A Catholic Digest Special Report: A day with the Maasai

Parish priests get asked many questions by their parishioners: “What time is Mass on the Holy Day?” “How do I baptize my child?” “Can I get married in the Church if my husband isn’t Catholic?” But since Father John Fortune, an Irish Rosminian priest, began working in Kenya among the Maasai people four years ago, the question his parishioners were asking was of a slightly different nature:

“When are you going to get a cow?”

To the Maasai, a semi-nomadic people who have relied on cattle for generations as the lifeblood of their society, ownership of a cow is a must. So after four years of working with the Maasai, Fortune finally caved in and got his first cow. In the eyes of his parishioners, he’s finally a “real man.”

Fortune’s handsome face breaks into a smile as he tells the story to several American visitors on a warm October morning outside the Jacaranda Hotel in Nairobi. Clad as he is in a crisp striped shirt, blue slacks, and black sunglasses, a stranger might take Fortune for someone better suited for the boardroom than the bush. But a short while later, as Fortune expertly steers his truck away from giant ruts in the dirt road leading across Kenya’s Great Rift Valley, it’s clear Fortune is right at home in his environment.


eige dust rises from the road as the truck squeaks and bounces along its route, giving its passengers what Fortune calls “an African massage.” A group of giraffes moves in a slow, majestic parade across the valley, their long necks and smooth, brown-tiled haunches prominent against the blue sky and mountains. Bony cows huddle in the sparse shade of acacia trees while goats graze the parched grass. Zebras turn their heads to stare at the lone vehicle trundling to Fortune’s parish in Ewuaso Kedong, a small trading center in the Diocese of Ngong.

On this day, few vehicles are found on the road that leads toward the Maasai Mara, a large park reserve in the southwestern part of the country. Usually, says Fortune, there would be tour buses, and curio shops marshaled by eager, quick-talking salesmen. But due to the violence that sprang up in the wake of the nation’s presidential elections in December 2007, leading to the death of at least 1,000 people and the displacement of more than 300,000, the country has seen a substantial drop in tourism. For a country already coping with poverty, AIDS, high unemployment, and government corruption, it has been a difficult blow.

These and other challenges make Kenya one of the focal points for financial support from Cross International Catholic Outreach (CICO), founded in 2001 by current president Jim Cavnar as part of Cross International Alliance, an ecumenical Christian effort that helps the poor worldwide. Today, Cavnar, along with CICO’s International Projects Manager Jon Merrill, is joining Fortune on his trip to Ewuaso Kedong to visit with recipients of Cross’ support.

“Any service to a poor person is a service to Christ,” says Cavnar, explaining Cross’ mission. We have a responsibility, he says, to treat each person “as if [he/she] were Christ Himself.”

Recognizing that the local Church in Kenya has the best understanding of the needs of its people, and seeking to empower the Church and Christian ministries and the people they serve, CICO supports Orders and groups already working in Kenya to provide assistance such as food, clothing, shelter, medical care, education, economic opportunities, counseling, and spiritual care. CICO’s goal is not just to alleviate poverty, but to eliminate the factors that cause it. “Cross International,” the organization declares in its strategic plan, “is committed to working itself out of existence.”


fter about a two-hour drive from Nairobi, Fortune, Cavnar, and Merrill arrive at the Baraka (“Blessing” in Swahili) Catholic Kindergarten, a stone building constructed with Cross International financing that primarily serves low-income Maasai families in the parish. Children ages 3 to 6 clad in red and blue uniforms spill out of brightly decorated classrooms and into the sunlit yard for a short performance for the visitors and for their parents, who have also come to watch.

As the children perform poems and songs such as “Jesus Loves Me” and “There Was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe,” their energy belies the fact that earlier that morning, some of them walked as far as three miles to get to school. They think little of it, says the manager of the kindergarten, Sister Eliza Wambui, DHM; the Maasai are famous for being excellent walkers. “But you feel for them,” she says, “because they’re still young.”

