(Photos by Doreen Stratton)

Five Maasai men walked on to the platform at the Hamilton, New Jersey Train Station. Instinctively, Phyllis Eckelmeyer walked over to them, because her daughter was leaving the next week to spend a year teaching in Kenya. She reached out her hand and said,  “Hello, do you speak English?” The Maasai were traveling to New York City to participate in the 2004 United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. They were an indigenous tribe of hundreds from across the globe traveling to the UN for this Forum.

The Forum as described in the UN’s 2005 archives’ focus was to “… deal with indigenous issues related to economic and social development, culture, the environment, education, health and human rights.”

Sharing the train to New York with the Maasai, Eckelmeyer heard how their lives were negatively impacted due to diseased-laden water. They said their two-minute speech before the UN would speak to the need for potable disease-free  water. After her return to Bucks County Eckelmeyer vowed– “I want to raise $30,000 to drill a well that’ll bring water to this Maasai village.”

She formed a non-profit: Maasai Cultural Exchange Project (MCEP). MCEP then came under the umbrella of Frog Pond Productions, an educational (501)(c)(3) organization in Point Pleasant Bucks County. A partnership was formed with an NGO in Kenya–Simba Maasai Outreach Organization (SIMOO), so that American donations could enhance SIMOO’s programs. Shortly thereafter, local media coverage brought a $30,000 anonymous donation to MCEP’s mailbox.

(MCEP Archive photo:  The drilling of “Christy’s Well”)

To document the drilling of this first well, in December 2005 Frog Pond and MCEP traveled to Kenya with a film crew. The well was named “Christy’s Well” after the anonymous donor. A Philadelphia film company–Shooters Post and Transfer–volunteered the crew and editing talents that ultimately produced a half-hour documentary titled QUENCH. The initial screening of QUENCH would take place in October 2014 at Delaware Valley University in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.

Since 2005 and every year afterwards, at least two Maasai have traveled to Bucks County. They spoke in thousands of schools, houses of worship and professional organizations about their culture and heritage. Their message resulted in annual sponsorships to over 100 Maasai children in primary or secondary schools and colleges. More  importantly  donations came in for water projects. There are now seven wells sited across this village that encompasses an area the size of Bucks County.

“… three more wells.”

Maasai herders and women pay a small fee of a few shillings for the water they draw from the wells. Designated Maasai men are responsible for maintaining the wells, collecting fees, and ensuring that diesel fuel is available to keep the pumps operational. Pipelines snake away from the wells to strategically placed cisterns so that women walk less than two miles to fetch potable disease-free water. MCEP’s primary goal is for ten wells to be sited across their village. We are determined to secure funding for the final three wells.

Since 2005 women have also come into their own. Last March and April 2015, I posted  six blogs about Maasai women and their journey toward lives as independent business owners. Two are pictured below with Phyllis, taken when in 2015 I traveled to Kenya with Phyllis and Education Coordinator Alice Sparks. We toured well sites, schools and spent enjoyable hours with our Maasai friends, delighting over the positive changes since our visits a few years ago.

Sarah Senewa and Grace Suyianta Salau with Phyllis Eckelmeyer

These changes are also bringing progress (some good, some not so good) to the Maasai village. A safe house is sheltering and educating over 100 young girls who had fled from early arranged marriages or female genital mutilation (FGM is banned in Kenya). The Kenyan government is constructing a vocational school where village boys and girls can enroll to gain income earning skills. Giant transmission towers are planted across Maasailand as they march from Nairobi toward Mombasa on the shores of the Indian Ocean. Oil has been discovered offshore from Mombasa and this infrastructure will bring a cultural crises to the Maasai community.

Water is Important.

The wells have brought land speculators to Olosho oibor who wave small amounts of cash in front of landowners in attempts to persuade them to sell their land. SIMOO is pushing back against the speculators by cautioning their tribal members the consequences of selling their land: How it would lead to the extinction of their ancient culture and heritage. Although we noticed  contemporary homes under construction we also spotted hand-painted signs declaring properties Not For Sale.

Land speculators invading Maasailand. One of several  “no sale” signs we saw during our tour.

“A drought is decimating the Maasai community … “

Climate change has created a drought that is decimating the Maasai community as well as many other parts of Africa. I wrote about it’s effect on the Maasai in my February 17, 2017 post, “Climate Change is real”. Shortages of food are so prevalent that the Massai have forsaken their valued herds in favor to feed their most vulnerable: the elderly and the young. MCEP recently wired funds so SIMOO could set up a food security program.

