Kenyan tribe donates cows to America
September 11th, 2013
10:07 AM ET

Remembering 9/11: A warrior's unexpected gift to America

By Tom Goldstone, CNN

Editor's Note: Tom Goldstone is the executive producer of Fareed Zakaria GPS. This article originally appeared in September 2011. The views expressed are his own.

As America looked inward in the days, weeks and months after September 11, 2001, others around the world made extraordinary gestures toward the United States. 
We were all so focused on ourselves – understandably so – that many probably missed the fact that Iran’s President Mohammad Khatami condemned the attacks, that Ireland and Israel held full national days of mourning, that the Afghan Taliban told “American children [that] Afghanistan feels your pain”.

You are even less likely to have heard what could be one of the most touching reactions of all.  This is the story of how a destitute Kenyan boy turned Stanford student rallied his Masai tribe to offer its most precious gift to America in its time of need.

It all starts with Kimeli Naiyomah.  Kimeli, a member of a Masai tribe, grew up in a small rural town called Enoosaen near the Masai Mara National Reserve.  The town had no water, no electricity, no phones and no roads. After accompanying his ailing mother to the hospital as a young boy, Kimeli says he knew he wanted to grow up to heal others like her.  He didn’t know such people were called doctors - he just knew he wanted to be one.

Dreaming of being a doctor is ambitious even in America.  But in Kimeli’s part of Africa, one could have easily dismissed that dream as impossible. This was especially true in Kimeli’s particular situation.  He says he had no father.  His grandmother had been murdered.  And his mother – his only remaining caretaker – was battling alcoholism.

According to Kimeli, his family (or lack thereof) was so destitute that his Masai tribe didn’t even consider them people – they were sub-human. Moreover, nobody that Kimeli knew from his tribe had gone to high school, let alone college or medical school.

He knew he had to change his situation, so he ran away – to another village where he had heard that there was a school that was taught under a tree.  It was a church school and it became his grade school and his home.

When he grew beyond this school-under-a-tree,  Kimeli found the nearest high school, which was 9 hours away.  So he walked there and told the principal that he had no money, no uniform, no books, no shoes and no family, but he wanted to attend school.  And, as Kimeli tells the story, the principal was so amazed by Kimeli’s gumption that he welcomed him to the school.

Kimeli soon realized he probably couldn’t achieve his dream of becoming a doctor if he remained in Kenya.  So he started applying for universities in America.  He says, “My elders got together to try to raise money to help me achieve my goals.”

The same elders who had once considered Kimeli to be sub-human had done a complete reversal.  Kimeli says his people were now were so impressed by what he had achieved that he was not only considered human again, they were invested in helping him achieve his goals.  They raised $5,000 for him.

A Washington Post reporter then caught wind of the story and came to Enoosaen to write a story about Kimeli’s doctoral dreams.  That story ended up on the front page of the paper. The article inspired an outpouring of support, including a scholarship offer from the University of Oregon, a plane ticket from a businessman in Florida and clothes and other materials he needed to survive in America paid for by another total stranger.

“You can imagine how I felt”, Kimeli says, “when I received a letter offering me a scholarship in America.  It’s like getting a letter from God when you know you’re not qualified for heaven.”

Kimeli enrolled at the University of Oregon in 1996.  A few years later, Kimeli heard about Stanford University (after Chelsea Clinton enrolled there) and decided after seeing the school that that was where he belonged.  He says, “It looked like a village to me”.  And once again, Kimeli made his own luck, getting accepted at Stanford after getting his grades up in Oregon.

Kimeli had become a celebrity of sorts back home.  In September of 2001, the President of Kenya was scheduled to be in New York and Kimeli says he was invited to meet with him.  And that’s how Kimeli – now officially a full Masai warrior back home – found himself in New York City on September 11, 2001.

As a warrior, Kimeli is trained to rush to the scene of crisis.  “You run to the battleground,” he says, “I don’t run away from tragedy, I run to tragedy.  But I was realistic enough to know I couldn’t help [at Ground Zero].”

Kimeli says he is also a very emotional warrior.  9/11 touched him deeply. The country that had given him so much had been brutally attacked.  He had to figure out a way to help.  He had to do something.

So, on a trip back home in May of 2002, he asked to meet with the elders of his tribe.
First, Kimeli told them of the horrors he had witnessed in New York.  Many of Kimeli’s people had never even heard of 9/11.  They couldn’t even fathom buildings that tall and most people in the village had never seen a plane except way high up in the sky.

Then, Kimeli told them of his plan.  He wanted to buy a cow (something this formerly homeless boy had never been able to do) and turn right around and give that cow to America. In Kimeli’s tradition, a cow is the most precious property one can own.  And it is believed to bring great comfort to its owner.  As one elder told a reporter, a cow is a “handkerchief to wipe away tears”.

