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. caolan

    why was ireland included in there as a surprise? so weird and ignorant

    September 11, 2011 at 8:34 am | Reply
  2. Aaron in DC

    Of all the stories of September 11th, this one to me, shows the most promise for the future. This is a story of human potential on all levels. I am so impressed by Kimeli's ability to see the potential of his own life and against all odds, persevere to not only improve his own life but work to do something good for the lives of others albeit in his own culturally significant way. I am also inspired by the potential of world leaders to come together and support a nation in the most dire of times: the president of Iran and the Taliban for example. I am always saddened though, that we as a human race cannot seem to come together in this way without an event like September 11th but I have faith that men like Kimeli will prevail and the future is bright.

    September 11, 2011 at 8:34 am | Reply
  3. Ruka5

    That was such a touching story that made me cry. What precious and kind people to give all they could give, cows that are symbolic to their people and given to the people who had been merciful to them in the past. A gift of love and compassion for the horrendous act that occurred. Out of hate always comes love that truly can never be taken away. How beautiful!
    I Loved this story!!

    September 11, 2011 at 8:39 am | Reply
  4. cmgmc

    I was vacationing in the Masa Mari on 9/11. The local tribes people went to great lenghts to help us be informed, and make arrangements for quick departures. Several people visiting at the safari camp lost family members or friends in the attacks. The lovely Masai people extended to us the most thoughtful care and concern, tried to console us through those horrible days. I will never forget their warmth and generosity,

    September 11, 2011 at 8:41 am | Reply
  5. WoI Admin

    Very touching story.

    However I might add that some areas of Kenya kill white people on sight,
    or so I hear from family who have visited the region.

    September 11, 2011 at 8:41 am | Reply
  6. miamai

    You are right, my question was a little confusing. I am not about the "necessity" of collecting donations for the poorests of the poors. It's absolutely natural for me and for all those, who give either money or prayers.
    What I am doubting is the necessity of the action sending cows from Kenya to the US. Organizing of this action, transportation, media campaign etc. should have cost much more than the value of those cows, and all these just for having a new piece in the media – but without any REALLY reason. (and just very silently: I am not so sure that the cows have left Africa at all....)

    September 11, 2011 at 8:47 am | Reply
  7. j0eschm0e

    Just goes to show that there are good people everywhere, and they are many. Only few are determined to hate and destruction. Eventually, maybe we all can live in peace. Solar eveything, so we dont have to be at war for oil.

    September 11, 2011 at 8:51 am | Reply
  8. angel

    this is the most amazing thing i've ever heard-this should teach us that no matter if we're brown, white, yellow, green, red whatever nationality-if more of us were humble and meek as these awesome people who have close to nothing-we would not have the problems we have today! what an unselfish show of love-because there were people touched by kemeli's dilema-they looked into their hearts and helped this kid. this is what we are supposed to do-help others, serve others, and when you do this, you get helped and served in return. the gesture of giving the "cows" to us to this tribe that has near to nothing just makes me want to go out and help whoever i can! too bad we have so many countries that hate the US but if you look at what we do to our country, sometimes i cant blame them. we are selfish, self centered, spoiled, narcisistic, me, me and me and whats good for me! very sad -kudos to you kemeli beautiful story that made my day!

    September 11, 2011 at 8:54 am | Reply
  9. freddie menendez

    Real touching story of how anyone can dream, of how you become there's nothing impossible in this world..

    September 11, 2011 at 8:55 am | Reply
  10. Prometheus

    What a deeply moving story. I am left speechless. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

    September 11, 2011 at 9:03 am | Reply
  11. Parrot


    September 11, 2011 at 9:08 am | Reply
  12. daffypanda

    What an amazing and inspiring story. Thanks CNN for reporting this. We need to hear more good stories now when there is nothing but bad happening around the whole world.

