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. erica

    Remembering why I love America. What a brave young man!

    September 11, 2011 at 3:54 pm | Reply
  2. Thinker

    Cows from the Masai tribe, their most valuable possession "Priceless"

    September 11, 2011 at 4:03 pm | Reply
  3. matt houston

    A gift from those who have less out of their hearts has infinitely more meaning than a gift from a person who has everything & just wants credit for the gift. Thank you Kenya.

    September 11, 2011 at 4:10 pm | Reply
  4. Georgia

    If you haven't seen the book "14 Cows For America" I urge you to get it. It is breathtaking in words and in the illustrations and is a good way to introduce children to 9/11 without the trauma of the day's events. It explains Kimeli's story so beautifully and the message of kindness and compassion will resonate with adults as well as children.

    September 11, 2011 at 4:16 pm | Reply
  5. Arbitor of Truth

    I love these people. Many, many blessings upon them!

    September 11, 2011 at 4:17 pm | Reply
  6. Linda

    What a touching story. I give money to a charity that I know provides help to those in need. They give 100% of the money that is sent. When disasters happen, ADRA, is one of the first to respond. Of course, you never hear their name, because it's attached to a church organization. Too bad. But I did want to thank these beautiful people for their generous offer. But putting the twin towers on the ears of the cows, show just how much they cared for what happened. Our world is much smaller than we think. Amen for people like them. They are truly special, and we are thankful for their gift.

    September 11, 2011 at 4:43 pm | Reply
  7. Arick

    A truly touching story. You morons making light of this gift have no idea how precious those cows are to the Masai. Those 14 cows were the equivalent of a fortune to them. Stop acting like ill-bred whiny little punks.

    September 11, 2011 at 4:57 pm | Reply
  8. Rakesh Taneja

    A very touching story.We all have to learn a lot from it.As a New Zealand citizen and Canadian resident(Indian Origin) and having travel led to Masai area,I can relate to it.Masai tribal people are great.Hats off to them.I had tears in my eyes reading about it.

    September 11, 2011 at 5:04 pm | Reply
  9. DaveNYUSA

    "Kenya's unexpected gift to America"
    PLEASE, take him back!!!!!

    September 11, 2011 at 5:08 pm | Reply
    • YouIdiot!

      @davenyusa...sorry, he's ours just like the 2 Bushes. Deal with it! Life isn't fair, huh? 😉

      September 11, 2011 at 7:22 pm | Reply
      • Anon

        I am responding to a certain "YouIdiot!". Why are you being so against everyone's views? Everyone should come together, not tear each other apart with snide comments. Not to say that some of the information you have provided us with isn't valid, but you should have a place in your heart to embrace peoples' points of view, not turn them down.

        September 11, 2011 at 8:04 pm |
    • YouIdiot!

      @Anon...your accusation is without merit. If you would have read ALL of my remarks, you would not have made such an idiotic statement.

      Seems like you have a lot of accusations to leave on just about every other comment made here since you seem to discredit people who talk the truth.

      September 11, 2011 at 11:02 pm | Reply
  10. Chi

    What an inspirational story! And what an incredible bright young man this is, I can't believe there are still such fantastically selfless deeds in this age. Thank you, you are truly memorable. On this September 11th, 2011, it's been 10 years and we should all start learning how to forgive one another.

    September 11, 2011 at 5:11 pm | Reply
  11. rainyday

    Briton killed and wife kidnapped in Kenya

    September 11, 2011 at 5:22 pm | Reply
    • NamCbtVet

      And what does that have to do with the "14 Cows for America"? I smell a whiner here.

      September 11, 2011 at 5:48 pm | Reply
    • T3chsupport

      Woman murders her own daughter and gets away with it in America.
      Shall we continue?

      September 11, 2011 at 9:33 pm | Reply
  12. david

    Cow? I thought they were talking about the one that lives at 1600...silly me...

    September 11, 2011 at 5:31 pm | Reply
  13. samsam

    This story made my day. Very inspirational as well 🙂

    September 11, 2011 at 5:32 pm | Reply
  14. Jus

    I hardly ever cry but I broke into tears when I started to read the part where he went to the high school principal to tell him he had no money,no uniform ,no shoes ... This is just another reason why there is really no problem without a solution.If you are determined enough to find the solution, you will find it one way or another.This is one of the best stories I've ever read.

    September 11, 2011 at 5:47 pm | Reply
  15. canderson

    I thought obama was Kenya's surprise gift to America. Too bad we can't exchange it for something else.

    September 11, 2011 at 5:51 pm | Reply
    • wilson

      Probably not, but I'm pretty sure he's going to be put out to pasture soon.