He wanted his elders’ blessing for his plan.  But, unexpectedly, one-by-one the elders stood up and said they were so inspired by his plan they wanted to do the same.  In the end there were 14 cows that had been pledged to the American people to help bring them peace.

On June 3rd, 2002, U.S. charges d’affairs William Brencick travelled to Enoosaen to formally accept the cows.  He says it took him more than half-a-day to get there - a flight and then a long drive over treacherous terrain.  But after he heard Kimeli’s story, he wanted to go.

Brencick expected to be greeted by a handful of people, but when he arrived, he found a large crowd. Kimeli says more than a thousand people were in attendance.  Kimeli had brought American flags with him.  The “Star Spangled Banner” played on a loudspeaker.  Some in the crowd held up banners that said: “To the people of America,” “We are touched by your loss” and “We give these cows to help you”.  Brencick says it was “overwhelmingly emotional” and he couldn’t help but tear up.

But there was a hitch. Logistical and monetary problems prevented the U.S. from taking possession of the cattle.  The herd was worth much less than the considerable amount it would cost to ship it 7,250 miles to New York City.  And there were health hurdles: African cows weren’t allowed in America.  In addition, there was concern that the cows might not survive the voyage anyway.

Washington Times columnist Tony Blankley heard what was going on and wondered how the U.S. could get 80,000 troops into Afghanistan, but couldn’t get 14 head of cattle out of Africa.  As for the Masai, they couldn’t quite understand why this American came to accept the cows, but then didn’t take them home with him.  Some wondered why he didn’t just load the cattle on a truck and drive them to America.

Four years later, on the 5th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, all was made right.  Then-U.S. Ambassador Michael Ranneberger traveled to Enoosaen to cement a deal for Kimeli’s tribe to take care of “America’s” herd in perpetuity.  And, as a way of saying thanks, the Ambassador announced the establishment of a scholarship for 14 boys and girls in the village to go to local schools.  Those scholarships continue to this day. 
And today the herd continues to grow.  As of right now, 35 “American” cattle roam the plains near Enoosaen, tended lovingly by one of the elders in Kimeli’s tribe. 
If you ever find yourself there, you’ll know which are the American cattle.  They have special Twin Towers markings on their ears.

As for Kimeli, he’s decided he can do more for the world as a diplomat than a doctor.  Next fall, Kimeli hopes to become a Rotary International World Peace fellow at Duke University.

If you’re interested in reading more. Kimeli’s story is featured in a children’s book 14 Cows for America. 
A free copy of the book is available for all those who lost family members on September 11, 2001.

Post by:
Topics: Africa • September 11

soundoff (558 Responses)
  1. Dot

    What a beautiful and inspirational story. I wish Kimeli all good in his future.

    September 11, 2011 at 7:49 pm | Reply

    No thanks. We want nothing from there. It was bad enough that there was that sperm donation that resulted in the idiot in the white house

    September 11, 2011 at 7:58 pm | Reply
    • agentgirl

      You make me feel dirty to be an American. I hope you never are in need. You have an ugly soul. Why don't you read the facts and the destruction that GWB cost. Why don't you watch the tape of him sitting there and doing nothing for 7 minutes or so while the US was attacked. Why don't you watch the tapes of GWB in Texas on his ranch instead of being at work. You stupid woman.

      September 11, 2011 at 8:14 pm | Reply
  3. TheWiz71

    Just wow.

    September 11, 2011 at 8:04 pm | Reply
  4. slong

    more cows less Obamas please

    September 11, 2011 at 8:09 pm | Reply
  5. Michelle

    Given the absolutely horrific way the Masai men treat their wives, the US should have never accepted this gift.

    September 11, 2011 at 8:09 pm | Reply
    • brown

      Horrific to you perhaps, understand their culture and respect it for whatever it is. We do not have a right to judge this
      ancient tribe.

      September 11, 2011 at 8:36 pm | Reply
      • YouIdiot!

        @brown...HORRIFIC to every human who cares about human rights for ALL, not just because of one's gender!

        Why should we understand and respect a culture that totally disrespects human rights? I think we have every right as humans to ask, change, deter, etc...something so evil.

        Are we to take your advise and not do anything against terrorists because we should understand, respect, and not judge their ancient culture?

        September 11, 2011 at 10:47 pm |
  6. Your neighbor

    Here's another story, although perhaps not quite as great a sacrifice as Mr. Kimali's. Few Americans know that US citizens were detoured for several days to several Canadian cities on and after 9/11 because their flights home from overseas were unable to land at US airports closed because al flights were stopped. The stranded passengers were looked after, housed, fed and entertained by Canadian officials and families in those cities without any expectation of compensation but in the spirit of true neighborliness. Today, on the 10th anniversary, many of those US and Canadian citizens have bonded over the past decade and have come together in Canada to share their memories and celebrate their friendship.

    I am sure similar acts of kindness by ordinary citizens and officials occurred in other countries.

