African Herders Take Care of America's 9/11 Cattle

By Stephen Mbogo | July 7, 2008 | 8:17pm EDT

Nairobi , Kenya ( - In a gesture of sympathy for an America reeling from the 9/11 attacks, a group of Maasai villagers in Kenya offered a gift of cattle -- among a community's most prized possessions.

Enoosaen is a remote village, even by East African standards. Most villagers did not hear about the al-Qaeda attacks on the U.S. until six months after the event, when Wilson Naiyomah, a native of the village and a scholarship student at Stanford University returned for an initiation ceremony and told village elders what he had seen. (Naiyomah witnessed the collapse of the Twin Towers.)

In July 2002, the elders decided to donate 14 cows to the American people, to show sympathy for their loss. The offer was made to the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi.

"Cattle was like the handkerchief we offered the American people to wipe off their tears," explained elder Oltetia ole Pempa Semeyioi.

U.S. Ambassador Michael Ranneberger said during a visit to the village this week that the gift had "touched the heart-strings of the American people" like no other act of solidarity or goodwill.

Naiyomah, the Stanford student, said it would have been easy enough for him to donate a cow, but he decided to involve the elders who raised him. He asked them to bless the cattle and offer them as a consolation and comfort to a nation that had taken care of him - providing him with an education and a home.

"I just couldn't ignore their pain," Naiyomah said.

Cattle play a central role in the live of the Maasai, a pastoral group living in Kenya and parts of neighboring Tanzania. The Maasai, who have largely maintained their ethnic culture, rely on cows for survival. Even Maasai huts are made from cattle dung.

A cow is the most precious gift a Maasai can give to a friend, and in Maasai culture, the animals are valued the way a child or land may be.

The donated cattle could not be flown to America because of customs restrictions. Amid uncertainty about the cows' future, Ranneberger signed an agreement with the elders in which they agreed the "American" cows - now numbering 26 through natural increase - would not be sold or slaughtered.

Instead, the cows will remind the next generation of villagers of the Maasai gesture to the United States.

To thank the community, Ranneberger announced the provision of 14 high school scholarships to benefit seven boys and seven girls from the village. The embassy also committed itself to helping with ongoing community development projects.

"We are going to look after the cattle for the Americans; we shall keep them in this enclosure," said a visibly elated elder Mzee Ole Tetia Olepemba, clad in traditional attire.

According to the village elders, America's reciprocal gift of scholarships was highly prized, because they believe that education was among the most effective tools to use against international terrorism.

"It would help to break down barriers of inter-cultural misunderstanding," said another villager.

Kenyans have had first-hand experience with terrorism following a series of attacks here, the most devastating being al-Qaeda's bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi in August 1998.

The attack, carried out simultaneously with another on the American Embassy in Tanzania's capital, Dar-es-Salaam, killed 250 people, injured 3,000 more and affected the livelihoods of many Kenyans.

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