Buckingham Woman's Work Saving Lives in Africa

A group supported by Central Bucks schools, churches and donors is helping a Maasai tribe survive the drought in Kenya.

As the drought in the Horn of Africa worsens, a tribe in southern Kenya is surviving thanks to the efforts of countless donors from across Bucks County.

Buckingham resident Phyllis Eckelmeyer co-founded the Maasai Cultural Exchange Program in 2005 to raise money to bring water to a Maasai village. Now, that work is literally saving lives, as the worst drought and famine in 60 years stalks Somalia and also impacts Kenya, the Maasai’s homeland.

“Some parts of Kenya and the Horn of Africa face a catastrophe of famine that is killing mostly children and the elderly everyday,” Francis ole Sakuda wrote recently in an email to Eckelmeyer. “Am happy, though, to inform you that the Maasai of our villages will not starve because of our water and the greenhouses.”

Forestalling starvation – that’s not a bad return on the time, energy and money that so many in Bucks County have invested in the Maasai program over the past six years.

From Buckingham Friends School to Doylestown’s to to area Rotary clubs, many donors have given in amounts large and small to make the water flow 7,500 miles away.

“So many generous people around here have helped fund these wells, and it has come at the most devastating time in the Maasai community, because of the drought,” Eckelmeyer said recently. “It’s simply amazing how that water has been so significant in changing their lives and giving them the ability to help others survive this.”

The Maasai have not been the only ones changed for the better. Becoming so involved with people who must struggle for even the most basic of life’s necessities indelibly changes the givers.

“It just makes you appreciate what you have and how fortunate we are to have all this,” said Alice Sparks, of Doylestown, who has been involved with MCEP since its beginning. “We’re so lucky.”


Chance, fate, or something else?

The Maasai are an indigenous people who live in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. Phyllis Eckelmeyer lives in Buckingham Township with her husband Fred.

So how did this statuesque, silver-haired suburbanite develop a friendship with nomadic cattle-herders on another continent?

Blame it on Broadway.

It was 2005, and Eckelmeyer, an aspiring actress and model, was at the station in Hamilton, NJ, waiting to catch a train to New York City for an audition.  She noticed a group of ebony-skinned men dressed in distinctive red robes and struck up a conversation.

They were Maasai, staying with a relative in Hamilton, and were in the United States to participate in a United Nations forum on indigenous people.

Coincidentally, Eckelmeyer’s daughter, Allyson, was about to head to Kenya to teach at a mission school.

Francis ole Sakuda was among the group of Maasai. He and Phyllis traded email addresses, and Francis visited Allyson once she was in Kenya.

A transcontinental friendship was born. Eckelmeyer began MCEP later that year to raise money to drill wells for the Maasai. And Francis and his friends and relatives began visiting Bucks County each spring to do presentations at area schools and churches to help support the cause.

Some people might call that first meeting a chance occurrence. Eckelmeyer knows better.

“It was meant to be,” she said. “And my life has been so enriched because of it.”


Quenching the thirst

The tomato plants grow lush and full, reaching for the sunshine and spreading their tendrils ever upwards.

In many parts of the world, such a scene would be common.

But these tomatoes are growing in the hot, arid landscape of southern Kenya, not far from Serengeti National Park and Mt. Kilimanjaro over the border in Tanzania.

Here, in the Rift Valley, the birthplace of mankind, a rebirth is taking place.

The Maasai, a warrior tribe that traditionally measured its wealth in cattle, are learning to farm. And they’re doing so with the aid of money raised in Bucks County and knowledge they gleaned from a Delaware Valley College professor.

If anyone was in a position to advise them, it was Dr. Jim Diamond.

Diamond is a retired dean of agriculture and environmental science at Del Val. In a career spanning 50 years, he has worked in more than 50 countries on five continents, helping people adapt better agricultural practices to their own circumstances.

“You go there to help people help themselves by using indigenous skills, indigenous materials and indigenous knowledge,” Diamond said recently.

Diamond, who has lived in several African countries over the years, knew Eckelmeyer and had had the Maasai over to his house for breakfast when they visited Bucks County.

During their visit in 2010, the conversation turned to greenhouses.

Diamond helped the Maasai write a grant proposal to get additional funding for the project.

He also showed them how to design a trickle irrigation system that would use very little water and minimize evaporation, to make the most efficient use of their resources.

Today, that irrigation system is being used in four greenhouses, where the Maasai are growing tomatoes, kale, spinach and more.

Sparks got to see firsthand how the greenhouses are run when she visited Francis’ village in February.

“The neatest thing is, the people in the community are in charge of taking care of it,” Sparks said. “The man in charge of the greenhouses is a member of the community, and that’s his job now, and it’s his pride and joy.”

Those greenhouses were made possible with a little help from some friends – Buckingham Friends, that is. Students at the Quaker school raised about $2,500 to donate towards the project.

Even before the greenhouses were built, Kim Troup was able to see what a difference the wells have made to the Maasai.

Troup, a Buckingham resident who teaches English and Social Studies to eighth graders at Buckingham Friends, visited Kenya in 2009 to lay the groundwork for a return trip in 2010 with seven students from her school.

“When I visited the first time, it was the middle of a drought, and it was so dry, everything was just dirt - you had dirt in your teeth,” Troup said Sunday.

The following year, she returned to visit the same school, which had since benefited from the drilling of a well.

With the water from the well, the students started a small garden at the school.

“They were able to do that because they had water,” Troup said. “All they needed was water to make that incredible difference within one year.”


Watching and worrying

In the past few months, tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of starving Somalis have fled conflict and drought in their homeland for neighboring Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya, which is home to the largest refugee camp in the world.

But Kenya is increasingly facing its own crisis.

USAid estimates that 3.5 million people in Kenya are “food insecure.” Between now and the end of September, most of the country will be in food crisis or emergency mode, just a notch below full-fledged famine.

That includes the southeastern part of the country where Olosho-oibor, the region that is home to Francis and the other Maasai befriended by Massai Cultural Exchange Project, is located.

As the news and images of famine continue to pour out of the Horn of Africa, the friends of the Maasai here at home watch developments closely.

They hope the six wells and four greenhouses the MCEP has helped build will enable the Maasai to survive the drought.

And it’s all thanks to the seed of an idea planted by Phyllis Eckelmeyer in the fertile soil of the hearts of her friends and so many others.

When Phyllis started this, it was like, ‘ok, she’s just being nice to these people,’” said Alice Sparks. “But it’s just mushroomed, and the difference she has made has been amazing. It just shows how one person can make such a huge difference.”

To donate or volunteer with the Maasai Cultural Exchange Project, visit their website or buy a book the group designed to raise money.

The group is accepting monetary donations to drill more wells and to sponsor students so they may attend school. A primary school sponsorship costs $150, while high school costs $700.


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