Growing up in a traditional Maasai home, Lialo Salaash would take his families’ cows to graze everyday. As he walked, he would think of what he wanted for his life and what he appreciated about his culture. While he loved the peace of being alone with the cows, he also enjoyed being a part of a community where everyone helped eachother, no one had just one mom or dad and everyone was part of a bigger picture. Lialo did not see himself as an individual who was separate from the group, like how more modern cultures do. He grew up in a village that focused on the collective good of all…
Lialo was the child who was “supposed” to attend school as per the government rule of one child per family having to get an education. His family hid him to avoid this. Eventually they were forced to give in and his younger brother had to go. To this day, Lialo credits much of his strength, pride and conviction as being the result of his traditional upbringing.
Lialo followed the coming of age traditions of his culture beginning with scarification done by knife and fire as a small child, getting his earlobes cut and stretched at age 10, circumcision at puberty, followed by warrior training for several years as a teenager. All of these rituals involved overcoming hardship, pain and struggle in order to build an inner strength that is more powerful than the pain or struggle itself. Lialo firmly believes that these stages formed the person he is today and that they gave him a strong sense of identity and purpose within his culture and community.
After warrior training Lialo worked several jobs at different camps and lodges on the Maasai Mara Game Reserve. It was in 1997 that he first met Natasha Wiig at Planet Safari’s camp. He couldn’t speak English, nor she Maasai, but they were instantly drawn to each other. Him to her happy, carefree ways and love of children. She to his quiet, caring disposition and strong work ethic. Their relationship developed into love, full of hope for a future together, but also the challenges of blending two worlds. Natasha made it a point to quietly watch the Maasai – women especially – and learn their way of life. The parenting practices, in particular, fascinated her and she marveled at how different the Maasai children seemed compared to children in Canada. Babies were never alone, always in arms and mothered by many different people. They didn’t seem to cry or want for anything. Rather than becoming indulged and spoiled they grew into confident, capable and independent children. She began to see that the community raising the children together, provided a firm base from which they could thrive through being mentored and guided by all. Together, Lialo and Natasha planned to live in Kenya and build their own campsite for backpackers visiting the game reserve. They hoped that it would be a way to bring their worlds together for the benefit of many.
After the birth of their first child, Acacia in 2000, they did just that. Acacia Camp, as they named it, was a camp where Maasai and world travelers came together. Maasai staff ate with guests, played checkers together at night, and shared stories by the fire. It was not “US” and “THEM” it was “WE.” Friendships were formed and learning opportunites were abundant for everyone involved. It was not uncommon for travelers to stay longer than their three day safari and be invited into Maasai homes for tea and to spend a night or two. It was here that Natasha and Lialo really began to become a bridge between two cultures. Not just for themselves, but for the people around them.
Unfortunately, living in this way was not the norm in the Safari industry where school educated businessmen took advantage of the many Maasai who were illiterate and unaware of the corruption and greed. These companies built themselves up while exploiting the Maasai and encouraged travelers to spend money rather than build connections. Lialo and Natasha ended up having their lives threatened, and fearing for their safety and the safety of their daughter, they quickly left Kenya for Canada.
Life in Canada was not easy for them as it was difficult for Lialo to navigate this new world without being able to read and write. He took English classes part time and delivered newspapers door to door. He next found work at a greenhouse, and then tree trimming. His work ethic was noticed and he was offered a permanent job as a laborer. Despite his difficulties with reading and writing, he quickly worked his way up to the position of welder where he remains today. During this time, the Salaash family continued to grow with the addition of 4 more children – Mateyo, Selam, Matakai and Senaya. Natasha ran a daycare in here home and in that way was able to create a sort of village for them. There were children of all ages and ethnicities in the home and neighborhood mothers helping out. The Salaash family made a conscious effort to build community around them. They added a front porch onto their home and ate meals there so that they could easily interact with neighbors. They had potlucks and invited friends from all over. Lialo made a tetherball pole and put it in the front of their house. Children and adults from all over the neighborhood enjoyed playing together.
The Oltumo well project is Lialo and Natasha’s vision and another extension of their idea of coming together. It is so much more than just a well. It is really about bringing people together, forming common bonds, community, learning from each other, and appreciating the differences.