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From Africa, Milk of Human Kindness

Philanthropy: An impoverished village gives 14 cows--a prized possession--in sympathy for 9/11.

June 03, 2002|DAVAN MAHARAJ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ENOOSAEN, Kenya — In this remote corner of Africa, news about the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon traveled slowly to the red-robed Masai people who live here.

And now, people in this tiny village have responded with an outpouring of support to show the deep sorrow they felt for the United States and victims of the attacks.

They decided to give their most prized possessions, what Masai regard as the highest expression of sympathy: cattle.

On Sunday, the Masai in this southwestern Kenya community conducted a ceremony to express their condolences.

Hollywood producers could not have done better.

About 500 people, many bedecked in elaborate beadwork jewelry, gathered on the rolling East African savanna for the ceremony. Masai women sang mournful songs. Young warriors, some carrying spears, leapt into the air. And village elders presented to the United States a herd of 14 cows.

"They say Americans are wealthy, and indeed we are in many ways," said acting U.S. Ambassador to Kenya William Brencick, who gratefully accepted the cattle. "But when we count the value of these cows and

The gifts by Masai villagers here demonstrate how the events of Sept. 11 have touched the remotest corners of the globe. Enoosaen is a village about 20 miles from the Masai Mara Game Reserve, where tourists from around the world flock to see lions, elephants and other wildlife.

But the people of Enoosaen are virtually invisible to these game gawkers. The villagers are all Masai, arguably Africa's most romanticized ethnic group--legendary for cattle herding, cattle raiding, lion killing and drinking cow's blood.

"A Masai warrior is a fine sight," wrote Isak Dinesen in "Out of Africa." "Their style is not an assumed manner, nor an imitation of a foreign perfection; it has grown from the inside and is an expression of the race and its history."

The nearly 300,000 Masai pastoralists who straddle the border between Kenya and Tanzania shun modernity. Most of Enoosaen's mud huts lack running water and electricity. There are no telephones, and the only thing resembling a paved road is a 100-yard stretch of tarmac 15 miles away.

Despite the legend, many Masai these days wear Gap clothing and Nike shoes. Some residents of Enoosaen carry cell phones and travel 90 minutes to go online at a town's Internet cafes.

Enoosaen would not have rallied to show support for the United States but for the world's fascination with the Masai. Several years ago, an American journalist wrote about how villagers had sold cows to raise $5,000 in school fees so a young warrior could realize his dream of becoming a doctor.

The article caught the attention of University of Oregon administrators, who offered Kimeli Naiyomah a scholarship. Naiyomah later transferred to Stanford, where he is a premed student.

On the Stanford campus, Naiyomah recounted how village elders had raised him because he didn't know his biological father, and how he planned to repay them by returning after graduation and building the first hospital in Masailand.

Last year, Stanford President John Hennessy saluted Naiyomah in his commencement address. Former President Clinton and his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who were on campus for daughter Chelsea's graduation, asked to meet the 25-year-old Naiyomah, posing for pictures with him. Naiyomah, many said, could be the poster child for Hillary Clinton's book, "It Takes a Village."

Naiyomah left Stanford and returned to Enoosaen last month to attend a weeklong rite-of-passage ceremony that made him a junior elder in the village. One night, when the other young men gathered under a tree to tell stories, Naiyomah recounted the horrors he witnessed in September during a visit to New York. He told them how "buildings that almost touched the clouds" tumbled down after terrorists crashed two planes into the World Trade Center, how desperate people jumped out of the burning buildings to their deaths and how hundreds of rescuers died trying to save people.

"Everybody was shocked," said William Oltetia, the 20-year-old chief of Enoosaen's warriors. Oltetia said that he had not heard about the terrorist attacks.

Others in Enoosaen said that they knew vaguely about Sept. 11 but that Naiyomah's account brought the tragedy to life.

Osama Bin Laden became a household word. People who are unpopular in the village are now known simply as Osamas.

"We don't have anyone as cruel as him," said James Ngodia, 44. "This man is a world enemy. If he comes to Masailand, we will surely kill him with our spears and arrows."

Naiyomah proposed to village elders that they do something to help America.

Within a week, 14 people pledged their cows. Those who donated said they wanted to express their condolences but also show their gratitude to the United States for taking care of Naiyomah and for helping the village.

Naiyomah has used money donated by American friends to build a three-room schoolhouse and set up a water-purification system that could help reduce illness.

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