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.



A Dot Com in Ngong Town

IMG_1815Sarah Senewa

Ngong town in the Ngong Hills is a bustling town about an hour south west of Nairobi. Whatever you need you can buy it in Nygong town. This community is a place where crossing the main street with cars and motorcycles and trucks and buses and vans traveling every which way–you better be fast. There are numerous services here, beginning with Barclay Bank.

There are also eateries, grocery stores, hardware stores, meat markets, schools, roadside vendors, garment makers (think Grace—in my previous post), cell phone charging shops and internet cafes. For this post, you’ll learn all about one of these internet cafes: Osotura Café, founded and owned by Sarah Senewa.

Sarah, one of 5 siblings is fortunate enough to graduate from high school and continue her education at Maasai Technical Institute, studying Secretarial and Computer Studies. She is currently married to John Parsitau. John is the coordinator for SIMOO’s education Program. He is involved in enrollments and sponsorship of Maasai students supported by MCEP donors. While doing an internship for her secretarial course, she meets John. It’s becoming more common for Maasai young women to meet their future husbands outside of arranged marriages. When John and Sarah decide to marry, a meeting is arranged where John’s father and uncles visit Sarah’s family. Their homes are hundreds of miles from each other.

In 2010 when Sarah is 29 years old, she travels to Bucks County for her first and only visit. John will stay at home to look after their three sons—Brian Lenaiyia, and twins Collins Teeka and Frankline Parsitau. The experience and confidence she gains from speaking at MCEP presentations opens a window that will lead her to exploit the knowledge she learned from her computer training.

In 2012 she decides to open a computer café in Ngong town. Finding space in Ngong is a challenge because of its competitive proximity to Nairobi. Using sales from her bead work commissions, she’s able to pay the rent deposit, buy furniture and materials to partition the cyber café. John also gives her financial support by selling some of his livestock so she’s able to purchase computers, a photo copy machine, a printer and the application for an internet connection.

Sarah enrolls in an advance computer course at Jomo Kenyatta University in May 2013. MCEP is able to find a sponsor to help Sarah with her tuition fee. “I am always grateful for the generous support MCEP offered me and many Maasai children.”

In June 2015, she will graduate with a Diploma in Information Technology. When Sarah is not at school she works in the café where she employs one full time and one part time employee. Her future goals are to expand the inventory with stationery and offer computer equipment, repairs and maintenance.



How Dreams Come True

DSC_1356Grace Suyianta Salau

Grace is also a beader with the Olorien co-op. Although married at the Olosho oibor village, her original home of birth is Enkorika village. In this village the women combine beads with fabric, usually on shirts or dresses or small accessory items such as purses in a unique way not found in other Maasai sections. Grace’s leap into self-employment begins when she forms Nalepo Enterprises in 2009 after realizing that milk for cereal is not available in the community. She finds a small space in Ngong Hills where she opens a Milk Shop. After buying the milk wholesale, she processes it for sale in her shop, adding sugar and flour to the shelves. As her business grows, she hires three employees: two women and a man.  To make it more convenient for her customers she enlists a money transfer service on her phone, as an M-pesa Agent. This is a technology that uses the Safaricom (service provider) platform to transfer money and make payments.

It is 2012 and a customer contacts Grace to ask her to design and create a bridal gown along with beaded shirts for the men who will be in the wedding party.

Inventory is needed to complete this bridal request. In order to buy the fabric and other materials she sells the milk company and the money transfer service. She hires a tailor and for the next six months she and two women make the fashions from her home. Images from the wedding appear on Kenya Television Network (KTN). The minister, Bishop Julius Tinkoi, who presided over the wedding begins to receive calls from people asking, “Who made the dresses for that wedding party?” With this sudden interest for her work Grace puts together a promotional book of photographs. A computer donated to her by Robert Stafford of New Canaan Congregational Church, Connecticut (USA) helps in promoting her products. She uploads them on her face book page and OLX online market. Soon she is receiving numerous orders.

In 2013 Grace travels to Bucks County for the second time to represent SIMOO at presentations scheduled by MCEP. Her husband of six years, DanielDSC_1397 Salau Rogei is the Program Assistant for SIMOO. He will stay at home in Kenya with their three children: Two girls–Linah Silantoi and Faith  Rayon–and a boy, Isaac Sabaya. Grace brings several of her original beaded dresses and accessories which are added to the table of Maasai original jewelry. Sales from this day are returned to help with Maasai children’s school fees. We give Thumbs Up to Grace after leafing through her album of photos. One of her dresses for sale on the table calls my name. I buy it and know that because of this transaction a child will attend school.

