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Rising above his plains life

For Masai tribesman Jackson Njapit, taking tourists up in hot-air balloons seemed magical — and lucrative. He came to America to get his pilot's license, and after some bumps saw his dream get off the ground.

January 29, 2011|By Esmeralda Bermudez, Los Angeles Times

Deep in the bush of Kenya's Masai Mara, the tribe had begun to wonder whether Jackson Njapit had lost his mind.

For years, he had spent his mornings at the one-room clinic, treating people for malaria, botched female circumcisions, the occasional lion and buffalo attack. Now he roamed the savanna, chasing hot-air balloons filled with tourists, and he had begun to sell his cows, his goats and his sheep.

He spoke grandly of traveling to America and coming back with something precious, a skill that would help keep the clinic going.

"When I return," he said, "it will be great news for all of Kenya."

Villagers in Talek heard his plan and laughed. They pointed from their huts to the floating wicker baskets and said surely he would fall out of the sky.

"They told me, 'This is something only white men can do. No African, especially no Masai, can fly this balloon.'"

Undeterred, Njapit saved up for five years.

In June 2010, the tribesman who had never left the open plains of Kenya traveled to Los Angeles, his sword and club tucked in his luggage.

"I knew if I returned to the village without my pilot's license, I will lose all respect," Njapit said. "I will be seen as a fool by all of my tribe."

At Los Angeles International Airport, he held out his passport to be stamped. He had six months on his visa to realize his dream.

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Njapit was a small boy when Kenyan police arrived at his hut, demanding that his mother send one child to school. The tribe had long resisted enrolling its young, but now, having no choice, Nailepu decided to send him, her youngest.

He was one of 40 children of the five wives of Tente Njapit, a Masai warrior who used to raid neighboring tribes to steal cattle, the Masai's most prized commodity.

By the time Njapit started school, his father had died of malaria and droughts had killed off the family's cows.

To pay for his education, Njapit's mother sold her remaining animals. She fetched firewood and water. She built huts the Masai way, using hay, cow dung and urine.

But when her son reached ninth grade and tuition went up, he was forced to drop out.

It was then that a group of missionaries from Indianapolis made a deal with the young man that changed his life. If he worked in their clinic in Talek, they would pay for his education, including a nursing degree.

"He had a lot of initiative and drive," said David Giles, a missionary with Christian Missionary Fellowship in the 1980s. "And he was profusely thankful to us because he came from a family that did not have the resources."

A decade later, with a degree from a nursing school near Nairobi, Njapit was among the most respected members of the tribe. His tribesmen proudly called him doctor. They gave him a seat of honor during ceremonies and a colorfully beaded club traditionally used as a talking stick by chiefs.

"He is the Masai community umbrella," said Margaret Nabaala, a childhood friend who was granted political asylum in the U.S. three years ago after her fight against the practice of female circumcision resulted in death threats.

"He is their gynecologist, their pediatrician, their pharmacy and their dentist. When there is an emergency, he's on a bike, going through the rain or in the dark to help them."

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The morning Andrew Peart walked into Njapit's clinic, the only one for miles, he was feverish and aching with malaria. The Briton from Zimbabwe was a hot-air balloon pilot, one of the few catering to the thousands of tourists who descend on the Mara each year.

Njapit invited him to recuperate in the clinic's bed. He gave him medicine. The two became friends. One morning, Peart invited Njapit to go up in his balloon.

"It was magical," Njapit remembers. "You could see gazelles, elephants, thousands of them, wildebeests and zebras going together like ants moving on an hill."

Just as impressive was what tourists paid Peart for an hour-long ride: $400 each. Njapit barely earned that much in a month.

"I thought to myself, 'I can do this,'" Njapit said. "I can fly a balloon early in the morning and work at the clinic in the day. I can have money for supplies and for an ambulance."

He estimated he would need about $10,000 to travel to and from the U.S., enroll in a flight school and earn his pilot's license. Selling his animals would raise about $6,000.

Njapit knew he needed more money, but his quest had made the news across Kenya. He felt swept along by his own excitement and the expectations of his fellow tribesmen.

"Everybody was asking, 'When do you leave? When do you leave?'"

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His first weeks in America were not easy.

At LAX, a stranger scolded him after he got lost in the terminal. When he finally found his ride — someone from the flight school holding a "Welcome Jackson" sign — he was driven straight to Adventure Flights in Lake Elsinore.

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