    September 11, 2011 at 9:12 am | Reply
  13. Irene

    It may not be the only example in history when the truly poor exposed a truly big heart and genuine generosity but for as long as these stories keep happening from time to time we shall be able to keep our sanity, our faith in humankind, and the right perspective. Only humans can unite humans, not the money, not the politics. We desperately need humans in these sick times. What a beautiful person! Amazing people! Thank you!

    September 11, 2011 at 9:20 am | Reply
  14. han

    instead of bickering,why dont we all see the good deed that kimeli did,he was neither rich nor was he american but he saw the plight of the american people and sympathized,empathized and decided to help in the little way he could

    September 11, 2011 at 9:25 am | Reply
    • bill


      September 11, 2011 at 10:29 am | Reply
  15. pprty

    As I read this story it was a surprise to me that people in far away lands care about us. This should be the number one story of 9/ll. Thank you Masai people.

    September 11, 2011 at 9:31 am | Reply
  16. Kay

    Kimeli, I hope you are reading this. Not only are you a warrior for the Masai, you are a warrior for all of humanity. You have made the case not only for your tribe and your country, but for the rest of the world that we must never give up! When there is tragedy, hardship and tears we must NEVER let our hearts turn dark. For all of the people who have commented in here with stories of hardship and cynicism, please take a moment and really THINK about where you are coming from-your background. Did you have nothing as a child? Did you have a father? Was your mother an alcoholic? If so, then look to Kimeli for inspiration. If not, then realize how lucky you are and DON'T give up. The universe (or God if that is your divine inspiration) is always listening. You just need to ask and a path will eventually open for you. It may not be the exact path you are looking for, but it will be the correct path, so you must be LISTENING with you heart. If your heart has truly become dark then you will not see the path. Thank you Kimeli for being the messenger of hope. Thank you Masai Tribe for your precious gifts and strong warriors – please send more out into the world! We will try to do the same.

    September 11, 2011 at 9:37 am | Reply
    • marcos

      well done Kay; every word you said should teach us that human being is still GOD creatin. THANKS !!!

      September 11, 2011 at 10:00 pm | Reply
  17. holycow

    hell even if 90% of the article is exaggeration of events, I will take the 10% any day (a kid's determination and perseverance to start in a remote corner of the world and get to stanford for eg)..rather read this than some politicians going through the events of 9/11 and making me depressing..This is truly inspiring

    September 11, 2011 at 9:43 am | Reply
  18. just me

    God bless you Kimeli.

    September 11, 2011 at 9:44 am | Reply
  19. Leslie in TX

    I sat reading this as I listened to the names of the deceased being read aloud during the ground Zero Memorial. This story touched my soul deeply. Not only a tale of personal triumph against all odds, but the generosity of these people make me almost wish I could live among these people and learn so much about what is really important in life. The young man in this story never forgot the gift given to him, and gave back in a most humbling fasion, and yes it reminds me of the tale of the widow's mite in the New Testament, and many other biblical tales of giving in pure intent. How anyone could read this, and then make a negative remark is just beyond me. Alot of people are completely missing the point if some of the comments on these posts is any indication. Thank you so much young man for your gift. It is the most touching tribute of all in my opinion.

    September 11, 2011 at 9:47 am | Reply
  20. Cynthia

    what an inspiring declaration of Unity. I am so touched by this story.

    September 11, 2011 at 9:56 am | Reply
  21. Alex Winter

    That's very nice of them but really they need those cows more than we do, but the gesture is appreciated.

    September 11, 2011 at 9:58 am | Reply
  22. d in fred't'wn

    He is the gift....from sorrow...
    As others have said that must be lots of good stories out there. Report them..we are all tired of hate, fear, we want love understanding...peace.....I love cows!

    September 11, 2011 at 10:00 am | Reply
  23. Terry S

    What a beautiful and touching story. God bless you, Kimeli- Wish you the world's success.

