Kenyan Maasai cattle forge 9/11 bond with US

In a field tucked away in a remote corner of south-west Kenya, perhaps the most unusual and poignant September 11 condolence gift to the United States grazes contentedly on long grass.

Here in the heart of Maasailand, a broad swathe of wildlife-rich plains and escarpments that undulate through Africa’s Great Rift Valley, a small herd of cows ruminates, unaware they have forged a powerful symbolic bond between an isolated tribal community and the world’s last superpower.

There may be places more removed from New York and Washington than Enoosaen, but few, if any, have made so great an impact on America from so far a distance with a so simple and honest offering after the September 11 2001, attacks.

Half a world away, two full ones in development terms, from the targets of those strikes and the destruction they wrought, the Maasai herders of this tiny village struck a deep chord with their offering of 14 prized Zebu cattle.

While there were many post-9/11 expressions of sympathy to the US, somehow none matched that of the Maasai, who parted with their most valuable possessions in a gesture some might regard as naive, US officials say.

And, coming after Kenya itself, along with neighbouring Tanzania, was hit by terrorism with the deadly 1998 al-Qaeda bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, it had particular resonance, they said.

Thus, on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the attacks, they travelled to this dusty collection of ramshackle huts, about 245km from Nairobi, to formally reciprocate.

“Of all of the acts of solidarity and goodwill, one that profoundly struck the heartstrings of the American people like no other was the generosity of the Maasai of Enoosaen,” US ambassador to Kenya Michael Ranneberger said on Sunday.

“The Maasai of Enoosaen reached out to the American people to ease our pain and suffering during our hour of need,” he told a vibrant ceremony, amid cheering and ululating from traditionally red-clad and beaded tribesmen and women.

“This was profoundly appreciated. It will not be forgotten,” Ranneberger said, announcing what he termed a “modest” US return gift of 14 high school scholarships, one for each of the original cows, for local Maasai students.

The money, $3 500 per year over the next four years is not much, but in an area where secondary school fees of the equivalent of $35 per term can be ruinous for families, it will have a significant effect, locals say.

And, in the four years since they were donated, the cattle have multiplied—to 26, at last count—thus it is hoped the scholarships will, too, as offspring are sold for a permanent fund to educate the impoverished community.

“I grew up here homeless without any ability to afford school fees and I know getting a scholarship to go to high school is a big thing,” Willson Kimeli Naiyomah, a 29-year-old Maasai, told said Sunday.

“This is basically going to breed 9/11 beneficiaries here,” said Naiyomah, whose remarkable personal tale—from Kenyan orphan to medical student in the US—is central to the cow donation.

Studying at Stanford University in California in 2001, he was visiting New York when the al-Qaeda hijacked planes slammed into to the World Trade Centre on September 11, and decided his home should do something to honour the dead.

“I thought a traditional gift would be appropriate,” Naiyomah said, adding that he broached the subject with Maasai elders on his return to Enoosaen the following June for a tribal initiation rite.

They agreed and the contribution was made, one cow each from the 14 major families in the estimated 10 000-strong extended community, prompting stunned admiration, particularly among Americans, some of whom likely saw it as quaint.

But cattle are highly valued and the donation was made in earnest by the Maasai, East African pastoralists who regard the gift of a cow as the most precious one can receive, a sign of wealth, status and power.

“For us, the cow is very important and when [Naiyomah] came and told us the people in America were in trouble, we responded in the way we know best,” said tribal elder Murero Ole Yiamboi.

“When we saw the Americans in pain, we asked what we could give to express our sorrow, something that was central to us, and that was the cows,” he said. “They are the handkerchiefs we Maasai use to wipe away tears.”

A brass marker now stands in what passes for downtown Enoosaen, a two-and-a-half hour drive on a rutted dirt track from the famed Maasai Mara National Reserve, to commemorate the donation of “America’s Cattle”.

Officially unveiled on Sunday, it recalls the shock with which the elders greeted Naiyomah’s story of “that terrible day when sky high buildings tumbled to the ground” and their decision “to offer aid and comfort to the victims”.

Shortly after the plaque’s inauguration, Ranneberger stood before a poster of the US flag, the twin towers in a pre-9/11 New York skyline, a pair of cows and the inscription “To the people of America with compassion from the Maasai.”

He signed a pact with elders formalising the scholarships and Maasai pledges to care for the cattle in perpetuity and reminded all present that the cows munching nonchalantly nearby were a “living embodiment” of friendship.

“Tomorrow, back home, Americans will be reminded that in a remote village in western Kenya that does not have skyscrapers or fighter planes or concerns that international terrorists will disrupt [it], the Maasai of Enoosaen have again expressed their solidarity with the American people.”—AFP

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