By Joe Tash
Two Maasai warriors from Kenya captivated students at Notre Dame Academy in Carmel Valley during a recent visit, describing a ritualistic lion kill, demonstrating traditional weapons and even teaching them a few words in Swahili.
Wilson Meikuaya and Jackson Ntirkana are from the Maasai Mara area of southwest Kenya. They are in the midst of a three-month tour of the U.S. and Canada, both to promote their new book, a memoir called “The Last Maasai Warriors,” and drum up support for Free the Children, a nonprofit they work for in Kenya.
They were invited to Notre Dame Academy, a Catholic school serving grades K-8, by Karen Moyer, a Notre Dame parent who had worked with Free the Children during a previous trip to Kenya with her son, Hutton, who was 16 at the time.
The visit was meant to teach the children about another culture and kick off a campaign to raise $8,500 to build a school in Kenya, said Laura Perkins, the school’s assistant principal. The goal will be reached if each of the school’s 450 children brings in about $20 worth of change, she said.
Free the Children was founded in 1995 by 12-year-old Craig Kielburger of Ontario, Canada, who had read a story about another 12-year-old in South Asia who died after speaking out on child labor issues.
Today, Free the Children operates in 45 countries, where it has built schools and launched other educational initiatives aimed at moving children out of poverty and away from the exploitation of child labor. The organization was recently featured on the CBS news magazine show “60 Minutes.” Another goal of the organization is to mobilize young people in the developed world to make a difference.
Wilson and Jackson, who are in their 20s, work with groups of visitors to Kenya, helping to keep them safe and teaching them about local culture, said Galen Kerrick of Me to We, a sister organization to Free the Children, who also attended the visit to Notre Dame Academy and spoke to the students.
The two Kenyans wore traditional Maasai “shukas,” or tunics, which come to the knees, and plaid shawls wrapped around their shoulders. All of their clothing was colored red, which the men said connotes power, and decorated with metallic discs that jingled as they moved.
They told the children about their upbringing in Kenya, and Jackson related how he had to interrupt his schooling once, when he was 12, to help his family care for their herd of cattle.
Wilson said when he finished grade school, he wanted to go on to high school and university, but his father wanted him to train to become a Maasai warrior. They struck a deal: if Wilson killed a lion, his father told him, he would be allowed to continue his education, Wilson said.
Wilson went to a camp where he trained for months, killing a buffalo and other animals in preparation for the lion hunt. When it was time, a group of warriors tracked a male lion in the forest, until they were close enough for the kill. Several warriors threw their spears at the lion, but his struck first, meaning he made the kill, Wilson said.
While he was proud of his accomplishment, “I was most excited that it meant I could go to school,” he said.
A publisher’s description of their book notes that Wilson and Jackson are the last generation of their people to engage in such rituals as killing a lion, a practice that has also been banned by the government of Kenya.
They are also the first of their community to attend university, where Jackson studied botany and Wilson studied sociology.
At the school assembly, the two men showed children traditional weapons such as a wooden club called a conga, arrows, a metal-tipped spear and a machete. They also taught the children Swahili words for hello and thank you — hujambo and asante sana.
When one student answered a question correctly, he was given his own conga, drawing gasps of admiration from his classmates.
From San Diego, Wilson and Jackson were headed to Los Angeles, then Seattle and New York City, before heading back to Kenya in mid-December.
The two said this was their first overseas trip, and they have found the U.S. and Canada very different from home.
“People are very welcoming,” Wilson said, adding that he has been impressed by the development and good roads he has seen in his travels.
“We believe this is the way these countries have developed is because of education,” he said. “It’s the key to success.”