Lisa’s in school!

Lisa — Eager and Ready to Learn.

It was February 2015, on my second sojourn to Maasailand in Kenya when I decided to sponsor annual school fees for a girl student. Along with the two other committee members of the Maasai Cultural Exchange Project (MCEP) our ten day itinerary also included an evening meal at the family home of John Sakuda. John had been a valued facilitator at our scheduled MCEP visits in the years 2011, 2012 and 2013 while he lived in America. He returned to Kenya shortly thereafter.

When we arranged our 2015 fact finding trip we were looking forward to seeing him again. As it happened, we were thrilled to discover that John would be our guide during our sojourn to the village. The day before flying back to America, we drove to John’s home  where I met Lisa–one of his daughters–and decided to sponsor her education. Lisa is now in “Grade Two” and like other Maasai children, thrives on attending school. Each December I donate the required $150.00 annual tuition that also pays for her mandatory school uniform.

Recently I emailed John asking for a picture of Lisa and how she was progressing at school.

John writes that she is almost 3 feet tall and 45 pounds. He adds, “… Lisa’s favorite toy is her cat, a real cat … she loves this cat the most. Whenever she comes from school she has to feed it. Sometimes the cat goes in the neighborhood but Lisa makes sure she brings him back to her home. Lisa is afraid of cows. She says they are wild animals and they have horns that can harm people. Yet Lisa has no fear of goats.”

John continues, “I used to have goats at home. Lisa liked them and she could milk them and give her Mum Susan the milk for the family’s chai (black tea with sugar and milk).” The Maasai diet of chapatti (similar to a flour tortilla), meat, Sukuma (chopped kale or collards in oil)  or variations of Sukuma are favorites in Lisa’s diet. “She helps at home, sweeping the house…washing dishes and taking responsibility for washing her socks and school uniform.” John writes that Lisa never fails to tell him how much “… she loves me…”. And finally he writes …”always Lisa asks me to remind her … to do her homework.” 

Lisa is one child in John’s large family that includes a son in university and two other sons in high school, all benefiting from some amount of MCEP donations. Another daughter is under the sponsorship of a church.

There are children–mostly girl children–in developing countries across the planet where some cultures do not allow girls to attend school. Fortunately, the NGO that  MCEP partners with encourages girls to get an education.

The other morning while listening to BBC/NPR–they reported on Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani girl  who in 2012 at age 15, nearly died after an assassination attempt on her life because of her public advocacy for girls’ education. Now graduated and 20 years old Malala visits and interacts with girls in developing countries who are  denied an education. MCEP is familiar with Malala because one of our Maasai woman was featured in my April 19, 2015 post (Leah Loto: Also known as Mama Leah). For a brief time Leah was employed by ‘Free The Children’ the Canadian organization that Malala is affiliated with.

In 1999 during my first sojourn to the African country of Ghana, a young girl walked up to me and asked for my address. Annabelle Elliamo was in her mid-teens and living with her widowed father. A few weeks into our correspondence she asked me to help her with tuition fees so she could finish her education. Annabelle is now a teacher in her Ghanaian village.

Typical school grounds and building for Maasai students

It’s Lisa’s journey to learn now and I’ve no doubt she will follow in the path of the other Maasai  students who’ve been sponsored by MCEP I’ve no doubt that she too will become a major contributor to her community.

A Maasai school classroom



Cecil: “Simba”

“Did you ever kill a lion?”

That question was always asked by children wherever and whenever our Kenyan Maasai friends spoke at presentations on behalf of the Maasai Cultural Exchange Project’s visits inside numerous Bucks and Montgomery  County schools. I was reminded of their curiosity when the outrage blew up after the killing of Cecil the lion by that big game hunter.

Those children’s innocent pursuit for knowledge led me to contrast the tortuous slaughter of Cecil the Lion  with the Maasai’s decision to disband their ancient tribal custom of killing lions. Years and even generations before big game hunting in Kenya was banned in 1977, this indigenous tribe killed lions to establish their bravery as Warriors. However, after diseases such as rabies or canine distemper and the rise of unlawful poaching, the Maasai began the practice of olamayio, the Maa word that means ‘Group Hunting’. Now the Maasai hunt to kill lions only when the animal suffers from those diseases which could threaten their cattle, goats or sheep.

