Empowerment and education

The Naiyobi Women’s Project

Born and raised in northern California, environmental educator Kim Laizer has recently been working on a new project with Massai women in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Conservation Area. This article is the first of two highlighting her story and collaborative efforts to provide education, training, and development opportunities for Maasai women in Naiyobi, Tanzania. 

Assumptions and surprises

Growing up in the agricultural lands of California’s Central Valley, going to Camp Fire camp in the Sierra Nevada mountains every summer, and playing the flute in marching band were some of the most influential experiences of my formative years. They shaped the way I interacted with the world and how I thought life should be. My views and values were colored by loving, supportive, conservative, Christian parents and generations of prejudice on one side of our family. My early assumptions in life were born from these things as well: finish school, work in the outdoors, get married, and have a family. I imagined my future husband to be musical, strong, adventurous, and lighthearted with values and a childhood much like mine. The thought of marrying a Maasai warrior from northern Tanzania never crossed my mind. Never. But, we never know what life has in store for us, what beautiful people, experiences, and realities may come our way.

After years of teaching as an environmental educator, serving as a National Park Service ranger, and exploring landscapes and cultures abroad, I did just that. I married an incredible Maasai man from Naiyobi, a remote village just inside the northern boundary of Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA). Laizer is musical (though he won’t admit it), strong, adventurous, BIG-hearted, and has values similar to mine. Our childhoods, however, were worlds apart.

A beautiful place to call home

The first time I visited Naiyobi was with the intention of meeting Laizer’s family in 2009, the year before we were engaged. I remember thinking what an incredibly beautiful place it was for Laizer to grow up. The landscape was stunning. Green, verdant, grassy slopes fringed with traditional round mud, stick, and thatch-roofed houses; cattle and goats grazing; Maasai people in their bright red and blue shukas moving about; a giant active volcano rising skyward behind it all. Just a few weeks ago, when in Naiyobi with friends who have traveled the world, I heard one say that the view from outside the old ranger post may be the most beautiful scene he had ever witnessed. Truly.

There are other beautiful aspects of Naiyobi, namely the incredibly kind, welcoming people who make that place their home. Though they may have little money and few possessions, they take care of one another and share what they do have with those in need, and people like me. Good humor, a commitment to community, beautiful traditions of colorful dress, ornate jewelry, singing, and dancing. In the rainy season when water is available, some say life is not only beautiful, it is easy in Naiyobi.

Life isn’t easy

Although certainly a matter of perspective, life there is not really easy. Living in the conservation area comes with challenges. The Maasai are allowed to raise traditional livestock within NCA, but there are restrictions as to where and when they can graze and water their herds. Cultivation, even in the smallest form, is prohibited. Someone I know was put in jail for allowing feral potatoes to grow near his home. In the dry season, when cows and goats stop producing milk and the animals grow thin, families that don’t have money to buy supplemental food go hungry. It may be more accurate to say hungrier. Unless their families live near the communal water spigot in the area, women walk miles for water most days, and in the dry season may have to wait in line for four to six hours to fill their buckets. There is a medical clinic in Naiyobi that villagers raised money or contributed labor to build. Although there can be a doctor present, medicine is not always available. If emergency medical help is needed, the nearest reliable cell phone signal is a two-hour walk from the village, and the closest hospital a three-hour drive on a rugged dirt road with infrequent public transportation.

Other challenges stem from Maasai culture, especially for the women. The Maasai have patriarchal polygamous traditions. Although the women do a lion’s share of family work, they are typically viewed by men as children, have few decision-making rights, and must ask their husbands for permission to do, buy, or sell most things. Women are commonly victims of domestic violence. A Maasai friend told me that young women are counseled by older women on what to do when their husbands become violent. Not if, when.

Fathers arrange marriages for their daughters and receive multiple cows in exchange for each bride; cows are a traditional form of currency and symbol of wealth in Maasai culture. The age at which girls are married seems to be getting younger in Naiyobi, which means female circumcision, illegal in Tanzania but customarily expected for Maasai girls, is happening at younger ages as well. Few fathers send their daughters to primary school, even though it is required by law, and fewer still support their daughters going to secondary school. Fathers fear that time away at school will delay their daughter’s circumcision and marriage, or increase her exposure to other ways of thinking, which may lead her to refuse her father’s wishes. As a result, few women in Naiyobi know how to read or write, do basic math, or speak the national language.

Reality sinks in

The reality of these cultural challenges settled in for me in 2014 when I returned to Naiyobi to spend a few weeks with my new family. Laizer had told me how difficult life was for Maasai women and how much he wanted to create an organization that would protect them from circumcision and violence. Although I had encouraged him to do so, I had followed my passions in other directions. But, spending so much time with Laizer’s sisters, and seeing the realities of women’s lives day after day, changed things for me; it touched my heart in ways that my previous studies and visits had not. Most influential was something that happened with my fourteen-year-old sister-in-law, Niomome, who had taken such good care of me, played and sang with me, helped me practice Maa and Swahili, and had such a brilliant spark in her eyes. She had just finished primary school. Although she hadn’t scored well on her exit exams, she told me she was eager to go to secondary school. I offered to sponsor her, but in the end, she did not accept the offer. She feared failure and disappointing her family. Regardless of my encouragement, I couldn’t persuade her to try. Accepting her refusal was painful because I knew that if she didn’t go away to school, she would be married off by her father within the next year.

Within a few weeks, she was.

Turning point

That was a turning point for me. Knowing young women with so much potential, few if any alternatives, and essentially no control of their situations made me want to do something to help. I wanted to find a way to provide opportunities that didn’t currently exist in their world. I wasn’t sure exactly what nor how, but I was driven to figure it out. 

To learn what was discovered, created, and shared in Naiyobi, see Part 2 of Kim’s story:

Sustainable education

Kim Laizer

 Kim Laizer works as an Education Manager for NatureBridge in Yosemite National Park. She initiated this project as part of her graduate work through the Global Field Program of Project Dragonfly at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. To learn more about the Naiyobi Women’s Project and future developments, visit www.crowdrise.com/Naiyobiwomensproject. For full-length versions of her lesson plans including background information and glossaries, email Kim at laizerka@miamioh.edu.


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