries in Narok County, Kenya, and later interning at the Serena Safari Lodge in Amboseli National Park. There, he furthered his education and earned a wildlife management certificate, becoming one of 10 senior staff.
In 2007, he met his wife, who was on safari in Amboseli, and in 2010 moved to California.
“Many Maasai are not so fortunate,” Mpaayo said, and that was why he and Young founded the ACF. “We wanted to give young Maasai children the chance to have a kind of education that can make them succeed in the modern world. They can never hope to achieve this without our help and the help of … people who know that when (we) raise up those less fortunate than ourselves, we raise up all.”
Also in attendance at the luncheon was Nelly Lasoi, the ACF’s top student, who traveled to the U.S. for the first time for a one-month visit.
Lasoi, 18, explained some of the difficulties she faced as a young Maasai woman in an environment where many girls are married at the age of 12 — a changing custom, Young said, as girls now have more opportunities for education.
“My parents tried to send me to school, but there was always a financial struggle, and the public school I was in was very poor,” Lasoi said. “But for as long as I could remember, I wanted to learn.”
Through ACF, Lasoi attends a private boarding school, and her tuition, books, uniform and room and board are paid for through a sponsor. She will finish high school next year and plans to attend university, she said.
“Maasai women are not in the workforce. They stay at home, become housewives and have children. But I have different plans. I’ll be the first female Maasai doctor in our village.”
She finished, “I am so thankful that Amboseli Children’s Fund came into my life. If not for this organization, I would be married with … two or three children. Instead, I have a new destiny. All of the boys and girls in this program have a new destiny. I have a better understanding of what is possible for a woman and for my people. I want to shape my future so I can be of help to myself and (other Maasai).”