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. Rida

    I'm so amazed! This is the front page for me!

    September 10, 2011 at 10:12 pm | Reply
  2. Mel

    This story touched me so deeply. As we're told daily there are so many in this world that hate Americans....we seem to always be reaching out to see someone reaching out to America...well, I cried through this entire story. Kimeli, thank you and the Elders in your village, thank you from the bottom of my heart. Your thoughts and your generosity helped fill a hole in my heart and in the hearts of Americans across the United States. Thank you...

    September 10, 2011 at 10:13 pm | Reply
  3. homer

    A very nice story. Thanks!

    September 10, 2011 at 10:13 pm | Reply
  4. Amom

    A children's book? I want a full length movie. This is a wonderful and uplifting story.

    September 10, 2011 at 10:16 pm | Reply
    • Reena

      Wow...Amom, it would be awesome if there was a movie out! If all people could come to the same mindset and a pure heart, this world would be a much better this!

      September 11, 2011 at 1:19 pm | Reply
  5. Carla

    What an amazing story,we should all take a lesson from this,we would all be so much better off for it. So much love for fellow human beings when they have so little themselves.......

    September 10, 2011 at 10:21 pm | Reply
  6. NA

    Amazing story & I bet there's a ton of them out there as it relates to 9/11 but unfortunately what makes Headline news these days are the bad ones.

    September 10, 2011 at 10:22 pm | Reply
  7. fridy

    Nice story anyway,but they just wanted to take a joke at our present.

    September 10, 2011 at 10:23 pm | Reply
  8. kim

    I am very touch by his story... You're a inspiration to the World.. Keep up the good work my Brother...

    September 10, 2011 at 10:25 pm | Reply
  9. Chris

    Truly a heart warming story. Kimeli and the rest of the Masai show a generosity of spirit and concern for others that I wish the rest of us could emulate. I loved the solution to the problem of getting the cows to America – having the Masai care for them forever AND the scholarships enabling 14 students to attend school.

    September 10, 2011 at 10:28 pm | Reply
  10. nunzo

    This is so amazing I don't even know how to put it into words....

    September 10, 2011 at 10:29 pm | Reply
  11. Beall

    Mr.Kimeli Naiyomah's story is all the proof one should need that lives of poverty and hardship are not sufficient in any way as explanation, excuse, or justification for those that sympathize with or participate in terrorist actions. Kimeli, by choice, is the face of what is right, best, selfless and noble about humanity. Terrorists, by choice, are the face of what is most misdirected, gutlessly coward, selfish, and hateful about humanity.
    The terrorists can continue to hate and kill until even they themselves become sickened by it, but they will never get what they want as long as people with the soul of a Kimeli exist.

    September 10, 2011 at 10:31 pm | Reply
  12. Whateva

    We have enough cows.

    September 10, 2011 at 10:37 pm | Reply
    • Beall

      We sure have more than enough losers like you.

      September 10, 2011 at 10:41 pm | Reply
      • Gabe

        Exactly. And "whatevuh" is probably a lazy punk on welfare too. Learn from this guy and make yourself into someone useful.

        September 10, 2011 at 10:43 pm |
    • Lindalou

      Do you not realize the symbolism of the gift. This is something precious to them and they are sharing it with us. If you place a high value on something and part with it as a gift, it make it more precious. Thank you for the 14 cows.

      September 10, 2011 at 10:50 pm | Reply
    • Beverly NC

      And enough jerks like you who appreciate nothing and are sorry representations of America. What have you done for anyone other than yourself lately? All these Republican hypocrites claiming to be "Christians" but yet do not follow a single teaching of the Bible. America needs liess people like you and more true people of character and innate goodness like Kilmeli. Why don't you go to Kenya and get a dose of reality?

      September 11, 2011 at 12:03 pm | Reply
  13. Elettra

    What a beautiful human being. He truly is the epitome of peace, love, strength and healing. Thank you for sharing this beautiful and inspirational story.