    September 11, 2011 at 10:04 am | Reply
  24. Dr Perry Fisher

    Agreat unsolicited and unwanted gift.Half of Nairobi,Mombasa and Eldoret are starving.This gift is really recognized,

    September 11, 2011 at 10:07 am | Reply
    • Beverly NC

      If you are really a doctor why don't you show some human qualities, some compassion, and go work for these people in need. You sound like a person in great need of some humility and lesson in decency. If you have time to write hateful cynical messages here – you have time to go out and contribute to those in need – wherever they are – no one is sub-human except Republicans who are destroying our nation for greed and power.

      September 11, 2011 at 12:17 pm | Reply
  25. Agni

    My fellow Americans need to GET OVER 911, already! Who but fools make a national ado about their past shortcomings, their bush failures, and about the VICTORY OF HIS ENEMIES?

    Wake the hell up, Americans! And see that you are unwittingly empowering & enabling the maniac muslims, by reminding them how much pain they HAVE & CAN inflict on you, and are thus encouraged to plan even more pain.

    All those who lost love ones on 911, can do their remembrance ... IN PRIVATE!

    The nation as a whole should be using the occasion to MOBILIZE FOR VENGEANCE! Mobile to put the insane islamists out of business for good!

    And I don't want to read any objections from whining whites! Save it!
    The maniac muslims are right now strengthening themselves even more by building their mosques of madness NEXT DOOR by conning you with their so-called 'religion of peace'! More like religions of pieces of Americans bodies scattered all over.
    Get over 911! And stop handing victory to the insane islamists, who only have to do a bit of worthless 'chatter' & some Americans shatter & scatter!

    September 11, 2011 at 10:07 am | Reply
    • pprty

      The media thrives on tragic events & fear, so we should not let they "hype" 9/ll by turning it off.

      September 11, 2011 at 10:46 am | Reply
    • Not a jerk!

      Exactly as we should be ignoring your very insensitive and inflammatory post.

      September 11, 2011 at 10:49 am | Reply
  26. DrDeath

    We give them $100,000,000 a year and we get 14 cows after 20 years. Big deal...

    September 11, 2011 at 10:20 am | Reply
    • Carlos

      you think you made a very smart and witty and funny remark.
      remarks like these is part how your people got into a great mess with the rest of the world.

      apparently you think your way of life is your supreme birthright.
      well, bad news for you. if you continue to think this end up at the counters of McDonalds either serving or preparing the only form of cows you know...

      your will never be the person like those "poor tribal" folks in Kenya...

      FYI, those cows is so important in their lives every day to keep them alive...pound for pound it is at par with your precious 100,000,00. USD of which im sure that you have not contributed to it.

      someday when your precious economy falters because of blokes like you...those fine folks in Kenya will survive with their cows and i am sure how would you cope then?

      let's see how witty and smart you are then?

      September 11, 2011 at 12:39 pm | Reply
    • Bren

      shut the hell up moron

      September 13, 2011 at 4:27 pm | Reply
  27. roadrager1

    I thank them for their Gift, however, They also sent over a Curse called "Obama" Please take him back.

    September 11, 2011 at 10:32 am | Reply
    • wanda

      you should be ashamed of yourself. what a moronic comment to make.

      September 11, 2011 at 4:07 pm | Reply
  28. Vivienne

    Shame on me – I thought this story was going to be about Obama.

    September 11, 2011 at 10:41 am | Reply
  29. Hockeyn109

    It's heartwarming when a people that doesn't have much are willing to give their most prized possession to others. I can't speak for Americans, but I thank you Kimeli and your people for such great generosity.

    September 11, 2011 at 10:41 am | Reply
  30. jorge washinsen

    Today's 9-11 memorials remind us of the character of our people who risked everything ,including their lives, to save others.We should have more memorials to people who have put so much effort into making this country great. Instead we glorify our prisoners and dope dealers too much and waste too much pity on a lost cause.

    September 11, 2011 at 10:42 am | Reply
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