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Kenya's Maasai Commemorate 9/11 Victims


On the fifth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, a Maasai community in a remote village in western Kenya paid homage to victims and their families. The elders, who in 2002 had dedicated 14 head of cattle to the victims' families, say they continue to think about those who lost their lives in the violence.

The 14 cattle and their offspring graze on a farm near the village of Enoosaen. Maasai elders had deemed the animals sacred, never to be eaten or given away, but to act as a permanent reminder of the day on which thousands had lost their lives.

Meanwhile, just up the hill, an American delegation headed by U.S. Ambassador to Kenya Michael Ranneberger arrives for the ceremony, flanked by hundreds of community members wrapped in their bright red traditional cloths and beaded necklaces.

In addition to remembering the September 11 victims and their families, organizers say the ceremony is meant to cement the bond of friendship between this community and the American people that began in 2002.

Ranneberger tells the gathering that, following the publicity of the cattle donation, some 40,000 Americans sent letters, cards, and drawings thanking the Maasai people.

"But, while the cattle could not be physically moved to the United States, I want to assure the people of this community of one thing: your gift achieved its objective. You did ease the pain and suffering of the people of the United States," he said. "Tomorrow, back home, the people of the United States will be reminded that in a remote village of western Kenya that does not have skyscrapers or fighter planes or concerns that international terrorists will disrupt their lives, that the Maasai of Enoosaen again express their solidarity with the American people."

The Maasai elders, in turn, say they are personally affected by what happened to the 9/11 victims and their families.

The elders came to know about the events of September 11 through Kimeli Willson Naiyomah, a young man from Enoosaen who was poor and homeless. With funds raised from the community and a scholarship, Naiyomah pursued his undergraduate degree at Stanford University in the United States.

On September 11th, Naiyomah was visiting New York and saw the World Trade Center towers falling. A few months later, he returned to Enoosaen to undergo a ceremony that would make him a community elder, and told people in the village what he had seen.

"Americans embraced me like their baby, like their child. They did not look at my poverty. When the tragedy of 9/11 happened, you can see why I was emotionally devastated just like an American, and I felt like I was an American too," said Naiyomah. "It created that deep emotional distress that an American boy from Alabama would have felt."

The elders were moved by Naiyomah's story and were distressed that a country that provided education for one of their own underwent such suffering.

Maasai elder Oltetia ole Pempa Semeyioi tells VOA what happened next. Semeyioi says the community elders talked about what occurred on September 11th and decided to volunteer the main resource they have, their cattle, because, in his words, cattle is a handkerchief to wipe the tears of the American people.

In Maasailand, cattle mean much more than just a source of food.

The cow is central to the Maasai culture explained Elder Ole Yiamboi. One of two things will happen if anyone touches a Maasai cow, he says: either the cow's owner will die, or the person touching the cow will die.

Yiamboi explains to the gathering that a man cannot get married unless he gives his bride's family a number of cows.

As well, during different stages of growing up, children are required to give their fathers cows to pass certain rights of passage. For instance, he says, a son must give his father a cow to earn the right to shake his father's hand.

At Sunday's event, Ambassador Ranneberger announced that the American embassy in Nairobi is providing 14 four-year secondary school scholarships to Maasai youth studying in Enoosaen in memory of the September 11 victims.

The elders promise to donate the offspring of the original 14 cattle to a Maasai scholarship fund.

In an agreement signed at the event, Maasai elders say education is valuable in the struggle against international terrorism as the tool most likely to break down barriers of cultural misunderstanding.

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