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.

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Topics: Africa • September 11

soundoff (558 Responses)
  1. davidstouch

    This story has been shown to teach Americans that true riches are in the heart of those who love and know the Creator.

    September 11, 2011 at 1:26 am | Reply
  2. Ali

    Very good story really good people

    September 11, 2011 at 1:26 am | Reply
  3. LawUte

    This is so truly touching. Thank you.

    September 11, 2011 at 1:31 am | Reply
  4. Cande

    My Son is deployed in Africa. God Bless America, Africa and our Military.

    September 11, 2011 at 1:40 am | Reply
  5. Dan

    Amazing and really inspiring story! EducationFor those who wish to gift a child in Kenya with the opportunity to education, I suggest you do it through Imani Community Dev. Inc. ( a reputable 501 c 3 organization based in Maryland which is doing great thingssupporting and keeping needy children in school as well as helping put up classrooms in rural Kenya. God bless you Kimeli. Dan

    September 11, 2011 at 1:56 am | Reply
  6. wedesme

    pure selfless gift, nothing expected in return...this is humanity at its best

    September 11, 2011 at 2:02 am | Reply
  7. ElCid

    They made great burgers....urrrrp!

    September 11, 2011 at 2:03 am | Reply
    • Jay

      What's wrong with you?

      September 12, 2011 at 12:26 am | Reply
  8. Dapper Dan

    My son loves the book, 14 cows for America.

    September 11, 2011 at 2:05 am | Reply
  9. BadBadger

    Wonderful story. Compassion and generosity have no borders.

    September 11, 2011 at 2:08 am | Reply
  10. Jam Jam

    Wow this story is quite mooving

    September 11, 2011 at 2:19 am | Reply
  11. Zoidberg, MD

    Strange. You didn't mention the Palestinian celebrations on 9/11/2001 and how they danced and distributed candy to everyone on the streets. It's very easy to find on YouTube, although I myself saw it live.

    September 11, 2011 at 2:23 am | Reply
    • Dan

      Those were jews disguised as muslims

      September 11, 2011 at 2:40 am | Reply
    • munkittrick

      Dr. Zoidberg, I'd humbly ask that you do your research before posting in the future. It's been noted in numerous sources that Israeli citizens dressed in the garb of their enemy and danced in an attempt to raise our ire to a level worthy of a war. It worked. Here we are, and people are STILL getting the facts clouded. Be vigilant and mirror the facts, not the legend.

      September 11, 2011 at 10:39 pm | Reply
  12. user420

    Simply amazing story! I truly hope that this individual goes very far in life. We should be humbled by such an amazing gift. I know I am.

    September 11, 2011 at 2:25 am | Reply
  13. Al Fred

    I am so touched! God bless them!

    September 11, 2011 at 2:28 am | Reply
  14. Drew of Phx

    I've had the pleasure of meeting several individuals from Kenya in my lifetime. They are very honest, lovely people and the world can learn a lesson from them.

    September 11, 2011 at 2:29 am | Reply
  15. christopher brown

    now the muslims will target the poor masai tribe after labelling them CIA agents/Jewish co conspirators ...

    September 11, 2011 at 2:45 am | Reply
  16. Thefoodcab

    That's a pretty good story. Please check out 'The Austin Food Cab' on facebook. We are a very small effort in TX using a bicycle rickshaw to raise money for famine victims in the Horn of Africa. The conflict/drought/famine particularly in somalia is causing a huge humanitarian crisis in neighboring Kenya as a thousand refugees from Somalia arrive daily. We are a very small effort but its better than nothing. Maybe you would like to contribute to the UN world food program or just click LIKE on our page.

    September 11, 2011 at 2:49 am | Reply
  17. matt

    Feeling very happy now! Needed this

    September 11, 2011 at 2:53 am | Reply
  18. Sharon Wolf

    Just beautiful. What an amazing person – I expect to hear a lot from him in the future

    September 11, 2011 at 2:58 am | Reply
  19. Julie

    OMG!! This is so touching but is also hysterical beyond belief.

    September 11, 2011 at 3:09 am | Reply
  20. tbk

    Am soo much inspired God bless America and Ghana

    September 11, 2011 at 3:10 am | Reply
  21. Dan

    Just when I was being a bit too selfish and self-centered, I read about Kimeli. Thanks for posting the story and knocking things back into perspective for me.

