On the mountains of the Kenya-Tanzania border, a great Maasai celebration filled the air as their new school buildings are opened. On board the MAF plane was a man who helped make it possible: former Olympian and COCO charity founder Steve Cram. Katie Machell reports.
The Maasai village of Olorte, tucked deep in the southwest of Kenya near the Tanzanian border, may appear unremarkable at first glance. Yet in this small community, God is at work and great things are happening: a partnership between the local primary school, Maasai Academy, and UK charity Comrades of Children Overseas (COCO), is facilitating tangible, sustainable and life-improving change.
I have been offered the opportunity to see this for myself as I have been invited by Hennie and Becca Marais, missionaries with RedTribe, residents of Olorte since 2009, and parents of two children at the school, to join a team from COCO flying down with MAF to attend the opening ceremony of some newly constructed buildings at Maasai Academy.
To reach Olorte by plane means landing 20km away at the village of Entasekera where an airstrip has been cleared, and then completing the journey by road. This particular strip is classed as ‘marginal’ and is renowned amongst MAF Kenya pilots for its challenging features. Sitting atop a hill, the grass runway lies short and very narrow in places; because of its height and exposure to the elements, crosswinds are significant and any rain quickly makes the surface soft. In fact, it is so marginal that passengers travelling there can only be issued with a one-way ticket: the Cessna 206 that makes the flight cannot take off carrying anything other than the pilot. You have to find your own way back.
We land with no problems and cheerfully wave farewell to pilot and plane. Our luggage safely stowed in the back of Hennie’s trusty Landrover , we all pile in: Steve Cram, former Olympic and Commonwealth athlete and a founder of COCO; Lucy Philipson, passionate advocate of responsible development and CEO of COCO; Kat Hodgkinson, generous supporter of COCO and independent film maker; and me. There is so much to take in. Hennie’s children Caleb and Taliah, quiet and inquisitive, balanced on visitors’ knees; windows open and dust swirling through the air we bump over dirt roads and dry river beds; smiles and stares from passing pedestrians, always hopeful for a lift; and the way the ground seems to glisten and shimmer, a result of the pinkish quartz embedded in it. Conversation flows as Hennie patiently answers wide-ranging questions from me and Kat, the first-timers. And stories, memories, cries of recognition from Steve and Lucy as they recall their fund-raising cycle ride a year previously, which came through this area and along these tracks.
Eventually we arrive at the school; those summoned to attend the ceremony are already present and the scene is a riot of colour: parents, staff, church leaders and village elders sit resplendent in traditional Maasai dress, the bright patterns of the cloth and the beads of their distinctive jewellery appearing intensified, magnified by the still air and the heat of the sun. Alongside them, the students are proud and quiet in their uniforms, looking us over, curious and fascinated, taking it all in just as we are. We mill around, greeting the elders and the community leaders, shaking hands over and over as the soft murmur of the Maasai greeting ‘Supa’ and the response, ‘Eepa’ repeats between us.
The children remain seated as Steve is handed a pair of scissors and led to the new kitchen, classrooms and sports field he is to officially open. Each location has been marked with a beautifully-painted COCO logo, and prepared with a ribbon for him to cut. Once this is done, an elder is appointed to pronounce a blessing over the new facilities that they may be used to the glory of God and for the good of the school community.
These buildings are evidence of not only the practical ways the school is developing but also some more subtle changes. Formal education has not always been embraced by the Maasai as it has seemed at odds with traditional culture; the blossoming of the original group of three children and one teacher at Maasai Academy to the current count of 140 students and 10 staff shows new openness and enthusiasm amongst parents, a willingness to invest in a different future for their children. Steve and Lucy are delighted with the developments to the school since their last visit, and the official ceremony ends with translated speeches in which they warmly congratulate the community on their achievements, while they in turn are thanked for their involvement, and are presented with gifts. All the while Kat moves about with her camera, gathering footage and filming interviews that will be used for marketing and fund-raising in the UK. As evening draws in, we make the short journey to Hennie and Becca’s home where we will spend the night.
The following day, our time in Olorte is at an end and we must go our separate ways: Steve, Lucy and Kat to the town of Narok and then on to another COCO project; me, home to Nairobi. However Hennie’s vehicle has other plans and only a few miles into our journey, there is a terrible grinding noise, followed by wisps of smoke, and a complete stop. Some rapid reviewing of plans, some quick decisions, some silent prayer. A bike is dispatched to find another vehicle to take the COCO team to Narok, meanwhile they head back on foot to Hennie and Becca’s house in search of a phone signal. Standing beside the stricken Landrover, I am weighing up my options when a car pulls up and four people clamber out to offer assistance. They too are visitors: Tim was a missionary in Entasekera for 10 years and has come back with his daughter Jill to visit old friends; they have been joined by Chase and Audrey, a newly-arrived couple who plan to work in Maasailand, and have been language –learning and looking for a place to live. They are going to spend one more night at Entasekera and then head back to Nairobi tomorrow. I can join them. For the second time in as many days, I throw my baggage in the back of a stranger’s vehicle and take off on an amazing, God-ordained adventure in a place I have never been before but am rapidly growing to love.
The rest of the day is filled with new experiences: clambering over rocks to look across to Tanzania, accompanied by children and goats that seemed to appear from nowhere. Searching for a few bars on my phone to snatch a conversation with my husband and explain why I won’t be home tonight. Sharing sodas with my travelling companions in a tin-roofed shack in a small village, and fending off a local who wants to have me for his wife. Pitching a tent next to a Maasai hut where we will be spending the night; then visiting three different homes for tea, rice, potatoes and goat stew. And at every turn, everywhere we stop and every time Tim steps out of the car, he is recognised, remembered, greeted and delighted over. He clearly poured himself deeply into the lives of those he ministered to, and their joy at seeing him again is a testimony to his commitment and service to the Maasai. It is a truly humbling experience.
Another night under the uninterrupted stars that can only be seen from deep in the bush, another dawn opening up a cloudless sky, and long journey home finally begins. Punctuated with more handshakes, more tea, and more precious glimpses of the kingdom of God here on earth, it takes all day; I would not have chosen to spend it any other way.