      September 11, 2011 at 6:59 pm | Reply
  16. Junior

    my thoughts exactly canderson...

    September 11, 2011 at 6:13 pm | Reply
  17. kimberly

    The purity of this gift , and the purity of spirit in which it is offered brought tears to my eyes. Among the countless stories of loss recounted on this day, it is important to remember that as a country, despite our many failings, we still offer hope and opportunity. That is what prevails this day. That is what towers above the wreckage. That is what lights the sky as a beacon. That is America.

    September 11, 2011 at 6:17 pm | Reply
  18. JiminNM

    The only thing America needs from Kenya is Obama's birth certificate.

    September 11, 2011 at 6:20 pm | Reply
    • wilson

      You probably need to let that go. It's already been proven that he was born in Hawaii. But, you don't know how to read do you?

      September 11, 2011 at 7:00 pm | Reply
    • YouIdiot!

      @jiminnm...that tea party kool aid sure makes people delusional and say dumb things. Did you think of that all by yourself or are you just repeating what you hear with out researching for the truth on your own?

      Guess what? You don't have to drink it! You have choices. Go towards the light, get educated and think for yourself!

      September 11, 2011 at 7:18 pm | Reply
    • Oliver

      Donald Trump, go away!

      September 11, 2011 at 8:06 pm | Reply
    • David K

      JIMNM: You're one unhappy negative Republican/Tea bagger! Let us enjoy this forum.

      September 11, 2011 at 8:12 pm | Reply
  19. Georgia

    I have had the privilege of meeting Kimeli in person. He is a very quiet spoken young man who will absoultely take your breath away when he speaks. And he speaks from his heart. Those of you making light or mean-spirited jokes about this - I feel sorry for you. There are no words to describe this incredible young man, or his contribution to our nation at a time when we were so hurt. Those of you who appreciate his story and his people's gift, thank you. Those of you who make light or joke about it, I'm sorry for you. Buy the book and you'll understand why I'm so passionate about it. We desperately need more wonderful people in this world like Kimeli. He gives my heart hope for peace in the future.

    September 11, 2011 at 6:31 pm | Reply
  20. Ron in California

    For those who have so little to give a gift to us who have so much is truly heartwarming.

    September 11, 2011 at 6:36 pm | Reply
  21. Clau

    America is from Alaska to Chile ????

    September 11, 2011 at 6:37 pm | Reply
  22. Clau

    America is from Alaska, Canada to Chili ????

    September 11, 2011 at 6:40 pm | Reply
  23. Helene

    Great uplifting story!

    September 11, 2011 at 6:44 pm | Reply
  24. Hank

    Thank you, Mr. Kimeli, for your wonderful, thoughtful, gift to the American people. Your big heart should be something that we should all strive to have.

    September 11, 2011 at 6:49 pm | Reply
  25. wilson

    That's a great story, and I hate to ruin it or be disrespectful, but... a young boy makes it all the way to Stanford, and doesn't understand that the US has no need of cows other than to milk them or eat them? Nice gesture, but it seems a bit primitive for an educated person like him. I'll bet he's a hoot to be in class with.

    September 11, 2011 at 6:51 pm | Reply
    • JeezLouise

      You my friend need to understand the value of a cow to the Maasai and the meaning of a gesture.

      September 11, 2011 at 7:10 pm | Reply
      • JeezLouise the Second

        Yeah, and somehow I suspect if the Scottish people presented some Angus cows to the US, it wouldn't even occur to you to call it "primitive". And what about when China gave Ling-Ling the panda to the US? Was that "primitive" too?

        As I recall he/she was accepted graciously in the spirit with which she was given. In a shallow, material world I find these kinds of symbolic gifts refreshing actually. Must be great fun shopping for you at Christmas. :O

        September 11, 2011 at 7:39 pm |
    • wilson

      Actually, I'm easy to shop for.... just don't get me a cow, unless it's wrapped in butcher paper.

      September 12, 2011 at 3:54 am | Reply
  26. Marty

    Thanks, Kenya! Now can we return your first "gift"?

    September 11, 2011 at 6:53 pm | Reply
  27. sunny lovetts

    CAUSE GUESS WHAT... the pain isn't over for many!

    September 11, 2011 at 7:11 pm | Reply
  28. Wanderer81

    Thank you Mr. Kimeli, for your kindness and compassion to your fellow man. Your heart is as big as the Towers.

    September 11, 2011 at 7:25 pm | Reply
  29. bob

    that's great and all, but i'm disturbed that he only heard of stanford after chelsea went there. he was in oregon for the preceding several years, for pete's sake! that's right next door. someone needs to tell him about 9/11 or he'll be really confused and lost about all the memorial services today.

    September 11, 2011 at 7:48 pm | Reply
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