The Maasai word for “Luck” is Namunyak (Na-men-YAK). “Luck” can sometimes move beyond one positive gesture. The Maasai decreed that Eckelmeyer be given the name “Namunyak” to honor how a handshake between strangers transformed their village. I get goosebumps looking back at the many gifts that have come to the Maasai since her 2004 greeting on that Hamilton New Jersey train platform. The gift I cherish the most is the empathy and curious energy always expressed by youngsters in classrooms and assemblies after listening to our Maasai friends.

On Friday April 7, Phyllis Eckelmeyer will receive the Central Bucks Chamber of Commerce Lifetime Achievement Award for her Humanitarian efforts.

Congratulations Namunyak!

Phyllis, John Sakuda and Alice Sparks taken at our 2015 Fact Finding Tour. John was our rock star on visits to schools in 2011 and 2012 while living in America. He is now back in Kenya caring for his family and cattle.



The American Fabric

Citizen Esther Lemaiyan and Common Pleas Judge of Lancaster County Leslie Garby

Citizen Esther Lemaiyan with Lancaster County Common Pleas Judge Leslie Garby

On Friday June 17, 2016 I attended my first Naturalization ceremony inside the Lancaster County Court House. Along with my colleagues from the Maasai Cultural Exchange Project (MCEP) we witnessed the naturalization of Esther Lemaiyan, a Maasai from Kenya, East Africa. Esther first traveled to America in 2003 while working for Simba Maasai Outreach Organization (SIMOO), the NGO in Kenya that partners with MCEP.

Joining us was Esther’s sister Mildred, who had arrived in Lancaster last year. Mildred has begun her naturalization path toward American citizenship and is currently attending Harrisburg Area Community College (HACC) as she studies for her RN degree. We were seven people of nearly a hundred others who traveled to the Court House to witness the naturalization ceremony of family members or friends. Although we were on time, it was nearly an hour before we were able to enter the court room and be seated. We learned afterwards that this wait occurred because the documents of each candidate had to be verified before the ceremony could begin.

It is an impressive room we are in: a high ceiling with portraits of former judges displayed on all the walls. There was a center aisle separating the spectators from the 50 candidates for citizenship–people of varying shades of skin and ages from 26 previous countries. Lancaster County Common Pleas Court Judge Leslie Gorbey was seated at her bench; below her at the attorney tables were several staff from the Prothonotary Office. Standing at a dais facing us was RoseMarie S. Sallemi, Naturalization Officer from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Office of Homeland Security. She welcomed everyone and described how the ceremony would proceed.

Asking the candidates to repeat after her, Judge Gorbey read The Naturalization Oath of Allegiance to United States of America. That was followed by everyone standing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Taking our seats, we were privileged to hear the Judge’s remarks to our newest citizens. I can only describe her words as a lullaby singing praises of “…the promise of equality, opportunity, freedom of speech, and liberty”.  Sharing that she is the child of immigrants, she spoke of the Love of country and patriotism …”the feeling of pride … and the renewed appreciation of what this country means.”

The Judge  encouraged the new citizens to register and vote because “… this presidential election gives you a front row seat for some interesting times.”  She reminded them that “The United States is complex –it may be bigoted or shallow but opens its arms to allow you to express your ideas.”  The Judge added, “Don’t reject your heritage because it is part of you and enriches the rest of us to no end. You have traveled here from many lands for the Freedom to worship and to speak without the threat of imprisonment.”

Judge Gorbey’s message had sewn a powerful thread into the fabric of these 50 new Americans. Stepping down from the bench she, along with a representative from the Prothonotary Office presented the Naturalization Certificates to each of the new citizens.


Mildred Timando takes a selfie with her sister, Esther Lemaiyan

In 2004 Esther attended the UN’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues as one of the representatives from SIMOO. With hope for a better future and being able to support her family back home, she thought of pursuing her education. She was hosted by Maasai friends in New Jersey and in 2005 enrolled at Mercer County Community College where she received an Associate’s Degree in International Studies.

In 2010 Esther settled in Lancaster, PA where she continued her studies, eventually receiving her LPN from Chester County Practical Nursing Program. She’s currently working towards her RN at Harrisburg Area Community College. She chose nursing because at age 11, her grandfather was suffering from a long illness. After 6 months he was diagnosed with throat cancer. “Over the months as he was battling the disease he had wonderful caregivers.”

Now with Mildred’s arrival, Esther said it was “the best thing that has happened to me. After ten years of being alone in America I have a family member with me.”

Congratulations, Esther.


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.