Giving up the Good Life.
Interviewed by Sue Leonard.
Published in The Irish Independent 14th April. 2008.
Elaine Bannon had life sussed. She had a high flying career in the lighting industry; a house and a flash car. She took two holidays a year and enjoyed countless weekends away. But in 2002, Elaine took stock.
“I celebrated my 40th birthday with a friend in Kenya. It was a typical package; we went on Safari for a week and then spent a week on a beach relaxing. But when I got back to work in Ireland, I couldn’t settle down.
“Everyone seemed to want more. The suppliers wanted more money; my employer wanted more profit, and the customers wanted more discount. Suddenly the Celtic Tiger ideal didn’t make sense to me.
“Where I had been people didn’t even have clean water. I’d seen poverty. I’d seen kids who hadn’t shoes or a school to go to.
“I handed in my notice, and left work in March 2003. Our courier, on that holiday had told me about a friend of hers who ran a free school in Mombassa. I asked did she want a volunteer, and I went to see her.
“Then I returned to Ireland and wrote to some customers asking could they give me money to help the school and I raised around 15,000 euro. I went to help in the school for a year and I put the cash to good use.
“I did everything. We had a clinic. Some days I would run that cleaning up wounds and treating malaria; other days I would teach; help cook lunch or sweep the floor.
“I met some Maasai people who became friends. They invited me to visit their homes in Rombo- the most Southern part of the Kenyan Rift Valley where the Maasai Tribe live. They live in huts made from mud and cow dung; they wear traditional clothes and, mainly, still live through their animals; cows, sheep and goats.
“It was like going back to the dark ages. There were no roads; just dirt tracks, and there was little access to education. The only source of water was the river or the spring. And the poverty is terrible.
“They are peaceful people, and hospitable. I fell in love with the area, but I became aware of their profound difficulties. I wanted to help. I talked to local leaders, like a Roman Catholic priest and a Pentecostal Bishop. One of the Maasai guys had worked for a charity that had run out of money. I asked what their aims had been.
“I went back to Ireland after the year, and thought about the Maasai. And I decided to go back there and live. I’ve been there ever since.
“I have formed a community- a precursor to an NGO called Light of Maasai. My aim is to help the people with education, with health, and with water projects. Three young Maasai men from the area help me. They translate, and point me in the right direction. They know the lay of the land.
“I live in a little house provided by a mission. It had a sheet iron roof, a bathroom, and, mostly, running water. It’s basic, but comfortable. I raise money in Ireland. Matt Porter of The Kedington Group, and through him the Rotary club have been amazing. And I do one project at a time.
“One month I might dig a well. The next I’ll build a classroom. That might take five or six months. The work makes a huge difference. The people love me. They call me Narikuinkerra, or Nariku for short. It means brought by the children.
“AIDS is a problem here, but children die of diarrhoea too. We’ve had a drought. Cows aren’t producing milk and there’s no money for food.
“You can plough an acre, with your bare hands; you can plant it and fertilise it, but if it doesn’t rain for a year the crop dies in the ground.
“Every morning when I wake up I will find at least two women in my garden, waiting to see me. Perhaps they are starving and need a bag of rice. Maybe their baby has malaria or typhoid and they don’t have the money to pay for the medicine.
“Perhaps her husband wants to take her daughter out of school; to circumcise her and marry her off. She wants help to stop that. In that case we try and get the girl into boarding school away from the village. We may involve a local chief, or, in the last resort, the police.
“Female circumcision is against the law in Kenya, but unless the family is educated, all Maasai girls are circumcised. It is seen as the beginning of womanhood. We try to use words that are respectful, but we do stress it is against the law.
“When they ask me to sponsor a child I first have to make sure the story is legitimate. If it is, I say, ‘you will have to wait a month or a year. I will do my best to get you money.’
“We’ve just opened a school. 3 classrooms were built by us, and two by AMREF- the African Medical Research Foundation. The women told me that their children had to walk 12km to the nearest school. They might meet wild animals, and in the rainy season they’d have to go through dangerous riverbeds.
“I said, ‘give me two years and I will see what I can do.’ In the meantime, I asked them to collect rough stones for foundations and clear an area. And they did that. I’d no idea where the money would come from; in the end Belgrove Senior Boy’s school in Clontarf raised it. Primary kids built a school for primary kids. And it’s called Belgrove School.
“The recent skirmishes didn’t really affect Maasai land. After the election we could get no newspapers and no rice for a while. And someone, one day, spread hate leaflets along the main road, saying the Kikuyu Tribe had better leave the area, but no-one took much notice.
“In response we bought maize and had it ground into flour. We gave it to the community as a peace gesture. We said, ‘we are sharing this from our table. You are starving. If your neighbour is starving too, help him, whatever tribe he is in.
“Sometimes people ask me about politics. I say, ‘I am only here to help you go to school and get clean water. Let me worry about those things.’ I don’t worry about the trouble spreading. What’s the point? I just get on with life.
“I don’t have holidays now, except to come home. I don’t need good clothes. Nobody judges me. But I never leave the house without eyeliner and lipstick on, and I always wear perfume.
“I eat maize, beans, rice kale and fruit, like the locals. There is a shop, but you can’t buy bread butter or chicken. I go to Mombassa every six to eight weeks for two or three days. I go to a supermarket, then, and buy sausages, pasta, butter and garlic.
“I miss my mother’s Sunday dinner, and I miss having a hot shower. I hate washing sheets and towels in cold water in a bucket. But I love it here. I love watching the clear night sky. I can’t see myself coming home anytime soon.
“I was in Ireland with two Maasai men last year. A friend showed us his new car. It had five individual screens for his children to watch films. It had GPS, and if someone tried to break into it, the car would ring your mobile phone, and you could then make the horn blast by remote control.
“I thought, ‘what incredible technology. But if they can do that, why can’t they find clean water for the Maasai kids to drink?’ It makes no sense to me at all.”
For more information or to donate; www.lightofmaasai.com
©Sue Leonard. 2008.