A short time after Grace returns to Kenya she leases a small rental space in Ngong Hills. This is where she’ll  manage her sewing business instead of out of her home. In 2014 when a second space one floor up becomes available she takes it and opens a shop to sell her clothes and beaded jewelry.

And that brings us to our visit to Grace’s shop after our excursion at the Ngong Hills Market.

We arrive to find her putting the final touches on a Maasai-themed dress to be worn that evening in a pageant that will crown Miss Tourism Kenya 2015 in Nairobi. We all agree–This is a Huge opportunity for Grace!  Grace’s dress and model were selected to represent Miss Kajiado County at the Nairobi event. Grace brought Linah who is only 6 years old, to the county audition. Linah (in this photo she is third from the left) was thrilled by all the pageant energy and soaks it all in like a sponge in water. Grace tells us how Linah begins copying the way contestants walk across the stage. The pageant organizer Naisiae Karia, so taken with Linah’s outgoing personality, gives her time on stage to greet the audience at the opening of the Miss Kajiado County finals.

The day after the Miss Tourism Kenya 2015 pageant we learn that Grace’s Maasai model came in Second. “That’s ok”, says Grace. “This was her first time in competition.” Grace’s voice tells me: Next Year—She Will Be Back

I ask Grace, What are your goals for the future?

“I want a larger shop. And I plan to set up sales for my clothes through my cell phone and online platform. I hope to target the up-market as well as weddings and fashion shows.”

The clothes she designs carry a well-made finished look. She also celebrates the Maasai colors and fabrics, keeping the traditional while mixing a contemporary look. Grace is currently designing shirts for Moses ole Sakuda. He is a Maasai who serves in the Kenya government’s Parliament for Kajiado West. Moses ole Sakuda will wear Grace’s shirt at an upcoming major political rally that will take place in her home village. Part of her clientele includes staff in the State House who work for MP Sakuda.

Grace is also enrolled in classes for Fashion and Design at a vocational training school in Ngong Hills. One day soon I believe Couture by Grace will be walking down the Red Carpet!



A Maasai/Christian Church Service

DSC_1381Sunday, February 22, 2015:  A bright and warm Sunday morning greets us. The cold white-snow winter back in America is nowhere to be felt here. I take the short walk across the compound with my plastic tub to be filled with warm water for the morning ritual of a “bird bath”. This is a small inconvenience compared to turning a spigot for water to flow from faucets or shower nozzles. It’s impossible to imagine not bathing at all because the water from a 5-gallon container is not clean and is used sparingly for cooking and drinking. Now bore holes from seven wells carry water through pipelines to cisterns placed throughout the village.

“Before the wells it was a struggle to find water every day. Now I can bathe and wash my clothes with clean water”, so we hear a few days later from a Maasai woman.

This will be the only opportunity for me to wear my Maasai dress with its colorful beads and metal discs that make a gentle tinkling sound when I walk. Phyllis and Alice also are dressed in their finest Maasai garb.

The denominational church prevalent throughout Kenya is the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA). In 2009 I attended a PCEA church service. This visit I’ll be worshipping at a different PCEA church, one located on the grounds of the Olosho Oibor Primary School. It was in 2009 that I photographed over half a dozen children at this primary school, children sponsored by donors from the Delaware Valley. The school now has a cooking hut which feeds lunches to the children. This is a godsend because for many children, having a meal at lunch means they’re able to attend school. An infirmary is also on these grounds. Next to it is a maternity building where up to six women can stay prior to the delivery of their babies.

Yet another addition on these grounds is a protected area with dormitories for rescued young girls who ran away from early marriages or FGM (Female DSC_1383Genital Mutilation). Even though the Kenyan government recently passed a law forbidding FGM, it still continues in some communities. At right are some of the girls from the safe house dancing and singing at the service in their tangerine and black “Weekend Uniforms”. There are currently 60 girls living in this sanctuary. I will in a later post write a separate blog about the history of the safe house.