    September 10, 2011 at 10:44 pm | Reply
  14. Beefburber

    @ Brit, stfu already, you can always tell when the race card is about to be flipped, it is the one in the deck that is obviously over used and worn out.

    As for the story, hard for me as a cynic to admit but ALMOST brought a tear out, not able to admit that it did.

    September 10, 2011 at 10:44 pm | Reply
  15. Ernie

    Most humans feel this way toward their fellow man, God Bless the good hearted 'common people'. If a news agency would make the effort, they could find uplifting news to report of human kindness, by common people, hourly. It would shortly be #1 on the read list.

    September 10, 2011 at 10:46 pm | Reply
    • Almost Homeless...

      I wish Americans were as loving and giving as these people. I believe we were in the past, but now everyone is so cynical and selfish. We are a couple in urgent need to avoid eviction where we have lived for over ten years due to job loss and no job, but nobody seems to care to offer any help. We feel like nobody in this country will offer us any help at all. You can read about us and help here if you are like these people. I believe $5 would be like a "cow" is to these people, but nobody helps. We are not "sub-humans," we just need temporary help:

      September 11, 2011 at 12:48 am | Reply
      • Fry

        I have an idea..sell your computer!!!! Don't try and take advantage of people who are reading about real acts of kindness and try to hustle the ones who don't know any better. If you were really on the brink of being homeless why don't you sell your computer and why are you on it rather than out looking for a job?

        September 11, 2011 at 2:22 am |
      • Almost Homeless...

        Fry, you are making my point exactly. See how cynical you are and selfish? Your response is typical. You couldn't even imagine that I have looked endlessly for a job to no avail and have to take care of a person going through a lot of serious health issues. I have to be a fraud because I have an old laptop left and an internet connection and know how to read and write and create a free site to ask for a little help. That makes me a fraud, eh? I feel sorry for you man, I might almost be on the street, but I am still a good person with a good heart, neither of which you have yourself. Thanks for the uplifting my spirits and treating us no better than you probably would a stray do or cat. Have a nice life.

        September 11, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
  16. Beth

    What an uplifting story of courage and compassion. Thank you Kimeli Naiyomah for your kindness and for showing us that one person can make a difference in this world. May I also say thank you to your tribe for their thoughtfulness and generosity. I am deeply touched by your story and admire all that you have accomplished. Wishing you many blessings.

    September 10, 2011 at 10:46 pm | Reply
  17. grist

    This is a story that we can all appreciate no matter what our background, political party, religion (or lack of religion). Only one negative comment! That has got to be a record!

    September 10, 2011 at 10:50 pm | Reply
  18. Herold

    Tres bonne histoire.

    September 10, 2011 at 10:59 pm | Reply
  19. jeepster455

    This is very touching. A kind and generous gift. Thank you very much to the Maasai people for this offering for the American people, I am humbled by this gesture. While we brace ourselves for the heartbreak and memories of 9/11, the Maasai reminds us of the good that still exist in people today.

    September 10, 2011 at 11:08 pm | Reply
  20. john blaze


    September 10, 2011 at 11:09 pm | Reply
  21. sharky

    As an American, I say thank you Kimeli Naiyomah. You are also a real inspiration! 🙂

    September 10, 2011 at 11:13 pm | Reply
    • sharky

      And thank you to Kenya and the people of Masai Mara.

      September 11, 2011 at 5:50 pm | Reply
  22. Goldengirl

    Thank you for the cows, how thoughtful!

    September 10, 2011 at 11:15 pm | Reply
  23. Geraldine

    What a wonderful story. I, too, have little money, but i am going to find the childrens' book, read it, and donate it to a school. Thank you, Kenya.