This piece of Maasai jewelry is called 'issurri'. It is a special ornament worn only by mothers whose sons are going through the Rite of Passage, also known as Warrior-hood (moranship)

This piece of Maasai jewelry is called ‘issurri’. It is a special ornament worn only by mothers whose sons are going through the Rite of Passage, also known as Warrior-hood (moranship)

Olamayio, is also practiced in the Maasai ‘Rite of Paasage’, the cultural ceremony where young males become adults through their transition to Warriors. The ritual no longer ends with the killing of a lion. Instead whichever boy in the group runs the fastest to reach out and grab the lion’s tail receives the honor of Warrior, thereby representing all the other boys in the olamayio who  complete their ‘Rite of Passage’ with him. More importantly the Maasai don’t eat the meat of lions or any wildlife, limiting that aspect of their diet to goat and beef.

The NGO we partner with–Simba Maasai Outreach Organization–is committed to preserve wildlife in the land surrounding their Olosho oibor village. The Lioness–the identifying name for females–is never hunted because her role is to ensure the continuation of the species. The Maasai’s reverence for the lioness is reflected in a true story that occurred several years ago in Olosho oibor: A lioness protected a lost child until found by the villagers. In time I believe this incident that is already a legend throughout Olosho oibor will become a Maasai folktale the elder women will tell over and again to their grandchildren.

The outrage since Cecil’s death remains loud and worldwide.  Researchers at Oxford University in Great Britain had for over ten years observed Cecil through a tracking device on his neck as he roamed the terrain in Zimbabwe’s National Park. Now that’s lost. Positive reactions include more awareness about the threatened loss of wildlife in Africa and around the globe. Some airlines will no longer transport carcasses of killed wildlife in the belly of their planes. Zimbabwe is attempting to extradite dentist Walter Palmer to their country to face charges for his “illegal” kill. The dentist remains in hiding since his hunt/kill of Cecil.

Leah Lato: Also known as “Mama Leah”

Leah on Free the Children siteOn the left is a photo of Leah Lato taken from the facebook page of Me to We, a program of the Canadian organization Free The Children. Along with this image is a post written by a program volunteer praising the work of ‘Mama Leah’, my final interview of Maasai women who are making positive differences in their community. Read more about Me to We below.

On our last evening in Olosho oibor we are invited for dinner at the compound of Leah and husband John ole Sakuda. She is John’s first wife in a polygamous marriage with 2nd wife Susan Sakuda, featured in the April 2, 2015 post ‘Teacher’. I manage to steal Leah from her cooking hut for our interview. We sit on chairs in front of her manyatta with rays from the late afternoon sun splashing our faces while Susan Naserian and Susan Sakuda finish the preparations for a nutritious stew of fresh carrots, peas and potatoes, fresh cabbage lightly turned in a hot skillet to a crunchy delight and chipati–a flat bread much like a flour tortilla. Children are playing in the compound and the voices of Alice, Phyllis and John drift out to us from inside the manyatta.

Leah grew up in a polygamous family born from her father’s third wife. She is one of nine siblings that include three brothers and five sisters. Although she wanted to complete her education through high school, she left school after the 8th grade. A skillful beader she sold her jewelry in the market. After she becomes the first wife of John Sakuda their son Richard is born in 1992 followed by two more sons—Benjamin in 1995, Shadrach in 1998 and lastly Julia, a daughter in 2008.

In 2008 when an American aid program sends people to Kenya, Leah agrees to host one of the group’s staff–Robin–in her home. Robin stays in Kenya for 6 months, embracing the culture and even learning some Swahili. “She became my daughter”, Leah explains to me. Robin returns to Chicago and while there learns that a Canadian organization–Free The Children–is seeking people to facilitate its program in different countries. Free The Children partners with communities to raise funds and awareness for children around the globe. Robin’s familiarity with Kenya and the Swahili language in 2010 returns her to this country she loves where she is again hosted by Leah.

When Robin asks Leah to bead jewelry for consideration in the organization’s funding program, she is offered employment with them. Her experience with the Maasai women from the Olorien co-op gives her easy access to 25 women to bead 500 oringas which are approved for shipment. Oringas are wooden sticks, about an inch in circumference and just a little over a foot long, carried by Maasai elders as a sign of tribal leadership. The 25 women receive payment for their work with Free The Children which continues when other beaded items—belts, bracelets and key chains are created and shipped to the United Kingdom.