A day with the Maasai

Standing here in the brightly lit schoolyard watching the children with their happy, healthy faces and hearing their innocent, youthful voices raised in song, it is difficult to reconcile such a hopeful sight with all the difficulties these children face. It can be easy to forget, for instance, that without the school feeding program Cross finances, these 65 children would have to rely on what their families can provide: milk and ugali — a popular African starch — perhaps only once a day. It’s hard to imagine that some of these shy, bright-eyed little girls, or others like them in the Maasai community, will mark their passage to adulthood with ritual genital mutilation, and be married off at a young age to much older men who may already have other wives. It’s hard to imagine that, years from now, one of these young boys might return home one day to find that, despite his wishes for a monogamous Catholic marriage, his father has brought home a second bride for him, one he would be hard-pressed to refuse without causing insult.




or are such issues faced only by the Maasai. “You have men wearing three-piece suits working in Nairobi, but they live in the villages,” says Dr. Susan Nagele, a Maryknoll lay missioner and head doctor at Kiminini Cottage Hospital in Kitale. “They can have many wives, they get a dowry, and [a wife] is his property. She does what you tell her to do.”

Traditional Maasai practices such as polygamy, early marriage of girls to older men, and ritual female genital mutilation are becoming less common with education, but they still exist. There are so many girls needing a place to escape from some of these practices, says Fortune, that the local Maasai chief has asked Fortune’s Order, the Rosminians, to create a center for them. The parish and community are also involved in providing seminars for the girls, instituting rites of passage as alternatives to genital mutilation, and in trying to change the minds of those parents skeptical about the practicality and value of a good education.




aving finished their performances, the children, with their teachers’ assistance, shyly present Cavnar and Merrill with gifts of jewelry and shukas — red checked blankets traditionally worn by the Maasai — as parents look on with pride. The men wear mostly Western-style shirts and pants, accented with a thick Maasai bead bracelet or large necklace. Many of the women are more traditionally dressed, with long, brightly patterned dresses and elaborately beaded belts, necklaces, earrings, and other accessories. Together, they form a stunning cluster of cherry red and sky blue garments, of gentle voices accompanied by the light jingle of silver and beads.

One of the parents watching

the children is Peniner, 24, a woman with an oval-shaped face and gazelle-like limbs. Her jewelry jingles as she shifts her youngest, 8-month-old Shadrach, in her arms. She has been watching her older son Gideon, 4, performing with his classmates. Perhaps she remembers singing songs and reading poems when she was in school, which she attended up to grade eight. As Gideon moves to her side after the performance, she draws him to her. The kindergarten is good to her son, she says, her willowy fingers stroking his hair. “They care for the children.”




eniner is not unique in not having gone on to secondary school or college. Keeping Maasai girls in school can be difficult. Girls may be kept home to do household work, care for the livestock, or prepare for marriage. Once married, they seldom continue their educations. Some, like 25-year-old Margaret, who married at age 14, never go to school at all.

Margaret has three children, two of whom are old enough to attend the Baraka Catholic Kindergarten. Sitting in the dark kitchen of her three-room manyatta (a Maasai house made of sticks and mud) later that morning, with firelight flickering on her skin and her many-colored bracelets, Margaret expresses hope that her children will attend college. Her words are echoed by many Kenyans struggling to provide a future for their children. “I want my children to be good Christians,” she says, “and to live a better life than I’m living now.”

Later that afternoon, after all have exchanged words of encouragement and thanks, Cavnar and Merrill climb into Fortune’s truck for the return journey to Nairobi. The truck makes its way through the center of town, where on this busy market day men, women, donkeys, and children in their school uniforms mingle among the shops. The wind rises, blowing the men’s and women’s colorful garments dramatically about their legs and shoulders. Dust rises and scatters at eye level. Undaunted, with children in their arms and staff s in their hands, the Maasai keep walking.  CD

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