This is the second time Wilson Meikuaya and Jackson Ntirkana have visited Canada and already the ride has been smoother.
The first time they travelled from Nairobi to Toronto, the two Maasai warriors spent all of the 15-hour flight with their eyes glued to the flat screens in front of their seats, afraid to sleep lest the plane take a sudden nosedive into the Atlantic.
“It was shocking for us because we had never been on a plane. So we were just looking at the flight information to see how far we were from the ground, are we close to the place we are going?” Mr. Ntirkana recalls with an easy laugh.
In the two years since their maiden voyage, the young men, now well travelled by any standard, have put thousands of air miles behind them.
The popular Me to We personalities have toured Canada as cultural ambassadors between the Maasai and the West. Their diplomatic tasks include sharing personal stories with schools and businesses, visiting dozens of Canadian friends they’ve made through their work as Me to We guides in Kenya, and taking the stage before audiences of thousands on We Day.
During this go-round, set to last three months, the charismatic duo will follow a similar agenda, with one notable addition: the promotion of their new autobiography, The Last Maasai Warriors. The book is a collection of anecdotes detailing Mr. Meikuaya’s and Mr. Ntirkana’s transformation, through education, into leaders among their Maasai Mara communities.
As the Maasai don’t record birthdays, the two authors reckon they are in their mid-20s, perhaps between 25 and 27. They represent the first generation to attend school and the last generation of Maasai warriors, as the book’s title suggests, to partake in a number of traditions they feel no longer hold value for their people.
“I can say for now we are trying to eliminate those things that are not helpful to the community, but we still stick to our culture because our culture is very nice and it’s important for people to stay in [it],” Mr. Ntirkana says.
Some of those changes have been easier to implement than others. Maasai society is still based on a patriarchal hierarchy that requires everything to be approved by male elders. Until recently, these elders put little stock in the ways of the outside world, preferring to guard old traditions.
But as the first graduates flood back into their villages, they’re returning with a set of extraordinarily progressive values, along with an elevated status that has given them the authority to voice them.
“We need to show people [back home] the importance of education so people can follow us,” Mr. Meikuaya explains. “
Gone, for instance, is the lion hunt, a traditional rite of passage for any young man who wished to become a Maasai warrior.
Though Mr. Meikuaya and Mr. Ntirkana both participated in these kills, they’ve managed to convince the elders to eradicate a practice that, while illegal in Kenya since 1977, has been considered a warrior’s highest achievement within the Maasai Mara for more than a century.
“We came to realize that if the Maasai keep on killing lions for their bravery, in a few years to come, there will be no lions in the country,” Mr. Ntirkana says.
“So we came up with an idea that for you to be a Maasai warrior, you can learn to preserve the animals or protect yourself against it if it comes too close. So instead of going to kill the lion, maybe you [will] go to school all the way and get a degree.”
They’ve faced similar success with discouraging the practice of female genital mutilation, and are champions of female equality, urging parents to let their daughters join their brothers at school.
“Some years back we believed that only the men are able to do important things,” Mr. Ntirkana says. “But nowadays because the community is developing, we have so many Maasai girls who are teachers, who are doctors, and sometimes politicians. We have everything.”
The rate at which the communities have opened up to new ideas is particularly astonishing considering that just a few years ago, the Kenyan government had to send police into rural outposts to forcibly remove school-aged children and deposit them at a nearby schoolhouse.
This is how Mr. Meikuaya and Mr. Ntirkana ended up at Free the Children’s Naikarra Primary School more than a dozen years ago, Mr. Meikuaya from his village in the Narok South District and Mr. Ntirkana from another village 70 kilometres away.
Though they both thrived in an academic environment, the boys faced enormous resistance from their parents, who wanted them to remain at home and adhere to their traditional roles. Mr. Meikuaya recalls the beatings he would receive if his father caught him studying at night, and both boys were frequently pulled out of class during drought season to travel with their families to Tanzania.
Now university graduates, Mr. Meikuaya says everything has changed in the intervening years. “Our parents were against us going to school and the government would come to look for the children, but right now instead of the government coming to look for the children, it’s the families who want their children to go to school.”
But while that change has brought enormous social and economic benefit to their individual villages, the speed at which the Maasai are hurtling into uncharted territory has made it tricky to preserve the old and negotiate the new.
“It is actually really hard, but you have to do it,” admits Mr. Meikuaya. “It’s just not easy to make a change in the community.”
With years of challenge ahead of them, their Canadian adventure will offer the young leaders a brief respite from their weighty task. Right now, they’re simply excited to be back in the place they consider their “second home.”
“People here are so friendly, so welcoming,” Mr. Meikuaya says.
Mr. Ntirkana, in particular, is looking forward to revisiting some of his favourite local staples. “I can say we have tried sushi, which is very nice. Also double-double coffee,” he adds, referring to Tim Hortons’ addictive java fix.
And with that, he has secured his diplomatic credentials for life.
Volunteer tourism is nothing new to Heather Beamish. The Toronto woman spent her youth travelling around much of the developing world, lending her muscle to a series of community-building projects.
Twenty-five years, and four children later – including a 10-year-old daughter with special needs – and the logistics get a little tricky.
“It’s huge to travel alone to travel with a kid with significant special needs,” Ms. Beamish said. “She’s a wild card; you have to see what you can do as a family.”
Ms. Beamish’s desire to expose her clan to the type of work she loves trumped her reservations and the family of six headed to Kenya last March through one of Me to We’s volunteer adventure programs.
They spent a week constructing a new maternity wing at a health clinic in the Maasai Mara, everything from “pointing stones with cement” to “finishing off walls,” while staff kept the seven- and 10-year-olds engaged.
“I was expecting that I was going to have to spend my time babysitting the two younger ones. But the magic was I was able to get out and do the work as well,” she explained.
Though she enjoyed the manual labour, Ms. Beamish said she really felt the tangible results of her work when she spoke to the Maasai “mamas” who would be benefitting from her work.
“Let me tell you, the women do everything over there, and as a mother I’m just dying inside hearing some of their stories,” she added, mentioning a mother whose young daughter had died the year before.
Ms. Beamish is particularly pleased with the trip’s impact on her older sons. Both boys pledged to raise $8,500 to build a school in Osenetoi – a rural village in the Maasai Mara National Reserve Park – and they’re halfway toward completing their goal.
But as she’s quick to point out, the money is a mere drop in the bucket.
“It’s not about what our family can do to impact the local Kenyans. It’s totally about what the local Kenyans are doing to impact us,” Ms. Beamish said.
“Quite frankly, it’s all incredibly selfish what we were privileged enough to get out of the process.”