    Yet, Canada and Canadians were falsely vilified and derided by many Americans, and still are, for being the source of the 9/11 terrorists when actually the terrorists had flown into US airports from other countries months before the attack on the Twin Towers without being noticed by US border officials.

    September 11, 2011 at 8:15 pm | Reply
  7. DN3

    Amazing story! I know there are amazing people in this world but it's nice to be reminded of this once in a while!

    September 11, 2011 at 8:15 pm | Reply
  8. Vic T

    Thanks...great infor as usual..stay well...

    September 11, 2011 at 8:28 pm | Reply
  9. brown

    Thank you Maasai for your warm thoughts and honorable display of raw selflessness.

    September 11, 2011 at 8:30 pm | Reply
  10. Jo

    worth more than gold....This is true compassion...

    September 11, 2011 at 9:04 pm | Reply
  11. scott

    its fitting since thats were our president was born

    September 11, 2011 at 9:18 pm | Reply
  12. TruthTriumphs

    Poland was losing each day as many victims as of September 11. During World War II, every day for 5.5 years, lost a similar number of people like you September 11 – We Unite With You!

    September 11, 2011 at 9:30 pm | Reply
  13. T3chsupport

    I hope someone one day does a report on Heifer International, a charity that helps people lift themselves up from hunger and poverty by donating animals to them and teaching them how to raise them and process their eggs/wool/cheese etc and take good care of the animals. One of the rules to receiving a donation like that is that you have to agree to pay it forward- when the animal you are given gives birth, you give that new animal to another family to start spreading the gift. Google it up, its a seriously awesome charity.

    Also, Charity: Water. Installs wells in villages with no water, where people are having to walk hours to get dirty water for their families. Also helps give girls access to education that they wouldn't have had before.

    Both very good, very worthy causes that you can really see in action. Giving people a hand up instead of a hand out.

    September 11, 2011 at 9:31 pm | Reply
  14. Jason

    Wonderful story. For those understanding of what they did, it is a wonderful gesture, made even more so by their lack and our abundance.

    September 11, 2011 at 9:51 pm | Reply
  15. Someone

    Love this story. Really inspirational 🙂

    September 11, 2011 at 10:00 pm | Reply
  16. Pagan

    Touching story.
    btw, what happened to those cows? Were they killed and eaten?

    September 11, 2011 at 10:15 pm | Reply
  17. common cents

    Kenya can have obama back

    September 11, 2011 at 10:19 pm | Reply
    • Mike Houston

      Thanks to Kenya for all their gifts, including the gift of Obama.

      By the way, we offered you as a gift from the U.S. but they said they didn't need
      any common (s)cents like you. They already have far too much stinking stuff...

      September 11, 2011 at 10:45 pm | Reply
  18. Kay

    What a great and unfitting story. There IS still so much good in the world. Bravo CNN for highlighting something positive from such a tragic event in history. Why must we relive this over and over again every year? What good does it do for humanity? There is to much gloom & doom and not enough positive stories being shared. I personally would like to see more like this.

    September 11, 2011 at 10:37 pm | Reply
  19. Scott

    wheres the beef

    September 11, 2011 at 11:02 pm | Reply
  20. Ruth K.

    The maasai just have the cows. The die for a cow. To them this is the ultimate gift. They do not even know how great America is?, they have no concept. Mostt of these people have never left their village.

    September 11, 2011 at 11:08 pm | Reply
  21. AndyF

    Very mooooving! Awesome act of generousity when you understand the culture.

    September 11, 2011 at 11:31 pm | Reply
  22. Chris

    This is to ALL the conservatives and liberals who decided to use this amazing story as a platform for your beliefs. You should be ashamed of yourselves. How dare you dirty this act of unadulterated decency with partisan idiocy. Im a conservative and you make me wanna puke. And im sure theres alot of liberals who feel the same.

    September 11, 2011 at 11:58 pm | Reply
  23. Yakobi.

    Just don't give the cows to California dairy farmers or its subsidized milk will be $4 a gallon!

    September 12, 2011 at 12:07 am | Reply
  24. Mick

    That's just a really wonderful story. It's refreshing to read about the good things that happen in the world today.

    September 12, 2011 at 12:33 am | Reply
  25. Kyne

    Bashing Obama for being half Kenyan seems so ridiculous. The way in which those bashers lift themselves above these people as better and more civilized seems ridiculous. They may not drive SUV's and check emails on touch pads, but they care and are compassionate. In terms of humanity, clearly they are more civilized.

    September 12, 2011 at 1:30 am | Reply
  26. Tom

    That was quite a heartfelt story. I really feel like our wars of imperialism have rendered their generosity in vain. Thanks a lot Bush.

    September 12, 2011 at 1:50 am | Reply
  27. Vijai Walter

    It is a great Heart touching story .

    September 12, 2011 at 9:11 am | Reply
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