    September 10, 2011 at 11:19 pm | Reply
  24. juan

    great story! 🙂

    September 10, 2011 at 11:19 pm | Reply
  25. Bea

    Hujambo Kimeli. I spent many years in Nairobi, Kenya – I still remember the beautiful tea plantations of Limuru, the pristine white sand beaches of Mombasa, and most of all, my wonderful friends. It's sometimes difficult for people who have never visited or lived in Africa to truly understand it's beauty, but once you've been there, it stays with you forever.

    It is so inspiring to read about your tenacity and many achievements but most of all, your wonderful empathetic spirit. You've done your country proud and I'm sure you will do a fine job of representing it as a diplomat . I wish I could have written this whole post in Swahili but I'll just end by saying bahati nzuri daima...

    P.S. I always cheer for the Kenyans as well during every Olympics and marathon!

    September 10, 2011 at 11:22 pm | Reply
    • Roman Gil

      If Africa is so beautiful, why are they living in poverty? Although I admit that we'll soon be joining thsir lifestyle

      September 11, 2011 at 11:23 am | Reply
      • Bea

        I don't mean to be rude but your question is staggeringly uninformed and simplistic! First of all, it implies that all Africans (some 500 million people!) are a monolithic group that all live in poverty. That's simply not true. As an example, Kenya has a burgeoning middle class and the rich there live better than many in the West – they have very nice, modern, sprawling houses tended to by househelp – usually a maid, cook, gardener, guard, and driver. The upper-middle class usually have househelp too, modern conveniences and like the rich, often send their kids to private schools that have very high standards.

        Why do you think some white South Africans and Zimbabweans continue to live there despite the deteriorated security and political conditions? It's because many of them know they wouldn't likely have the same lifestyle overseas. If you're not convinced, go to google images and key in south africa luxury villas.

        Another problem I have with your question is it implies that a continent/country that has poverty cannot also be beautiful. The US has pockets of poverty in varying degrees in Mississippi, Cabrini Green, areas of Detroit, L.A. etc. Surely that doesn't detract from places that are stunning – Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, beautiful beaches in CA, FL and many more. It's just that in Africa there is much more poverty and at a more desperate level, but that too varies from one country to another.

        All that said, I don't entirely blame you or others for your misconceptions. The media usually portrays a one dimensional and negative picture of Africa in terms of disease, starvation, wars etc. when their coverage should be much more balanced and nuanced.

        This story though, is a great one.

        September 11, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
  26. JW

    It's nice to read stories like this. The media has a habit of dwelling on too much negativity.

    September 10, 2011 at 11:28 pm | Reply
  27. JehseaLynn

    Expanding on @Lindalou's comment, let's look at it in context. Historically, as Africa was settled, the Masai were the most feared of all tribes, as their warriors were absolutely the fierciest, bloodiest, and unquestionably the most fearless. In a pitched battle, the great Masai warriors would win, take trophies – anf leave behind some "signature" that warned others, in effect, "Do not test our boundaries, or this will be YOUR fate as well!" So to imagine these very proud people being so deeply touched after being "transported" to America's own horror show as aptly told through the cataloging eyes of their fellow tribesman, that they of so little would give their most precious gift -as though it were a huge diamond – not just once, but FOURTEEN TIMES OVER! It is as if they laid out fourteen of their own truly grieving hearts for us when they gave us our "Twin Towers" cows. What an astounding story. What an incredible people. What a powerful life lesson: IT IS NOT HOW MUCH MONEY YOU HAVE THAT DEFINES YOU. IT IS WHO YOU ARE INSIDE; OR, PUT ANOTHER WAY, IT IS HOW MANY COWS YOU HAVE IN YOUR HEART.

    September 10, 2011 at 11:31 pm | Reply
  28. Bill

    What a wonderful story! I had never heard of it before.

    September 10, 2011 at 11:33 pm | Reply
  29. Amanda

    "14 Cows for America." is an absolutely beautiful book and I am using it in class on Monday to discuss 9-11.

    September 10, 2011 at 11:33 pm | Reply
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