TRANSMARA, KENYA – It is five in the morning, and we are climbing
the winding dirt road that leads to the entrance gate of the Maasai
Mara, Kenya’s famous wildlife reserve. Emmanuel Tasur, our Maasai
guide, is explaining the rite of passage where a young Maasai warrior,
or moran, kills a lion.
The moment the lion attacks, the moran inserts a stick into its opened jaws, holds it there tightly, and with his free hand, hacks at its throat with a spear.
“Education prevented me from becoming a moran,” Tasur says as we drive, weaving through cattle in the darkness. “It began because I wanted a pair of shoes. I knew my dad would never go for it – we were too poor. But school uniforms required them, and if I was to go to school, I would have to have shoes.”
At primary school, Tasur earned the top score on his final exam for the entire region of Kilgoris, which sent him on to graduate from a competitive national high school. From there, he went to work for City Council in Nairobi for four years, then earned a degree in Informational Sciences from Moi University in 2006.
He has returned to build schools for the children of Maasailand – the only way to provide them with a proper education when the schools provided by the Kenyan government do not, Tasur feels.
For three nights I have been staying with Tasur, his Maasai wife Lillian and their six-year old son, Shiloh, in their two-room timber house in the highlands near the Maasai Mara. At 36, Tasur earns his living as a safari guide, which helps pay the school fees for his other two young children who are away at boarding school. In the evenings, bells ring out as herders bring cattle down the hillside for the night, and the family has dinner by the light of a lantern.
The local schools do not prepare children for jobs outside of farming the family land, according to Tasur.
“At grade 8, your life goes one way or the other,” he explains, when those who have enough learning under their belt can advance to a national boarding school. If you don’t make it to a national school, your options reduce to herding cattle or other agricultural work.
In a village of 10,000 people, Tasur is the only one to hold an advanced degree. He estimates that five have university diplomas. The Maasai literacy rate is 18 percent, according to a report by Ethnologue, compared to a national literacy rate in Kenya of 85 percent. With the Maasai population around 400,000 (Tasur puts it closer to 700,000), it is 1.5% of Kenya’s total — a minority tribe, despite being one of its best known internationally for elaborate beadwork, traditional dances, and moran culture.
“The Maasai are one hundred years behind the rest of Kenya,” Tasur says. “There are no Maasai who represent us as doctors or lawyers, as a professional class.”
With Kenya among the most literate countries in Africa, and primary school attendance at over 92 percent, why are the Maasai so far behind?
Tasur cites the legacy of two British treaties dating back to the early 1900’s that “closed off Maasailand” from the rest of Kenya and delayed infrastructure and communication – due in part to British fear of the Maasai warriors.
Another reason is an education system that grants you a high school certificate that is essentially meaningless when looking for a job.
“They will be asked for qualifications, (and told) that you need a Masters [degree] in such and such a field, with so many years of experience. You’re telling this to someone with a high school “pass” certificate — not even a distinction or credit – because the high schools they attended never gave them a chance at life. You don’t have your tribesman, your relative, or even the money to buy your way through, and the cycle continues forever,” he explains.
Despite the odds, Tasur has a joy that flashes to the surface in an instant, making him a favorite of children in the village. They run to the side of the road when they see his car coming, and he responds by throwing both his arms out the window, waving back, laughing. To be with him is to feel his great joy, and to feel that far-off things might be possible.
His belief in the power of education to change the direction of your life – especially if you are Maasai – led him to run for Member of Parliament in the December elections, with a promise to turn over one half of his salary as an MP to the building of schools.
After months of crisscrossing the region, listening to voters and visiting homes, he nearly won the election before having to step aside for another Maasai candidate who was believed to have a better chance at defeating the Kipsigis candidate for the seat – an example of the tribal politics he was trying to transcend. The Maasai candidate eventually won, but ballot boxes were burned and stolen, and the national post-election violence that erupted across Kenya last December sparked its own violence here between the Kipsigis and Maasai.
As we drive through the Maasai Mara in the early morning, Tasur spots a lioness and her cubs sleeping in the grass, pulls the car up next to them, and turns the engine off. I hide under the back seat as he calmly looks at them, talking gently, as if striking up a conversation with strangers.
When we stop for lunch, I realize that his mixture of fearlessness and joy is probably why people invest their hopes in him. He is a celebrity here.
“Why didn’t you tell us you were coming?” says his childhood friend, who manages the lodge. “Where have you been? How is it going?” other friends say, bringing us passion fruit juice and coffee, wondering if they can have a few words with him to discuss a project.
Though he has been laying low since the election, the loss has not swayed him from his vision of building five schools in Maasailand that would send 100 students per year – 20 from each school — to national high schools, where they would have at least a shot of entering a University, and from there, a shot at finding a job.
With funding primarily from Americans abroad who have visited his program, and from Tasur’s work as a safari guide, the first two temporary classrooms went up in March, and 76 children from nursery school to third grade walked through the doors of Sirua Aulo (Beautiful Lawn) Academy on May 8th. He employs men in the village as laborers, and neighbors have participated by giving rocks and timber.
The cost to complete one fully furnished classroom with desks, books, and supplies is approximately $11,000 US dollars, according to Tasur. The next step is to open a boys and girls dormitory; a kitchen to provide food and care for orphans and children with disabilities who are currently kept at home due to shame; a community clinic and library; and a full primary school and secondary school.
The grand scale of his dream is one that he refuses to let discourage him. “Even if it is so far away from where I want to go, it is so far from where I’ve come,” he says. “If your school is poor in Kenya, there is nobody there to pick you up. If I didn’t come back to do this, I don’t know who would.”
To continue raising money for the Sirua Aulo Academy, next summer Tasur will launch Karma Kenya Tours, a travel company that combines international volunteerism with traditional Kenyan sightseeing.
“We hope to call our clients ‘community travelers,'” he says, “since their traveling will enable the very survival of a community.” All money from the tours will go to the school and to teachers’ salaries, and travelers will spend at least a day in the village teaching in the classroom or helping with construction.
Back in the car, a British voice comes over the radio, announcing classes for “finishing school” starting next week in Nairobi. “The time has come for Kenya,” the voice says, “to prep yourself for life in the real world.”
“Learn how to improve yourself with classes on everything you need to know about 21st century etiquette — how to throw dinner parties and what fork to use, to wardrobe and grooming.”
The firm is called Public Image Kenya.
Tasur looks over at me and smiles, his trademark optimism shining, spilling over to everyone he meets. I’m not sure if there are many people with their feet more firmly planted in “the real world,” who have gone from the task of facing down lions to facing down failing schools.
Though it still practiced illegally in some parts of Maasailand, the Kenyan government has since banned lion-hunting due to declining lion populations, and Tasur senses something else replacing it.
“A better appreciation of what really constitutes bravery by the Maasai. That one can still be brave without killing a lion – like being brave enough to go through school. People who have endured the duration of school are now the most courageous members of society.”
Visit Village Volunteers here to learn more about this program.