You may have read about the Maasai in National Geographic - how they’ve maintained their culture in a changing world… how the men once faced down lions, and the women adorn themselves with unique, colorful beadwork.  

Approximately 1.2 million Maasai live in parts of Kenya and Tanzania,  known as Maasailand. They're one of  few remaining tribes that still live traditionaly, as herders. 

In 2012, while on safari, we visited a Maasai village near Amboseli National Park, Kenya.

Driving over the salt pan at the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro, we pulled up to what felt like the middle of nowhere. There, we were met by local chief Benson Kelembu who led us through a gap in the circular thorn fence that ringed the village.

Inside was a large space rimmed with round, hand-made huts, constructed by women from ashes, dung, sticks and mud - but hard and light as fiberglas to the touch.

A second, inner fence surrounded the corral, where  livestock spent the night.

To the Maasai, livestock are wealth, income, and - only in dire or celebratory times - food.

In the inner circle stood a line of  people, men on one side, women on the other.  The men had a jumping contest while the women chanted and sang.  They soon pulled us into the line to  join them.

The people were welcoming, and the tour was fascinating, but we couldn't ignore the harsh living conditions.

Over 500 people depended on a single, barely functional pump, which produced only a trickle of clean water!

There was no sanitation nor electricity. Only Chief Kelembu and kindergarden teacher, Moses Saruni, had cell phones, and they had  to walk miles to charge them. 

Girls and women spent hours each day gathering firewood...

...then cooking on smoky fires inside their huts. This causes damage to eyes and lungs of the young and old.

We bought some beadwork, but left determined to do more.

Back home, we sentschool supplies f or the small on-site kindergarten. Alas, they never arrived.  But  we kept in touch with Moses and Benson.

Over the next two years, no rain fell, in what would become a 6-year drought. The hand-pump dried up, and people were forced to drink from the nearby swamp, where dangerous wildlife also gathered to drink.

There was no food. Moses sent photos of bony livestock, too thin to sell.

To help, we sent small amounts of cash via Western Union every few months.

Our new Maasai friends never asked us for money. But they did send thanks and pictures of the food they bought with the money we sent.

Only in 2014 did we learn about the patriarchal nature of Maasai culture, in which girls and women have had few rights.

A neighbor introduced us to Maasai chief Joseph Ole Tipanko, from Ngong Hills, and his wife Cecelia who were in the US to speak at the U.N.

Chief Joseph told us that upon menses, Maasai girls had to undergo the traditional practice of female genital removal (FGM), in preparation for forced marriage to older men as child brides.

Sadly, FGM though largely illegal, occurs in many places, even "advanced" nations. 

More than 200 million girls and women alive today have been cut in 30 countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, where FGM is concentrated, according to the World Health Organization. 

In remote rural places like Ngong'Narok, girls are often cut with unsterilized implements.

A Maasai girl’s father receives few cows for his daughter, who then spends her life as a third or fourth wife - in other words, a household serf. Her main job is to produce babies, starting as a young teen.

These girls lose their personal freedom, some die in childbirth, some end up with fistulae, and others are left with infections and  serious, g health problems.

Moses confirmed the harsh truth - that female cutting and child marriage were ongoing in Ngong’Narok. We then asked Chief Joseph to visit the village, and advocate with Benson and the elders for an end to female cutting and child marriage 

Benson, a father of young daughters, declared his willingness to end FGM.  He authorized a community wide celebration to commemorate the end of the practice in the village - forever.

But ending forced child marriage would be harder. Many fathers believed that the only way to pay for their sons' education was to sell their daughters.

Benson identified 5 fathers willing to break tradition by sending their girls to school instead instead of polygamous marriage - IF we'd agree to pay the girls' school fees.  

The five went off to attend private boarding schools selected by the Chief and Moses.

The rest of us nervously awaited the reaction of the village when the girls returned on school break... 

The transformation was so striking that within two days, every girl in the village wanted to go to school!

We had willingly sent five, at a cost of $400 each per year (for tuition, room and board, uniforms, and books!).

But 21 was above our capacity.  So, we appealed to the Pequannock Valley Rotary Club, where Avery is a member. They helped financially, and encouraged us to form a 501c3 charity that could accept tax-deductible donations. 

With that, the Maasai Girls Fund was born, and we started on a journey we could never have imagined!

(The girls' shaved heads symbolize new beginnings. Their uniforms denote the special status they have as students.)

We now have 48 girls in school, including 8 in high school, and 2  teacher college graduates!


Check out the OUR PROJECTS page to see what we've been doing for the girls' home villages...

Moses Saruni,
On-site Program Director

Chief Benson Kelembu,  (seen here with his first wife, Nataa)

Avery and Paul Mantell, co-founders (seen here with one of the first two college grads.)


When Stephanie Willeke joined the team and sponsored 9 girl  our initiative expanded to a second village - Natamuse!

Working with village teacher Luka Sante and Chief Nasareu Lebakuli, they also provided a water catchment system, a village car, and other improvements.