Sep 10, 2006

Maasai: US Honors Tribesmen

Hundreds of cheering Maasai thronged the US ambassador to Kenya today as the US formally reciprocated their extraordinary September 11 condolence offering of cattle.

Hundreds of cheering and ululating Maasai thronged the US ambassador to Kenya here today as the US formally reciprocated their extraordinary September 11 condolence offering of cattle.

Clad in traditional red cloaks, scarves, headdresses and earrings, tribesmen and women turned out in droves to welcome the envoy in this dusty speck of a village in remote south-west Kenya that captured America's imagination with their gift.

A day before the five-year anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks and four years after the Maasai donation of cows, Washington moved to show its appreciation in a concrete way.

After a tour of Enoosaen surrounded by enthusiastic villagers and herders, US ambassador to Kenya Michael Ranneberger announced the endowment of 14 high school scholarships - one for each of the donated cows - for local Maasai students.

He and Maasai elders in the area also ended frustrating uncertainty over the future of the cattle, the tribe's most important possession, that had threatened to mar the symbolic importance of the gift.

"Today, on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the terrible attacks, I have come to Enoosaen to conclude the donation with a reciprocal gift from the people of the United States ... and a pledge that we will never forget the generosity of this community," Mr Ranneberger said.

Speaking before a poster of the US flag, the Twin Towers and a pair of Zebu cows, he said the Maasai gesture "had profoundly touched the heartstrings of the American people" like no other post-September 11 gift of sympathy or goodwill.

Mr Ranneberger lamented that climate and customs codes had kept the cattle from being sent to the US but stressed the cattle would never be forgotten.

The scholarships, a "modest donation" in the ambassador's words, of about $US3500 ($4620) a year over an initial four-year period, will allow seven Maasai boys and seven girls to attend boarding high schools in the area.

Under an agreement signed by Mr Ranneberger and the community, the Maasai will care for the small herd of "American" cattle - now numbering 26 - and sell their calves to establish a scholarship fund to keep the legacy alive.

Cattle are highly valued among the Maasai, a community of herders who live in Kenya and Tanzania, and the gift of a cow is regarded as among the most precious one can receive from a Maasai, ranking alongside a child or grazing land.

The failure of the US to actually collect the cows had raised consternation among some here who regarded it as a snub but such sentiment was not in evidence today.

"When we saw the Americans in pain, we asked what we could give to express our sorrow, something that was so central to us, and that was the cows," said tribal elder Murero Ole Yiamboi.

"They are the handkerchiefs we Maasai use to wipe away tears," he said through a translator, his elongated pierced earlobes swaying over a goatskin cloak.

The idea for the gift was that of Enoosaen native Willson Kimeli Naiyomah, a Maasai who was a student at Stanford University in California in 2001 and happened to be in New York on September 11.

He thought his community of about 10,000, about 245km south-west of Nairobi, should do something to mourn and raised the matter with elders on his return home for a tribal initiation ceremony in June 2002.

They agreed and that month invited officials from the US embassy in Nairobi to accept the gift who, while deeply appreciative, were unable to take the cows, the status of which remained unclear until today.

Last year, several Maasai threatened to revoke the gift unless it was properly acknowledged but Mr Naiyomah said today there were no hard feelings.

"This brings everything full circle," he said, referring to the scholarships. "We didn't expect anything in return. For them to come back and say 'thank you' in this way is wonderful."

Mr Naiyomah said the US donation would forever benefit his small impoverished village with the gift of education.

"We will have professionals here from 9/11 in an unending circle," he said.