Maasai Flashlight and mosquito net

By Alli Allen

Like father, like daughter

When I was young, my dad came home one day with some cannon balls and placed them on our fireplace mantle. Little did I know this was the start of his decades-long fascination all things Civil War. He loved nothing better than immersing himself in a good Civil War history book and he contributed funds to preserve Civil War battlefields.

When I was 15, I spent a summer with researchers looking for evidence of Native American culture to preserve before construction crews cleared the land to build roads. Finding arrowheads and bits of broken pottery was exciting and sparked my own interest in history.

At Tulane, I majored in Anthropology. Cultural anthropology completely fascinated me, and African cultures were my favorite to study. I dreamed of going to Africa one day, but it was such a fantasy that I tucked it away and stayed busy with life.

Journey to Africa

Fast-forward 30 years. Thanks to the best fortune a kid could have, I journeyed to Tanzania and Kenya with my remarkable mom, sister and 3 kids, complements of my parents. My dream of going to Africa materialized. Stepping off the plane in Arusha, I felt like I was home. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s true.

Observing spectacular wildlife up close, drinking in the scenery, watching craftspeople at work and photographing bright fabrics worn against stark landscapes were mesmerizing experiences.

The day we visited a Maasai village near the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania was enchanting. College visualizations of African tribes turned real in front of my eyes. A group of Maasai warriors, each wearing his typical colorful cloth garb and carring a long stick, greeted us with chants and growls. A contest began with each man jumping as high as he could. This is a traditional Maasai practice. My kids were completely captivated and thrilled when they were invited to compete in a jumping contest.

We mingled with villagers, watched cows come home from a water hole, saw how families managed without electricity or running water, watched women making beaded jewelry and communicated with tribespeople using hand gestures and the few words we had in common.

An Invitation we Couldn’t Pass Up

A Maasai warrior in  his late 20s who spoke English invited us into his small mud/dung hut. We walked in through a short opening, passed a small area for a calf to sleep safely at night and entered the kitchen/bedroom. There was no furniture in the hut. He slept on a cow skin spread on the dirt floor and cooked over a small fire pit in the center of the hut. His wardrobe was 3 cloths stacked in a pile. Small bowls and a knife were his only eating utensils. A kerosene lamp sat in the corner and a small amount of light came through a small window and a tiny hole in the top of the hut. The smoke, along with the scarcity of light, made it hard to see, even during the day. We were invited to sit on some buckets in the middle of the hut and then had one of the most fascinating conversations imaginable.

Cross-Cultural Exchange

For 30 minutes, we shared a spellbinding cross-cultural exchange of questions, traditions, ideas, mutual understandings and genuine human connection. After answering a multitude of questions about life in America, we asked questions about Maasai culture. Here’s what we learned:

  • The Maasai diet consists only of meat, milk and blood.
  • The Maasai people earn the equivalent of $2 per day, mostly through cattle trading. Half of that money is spent on kerosene for the lamps they use at night.
  • Boys are circumcised in their teens without medication. If they cry or show emotion during the ceremony, their family is subject to humiliation. Once circumcised, boys are considered warriors.
  • From a very young age, children work all day. Girls fetch water and sticks and help repair huts. Boys herd cattle and goats, leading them to water holes each day.
  • It’s tough for Maasai children to get an education. They attend school only if they can, sometimes walking several miles each way, dodging wild animals in their path. They rarely progress past primary school.
    • If students have homework, they do it at night propping a kerosene lamp on their knees, close to their face, in order to see the paper to read and write on.
    • These lamps are their only light source and produce a lot of smoke that is harmful to their eyes and lungs. The closer the burning kerosene is to their bodies, the more harmful are the effects. Worst of all, the smoke emitted by the lamps can barely escape from the small hole in the top of the hut so smoke permeates the space all day, every day.

We met other Maasai tribespeople working in shops and lodges away from the village. Even though these men and women leave home for days at a time, they return often to sleep in their family huts. The luxuries of running water, electricity, cell phones and the internet are not enough to lure them away from their roots, and they gladly give up these comforts to return to the warmth and camaraderie of their ancestral villages.

Throughout our African adventure, we had more awe-inspiring experiences than we could count. Being unplugged and learning about cultures so inherently different from our own heightened our connection to the world as a whole.

Lighting the Way

When we returned home, our son, Jared Allen, wanted to help Maasai children overcome their educational obstacles. After a Google search, he found a Maasai man from Kenya living in Washington who had established a nonprofit to help fund Maasai educaiton. Jared reached out to the founder, Moses Kinayia, and asked what he could do to help. Moses suggested Jared raise money to purchase solar flashlights for Maasai children to use while doing homework at night in their huts. Solar flashlights aren’t harmful to eyes or lungs, are renewable, and each flishlight would save a family half their income ($1 per day) that would otherwise be spent on kerosene. When the students weren’t using their flashlights, other family members could use them. In essence, each flashlight would help the 6 family members living in each hut.

Jared wrote a letter about his Maasai experience and appealed to friends and family to consider contributing $25 for the purchase of each solar flashlight. The response was overwhelming. He raised $15,000 … enough to provide over 500 school children in 3 Maasai villages with their own solar flashlight. Moses visited Kenya shortly after the funds were raised, purchased the flashlights and distributed them. In exchange for receiving a flashlight, Moses required each Maasai family to receive important lifesaving education on HIV/AIDS prevention.

Moses sent Jared pictures of the school children receiving their solar flashlights. Smiles covered their faces. What a difference $25 made in the lives of each student and his/her family.

Learning by Example

“From generation to generation” is an oftspoken phrase at religious services. Within a family lineage, character traits and interests aren’t necessarily shared, but in my family’s case, they are woven through the four generations I’ve known. From my grandparents to my children, we share an interest in history, a passion for giving and a desire to make a difference in the lives of others.

Because of my family history, my purpose is clear. I have a call to action. I am inspired to make a difference in the world, just like those who came before me. My children are already carrying the torch forward for future generations. That makes me very proud, indeed.