Church begins at 10 a.m., a service that mixes traditional Maasai music and dance with Christian Bible readings, music and prayers. As guests, we are invited to introduce ourselves to the congregation and describe our relationship to MCEP.  Toward the end of the four-hour service everyone in the congregation rises from their seats for a delightful Massai dance and chant down the center aisle. I start my movie camera and hope I’ve captured a moment to be treasured.

After the church service the documentary QUENCH is shown to everyone. Many of the young people under ten years of age watching the documentary this morning have no conception of walking 7 to 10 miles every day to fetch water. Daniel Salau Rogei, Program Assistant for SIMOO speaks after the film and encourages the young people to continue the legacy of their Maasai culture.

The Compound in Olosho Oibor Village

Saurday, February 21, 2015:  We have an hour’s ride from Nairobi before arriving at midnight to the compound of Susan Naserian and Francis ole Sakuda. There is no light pollution and standing out in the dark night, it’s overwhelming to see hundreds of stars, so bright and close enough to touch. The Big Dipper sits low in the southwest sky, ten times bigger than it appears in Doylestown.

Francis and Susan will host us during our stay. Both of them have traveled to Bucks County at different times over the past nine years to participate in our cultural exchange programs at schools, organizations and houses of worship. Francis is the Director of SIMOO, the Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) that manages the donations MCEP sends to this Maasai community for education, water and women’s projects. In previous years at separate times each of us—Phyllis, Alice and I—traveled to Kenya and stayed in this compound. There is no plumbing but electricity from solar energy is available to light our rooms in the evening hours. That being noted, we’re thrilled to be back in Maasai land!

The compound is surrounded by a barrier assembled from the thorny branches of the acacia tree. This keeps out wildlife. Francis has two separate fenced areas inside the compound for his cattle and goats. Almost every night during our stay the dogs wake us from barking at wildlife on the other side of the barrier—usually it is hyenas trying to get to the cattle or goats.

DSC_1548There are six separate structures inside the compound: A guest house where we stay; the herder’s house; a small corrugated metal “cooking room”; the manyatta where Susan and Francis sleep along with a separate room to relax and take our meals (pictured at left); a second manyatta with two separated rooms, one where Susan’s helper Veronica stays. The other room is where Susan and Francis’ two sons (Amos and Ezekiel) stay when they are home from school. The sixth building, constructed on a concrete floor is the pit toilet with a separate drain for “bird baths.”

On Saturday morning we travel into Ngong Hills to email family of our safe arrival and take a stroll through the market, so busy it puts Rice’s Market to DSC_1363shame: Vendors’ blankets piled with goods for sale, blankets so close together they overlap on all sides. We gingerly step over and around blankets that are piled with goods including shoes, clothes, pots, pans, utensils, fresh vegetables, brooms, dried beans, music videos, miniature propane cooking stoves and more shoes and more clothes. Taking photos is not allowed. I hug my camera to my waist as I try to snap one. Doesn’t work—The picture above captures just the heads of vendors and buyers. Then some observant man yells at me—“No pictures! No pictures!” So much for being sneaky.

Tomorrow is Sunday and we go to church. And I’ll share a weather report.

We’re here

Saturday was our first full day in Kenya. We’ve just finished lunch; stopping in an internet cafe that is owned by Sarah Senewa, one of our Maasai friends. This is one example of how the women are creating their own destiny.

I’m sorry for not adding a picture; just wanted to let all of you know that we arrived safely after an 18 hour flight in the air.

Already I’m making notes on future posts which won’t be on The Bucks Underground Railroad until I return next week.

By the way, if you’re ever in Ngong Hills, and need to email home, go to the Osotua Cafe.

Since then, we attended a Maasai church service on Sunday. We showed QUENCH to the congregation. Many young people there were too young to even know or understand the challenge of walking up to seven miles for water.

Today we visited Member of Parliament Moses ole Sakuda, a Maasai who is doing wonderful things for the Maasai community. We gifted him with two Obama T-shirts and absolutely loves them.

The weather is like summer. We don’t miss the cold at all; everybody asks us how cold it is back home.

Have taken over a hundred digi pics and am on my third roll of film. I filmed the church service (it was 4 hrs long). Exceptional.

Probably won’t have an opportunity to post again. No wi-fi at the village.

Tomorrow we visit the schools and wells; On Wednesday the beaders will gather at Susan’s home (she is the wife of Francis ole Sakuda, Exec Director of SIMOO). We’ll be buying stuff!

Sorry for no pictures as unable to download from my camera at the cyber cafe./

So much more to come.