    September 11, 2011 at 3:15 am | Reply
  22. Fearfighter1

    Simply Beautiful. God bless all of us to reach our greatest potential of loving forgiveness. Hate, ignorance, violence must be eradicated from our world.

    September 11, 2011 at 3:23 am | Reply
  23. Patrice

    Thank you for this story. It brought tears to my eyes and I'm definitely going to share it. We are all human, all connected, and all remarkably vulnerable to the kindness of strangers. This story makes me glad to be a human being.

    September 11, 2011 at 3:26 am | Reply
  24. Paul

    The story leaves me a bit lost – but here, I can relate:

    "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].”"

    That along with his desire to become a doctor tells me that he is a man I can get along with!

    September 11, 2011 at 3:27 am | Reply
  25. stevo

    Very good story. I know there is no way they can hear this, but I am very appreciative of the tribe that gave us this gift. This must've been a large gesture for them and should remind all Americans that we are apart of a global communiry.

    September 11, 2011 at 3:27 am | Reply
  26. peter

    People at first glance may think this is a joke, but to the Masai it's straight from the heart. Cows are very important to them and to give them as gift truly means something.

    September 11, 2011 at 3:42 am | Reply
  27. imil 101

    I guess, as long he doesn't wish to become "President of the United States of America", he will be accepted and beloved as a kenyan doctor-
    But he don't dare need to try and become President. He is just a an African and according to some of the most prominent whites in this country, He is not capable of being the President of this United States, or even governor of this great, "LAND OF EQUALITY AND FREEDOM".
    And I am being so condescending and sarcastic

    September 11, 2011 at 3:45 am | Reply
  28. al

    I just spent 4 weeks in Kenya doing government work. During that time I had gotten to know some of the local population. Not for nothing but Kenya is so lucky to have talented children growing up in their mist like that. They need all the support from their elders to help not only achieve their goals but Kenya's goals as well. From what I have seen on the street during my travels they are a bunch of hard working dudes that don't take no for an answer when it comes to getting thing done. That is my impression of the Kenya population.

    September 11, 2011 at 3:52 am | Reply
  29. steve

    Great story..but would love to know how/why he was given a scholarship...even to go to Stanford when there are 100's of thousands of Americans who would like that same opportunity but cannot due to cost of school. I worked hard got straight As in school, straight As at UC Davis. When I left school I was $64k in debt. Took 15 years to pay off my school loans. Was unable to receive any scholarships, although I applied everywhere. I literally got letters stating "we have no scholarships for your ethnicity". That being white. God bless Kimeli and his hard work..but I hope we start investmentments in our own country first before branching out globally.

    September 11, 2011 at 3:52 am | Reply
    • Kit

      Yep, we had opportunities here to write for scholarships, take out loans (yes, I have plenty too), work through school, you name it. We had opportunities to make school happen, and a variety of choices and levels of schools open to us. There are massive books and listings of scholarships – from small to large – to help us access funding, and a loan program(s) public and private that supports the education desire in the US. Please don't complain about the opportunity you received, and got funded, even if you have to pay it back. The fact is – you can.

      Kimeli could NOT. No such thing even existed for him. And the University leadership at Oregon, with others, chose, from their scholarship and other programs set aside for this purpose, to award a singular scholarship to a student (with potential, as we all had as well). That is their prerogative – to find candidates. Even a candidate that ran away from home to another village, and learned basics from a teacher in a traveling (funded) program beneath a tree. And he satisfied their guidelines and conditions of their program, or special requirements placed on him, and graduated from Oregon.

      That one scholarship will change his village significantly, and provide a new diplomat, with further power to change his community, and potentially region and planet.

      And already, he's gotten his home community to give a gift of immense sacrifice and value to the adopted community that gave him a life-changing opportunity.

      I think the reciprocation has worked. No one should feel cheated by the exchange. That's the point of opportunity and returning what you received. That is the point of programs put in place. You had your shot. Kameli managed to get his.

      Both of you should be grateful and better for the chances, and hopefully the rest of us will benefit as well.

      Stay uplifted, dood.

      September 11, 2011 at 8:47 am | Reply
    • Kit

      And by the way, thanks Kimeli, Maasai elders, and people, for your generosity.

      I'm a firm believer in the power and value of livestock. 🙂

      (And $40k in student loans that are repaid, every month, with interest.)

      September 11, 2011 at 8:52 am | Reply
  30. Matty

    The world needs more Kimeli and more such stories. I am surprised why it did not get highlighted in 2002.

    September 11, 2011 at 3:55 am | Reply
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