The organization offers Leah employment with their program, Me to We. As described on their facebook page it is “… an innovatice social enterprise that provides people with better choices for a better world. We offer socially conscious and environmentally friendly products as well as life-changing experiences.” The program is active in other countries around the globe where children’s lives are at risk. Leah becomes a designated spokesperson for the Maasai culture, traveling to the UK to represent Me to We at an event sponsored by Virgin Atlantic Airlines. During a trip to Canada Leah meets the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousafazi, the Pakistani youth who in 2012 was nearly killed just because she attended school. Malala is helping the organization raise awareness about the plight of children around the globe. Leah’s duties with Me to We include describing the Maasai culture, women’s empowerment, children’s education and the need for clean water. The income from this salaried position enables her to purchase materials to build a brick house on her compound and pay the tuition for her children’s education.

The beading groups Leah oversees now number 200 and expand beyond Olosho oibor to Kajiado and the Maasai Mara. The groups gather at scheduledDSC_1513 times to complete beading orders for different overseas organizations. During our stay in the village there are two separate beading circles of women finishing two different orders: Key chains in the shape of a lion; and delicate chain bracelets with a hint of beads. When these items are sold the net profits are donated to Free The Children, with half “… reinvested to grow the enterprise and its social mission.”

Now back to Robin—Leah’s “daughter”. On a brief return visit to Chicago Robin gets engaged and decides she wants to be married in the Maasai tradition. In June of this year her family and some friends will travel to the Olosho oibor village to witness a traditional Maasai wedding at John and Leah’s compound. Maasai weddings bring many people together. The women of the village will smear Robin’s body with a paste mixture of oil and the red-colored soil of Kenya. Robin will be draped with Maasai jewelry from head to toe. Since Robin and her husband-to-be will make their home in Kenya, they may possibly receive gifts of cattle and goats from guests at the wedding.

From a village in southwest Kenya to venues around the globe: Well done Mama Leah.

Celebrating Women’s History Month with Maasai Women

To realize the role of Maasai women in their community, you must understand that this indigenous tribe is based on a patriarchal culture that limits women to specific roles. The men are the decisive leaders and the property owners, proud mostly of their livestock which in their  culture is just the same as money. More cows mean more wealth to the man. The women own their jewelry and the milk, dung and urine from the cows. Although the women build the manyattas from the cow dung and urine, manyattas are also considered property that is owned by the man. However, compared to cultures in some other parts of the world where women are severely reduced to be less than dirt on the ground, I praise the forward thinking of the Male Leaders in the Olosho oibor village who support their women and thereby are uplifting the entire community.

Women’s History Month is a celebration about advances accomplished by women everywhere; therefore I will write about five Maasai women from the Olosho oibor village who’ve made a difference. Know that behind each of these women there are hundreds of other Maasai men, women and children who are benefitting from the accomplishments brought about through Susan, Sarah, Veronica, Leah and a second Susan. Each of these Maasai women will be featured separately in an upcoming post.

Before you read about these Maasai women, I introduce you to three other ladies from Bucks County, PA–USA– who are instrumental in helping the Maasai:

Marker in front of American BandstanPhyllis Eckelmeyer:

Cofounded MCEP in 2004 when she first met the Maasai on the Hamilton Train Station platform.
She listened to the struggle occurring in their village of  Olosho oibor. Phyllis could not possibly envision the impact that would occur to the 5,000 Maasai in that village when she vowed, I want to raise money for a well. Seven wells are now strategically placed across this “village” that covers land nearly the size of Bucks County.




Jennifer Ellsworth:

The other co-founder whose corporation, Frog Pond is the non-profit tax exempt umbrella for MCEP.

This past December 2014 Jen traveled to Olosho oibor during a business trip. On her return to America she shared her observations that became a guide for our February 2015 Kenya itinerary.



?????????????????Alice Sparks:

A teacher and long time friend to Phyllis. Alice came on board in 2004 and currently administers the education program for MCEP.

She tracks our American sponsors who donate funds so that children can continue their education from primary all the way through high school. And I can’t forget: Four (4!) Maasai young adults are now attending local colleges.



Women’s History Month! Stupendous!