I was in 6th grade when my mom, Namnyak, got sick. We did not have enough money for her treatment. She was referred to Mount Meru Hospital in Arusha where she got admitted. My stepsister, Bigrose, and I were on the way to see her. On our way, we ran into one of our neighbors, and he told us that my mom was feeling better, and she was on her way back home. He lied. When we got home, we found people crying. I knew it. I knew she died. I was confused. I felt like I was paralyzed or going crazy. I did not believe it until the funeral day. I was just there, but I can’t remember anything. After the funeral, I was afraid to sleep in our house. When I closed my eyes, I would see her laughing. She always joked with me. I used to joke with her that one day I could change her life.
“You can do better next time,” she used to tell me. She couldn’t read or write, but she would check my exams. When she saw a lot of cross marks, instead of being mad at me, she encouraged me. My dad left my mom and my stepmom and married another woman in town when I was in primary school. My mom would wake up at 5 a.m in the morning and go to town to work at a building construction site carrying bricks on her head. It was the only job she could find that paid cash on the spot.
She would welcome us with a smile when we got home from school. She did not want us to see that she was tired and struggling, but I could tell. She was only able to earn enough to buy one kilogram of cornflower, which wasn’t enough for me and my six siblings. When our neighbors came to our boma, they would make comments like, “look at these kids, you can count their ribs.” Yes, it was true you could count our ribs. We ate ugali every day, once a day, in the evenings. We were malnourished. People disrespected us especially because our father left us. It was painful for me. I wanted to make a difference and I promised my mom one day that I would make her proud.
I saw her as someone different. I saw her as a visionary leader. She was strong, kind, and resilient. Because of my mom, I know how to treat people. Once when she was sick, she asked me to milk the goats. Instead, I let all the baby goats be breastfed. How can a man milk goats? We did not have any other means of getting milk that day, but she did not show me that she was mad at me. Because of my mom, I know that gender roles do not really matter. Then, I was afraid that other boys would shame me for milking goats. What kind of man is this milking goats? Are you a woman? I felt bad for doing that to my mom. I now milk goats or cows without even being asked.
I was raised in a loving family. When my stepmom got a job at Orkeeswa School, our lives got better. She worked closely together with my mom to raise me, my siblings, and my half-siblings. At the end of the month when she got paid, she bought groceries, like cooking oil and cornflower, and divided them in half for her family and my mom. My mom started staying at home to take care of the livestock and prepare food for both families. When we got home from school, there was food ready for us.
When she passed away, my stepmother had to take care of all the responsibilities at home. When she went to work, there was no one at home to do chores and take care of the livestock. In the evening when she came back from work exhausted, she had to do everything and prepare us dinner. She started doing the chores at night before she went to bed. She rarely slept. Just like my mom, my stepmother is strong and resilient. From her, I learned how hard work pays. She coped with our life situation, and she was able to rear all 12 of us. I got inspired even more.
I had one vision; to learn the English language. I speak Maasai and Swahili, but I thought English was an international language. I could share my story with the rest of the world, and it would change things for us. One time, I was playing with students from the Groton school in the US. They came to our boma with Bigrose who was a student at Orkeeswa. I wished I could converse with them. I wanted to learn about their backgrounds and tell them about mine. We were in the forest, and it was getting dark. I didn’t know how to tell them it was time to go home, so I would touch one on the shoulder and run, hoping they could all follow me, but they didn’t. I came back and poked another one, and ran towards home, but only that one chased me. “I am to sleep,” I said. My sister then came and told them in English it was time to go home.
They made me want to learn English even more. And I knew I could do that at Orkeeswa, but when I finished 6th grade I was not selected to join. Bigrose was a student at the school and only one family member could attend at a time. Instead, I took a gap year and grazed. I was asked to join the following year. I don’t know why.
At Orkeeswa, I found my fellow students had more proficiency in the English language. I didn’t understand much. I would make mistakes in my sentences and others would laugh at me, but I did not mind. Instead, I remembered my mother telling me that the more mistakes I make, the more I learn. At school, when asked who would like to give a morning speech at the all-school assembly, I always raised my hand first. My English improved. I became a good student. I was learning so much.
After I graduated from Orkeeswa, I attended a Pan-Africa Leadership Program remotely for three weeks. It was supposed to be in Washington D.C, but because of the pandemic, we had to do it online from our home countries. I learned about ways to solve community challenges, and how to create a good team to work with. I knew what project I wanted to do. I started thinking about it in 11th grade.
With help from a community member that I shared my goal with, we launched the Nadumu Maasai Women Organization. Its goal is to empower women, so they won’t have to go through what my family did. In our organization, we put together a group of women from my home village, Orkeeswa. With a grant I got from the US Embassy, we bought agricultural tools, such as shovels, hoes, water cans, and trees then started working on vegetable gardens. Last week, we planted a thousand trees around the bomas.
In ten years, I would like to have covered seven villages with projects and workshops. I envision equality and women running their own businesses to support their families. I would like to see more girls in schools, empowered and well-educated on women’s health.
So far, there has been progress. Now when the elders see me in the village, they respect me. When I meet a group of elders, they even keep quiet and listen to me. Instead of neighbors laughing at me and my family for being malnourished, they now come to me to ask for advice. Once, an elder came to me asking what he should do because one of his sons does not want to go to school. I talked to his son. Even though my mom is not here to witness it, it is because of her that I am going to do whatever I can to change the lives of other women in my community.