It does take a village: How one Kenyan tribe sent a man to Stanford

(07-14) 04:00 PST Stanford — Kimeli Naiyomah ran away from home at 5 to get an education. He didn’t have a pair of shoes until he was 13. Today, he is a premed student at Stanford on a work-study scholarship.

In his commencement address last month, Stanford President John Hennessy recounted the challenges the young Masai tribesman from Kenya has overcome, citing his sense of responsibility to his clan as an example for the graduates to emulate.

“When Kimeli achieves his dream of building the first hospital in Masai land, which I firmly believe he will, he will have given all the people who helped him — teachers, financial supporters, the members of his village — the greatest possible gift in return,” Hennessy said.

The story of how 24-year-old Naiyomah got to the United States, and to Stanford, begins in the Masai village of Enoosaen, where there’s no electricity or telephones and the local water supply is polluted. There’s no paved road within 35 miles.

Despite the deprivation, the Stanford senior’s Masai neighbors have more than lived up to the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.”

In 1996, the same year that Hillary Rodham Clinton used the proverb as the title for her best-selling book, hundreds of Masai gathered one spring day at the thatch-roofed mud hut that served as a secondary school.

Many of them could not read or write themselves, but they were there to raise money to send the boy who was not content to be an ordinary cattle herder off to college — a boy whose unwavering childhood dream to become a doctor took hold when his mother underwent emergency surgery in a clinic run by Catholic priests.

During her recovery, the youngster slept under his mother’s hospital bed and was allowed to watch when doctors treated her and to help change her bandages.

“I was fascinated by the scar and helping to heal her,” he said. ”It’s been in my head ever since to be a surgeon.”

Some of the poor tribesmen who came to the tribal harambee — a Swahili word that roughly translates as community fund-raiser — had no cash, so they sold one or two of their cows to boost Naiyomah’s chances to study medicine. When the collection was tallied, $5,000 had been raised.

Some knew that when Naiyomah was only 3, he and his four brothers and their mother had fled to another jungle district, fearful that whoever had murdered his grandmother would also be coming after them.

They knew that the often hungry family had wandered for more than two years,
seeking shelter in exchange for tending cattle or other hardscrabble labor, before finally returning home.

They knew that Kimeli had trudged for hours through the jungle every day as a child to a distant outdoor missionary school, where sympathetic teachers had taken him in after he had run away from home. Naiyomah recalls that his mother, thinking he had been dragged off by a leopard, was joined by others in searching for the body, finally tracking him to the school. Relieved he was alive, she agreed to let him continue his classes.

Naiyomah never knew his biological father and relied on what he calls “many moms and dads” in his village for guidance.

“Considering how many hands have touched my life,” he says, “I doubt if I will ever boast that I made it on my own.”

A soft-spoken, slightly built man, Naiyomah recounted his story the other day in a Stanford dorm where he is staying while preparing for his senior year in the fall. After transferring from the University of Oregon last fall, lured by Stanford’s prestige, he’s hoping to enroll next year in medical school.

His room’s walls were covered with Masai tribal artifacts and framed photographs of people who have been important in advancing his vision for his village. One photo shows Naiyomah dressed in an orange tribal robe presenting Hennessy with a beaded Masai scepter, the symbol of tribal leadership.

Naiyomah, whose clan’s traditions include honoring elders at every opportunity, said he had e-mailed Hennessy asking if it would be all right to present the gift.

“I wanted to show my appreciation for being accepted by Stanford — not because I am so bright but because of who I am,” he recalled. “I felt humble and lucky to be here.”

Among those who heard Hennessy’s commencement remarks about Naiyomah were Bill and Hillary Clinton, there for the graduation of daughter Chelsea. Earlier in the day, Naiyomah had sent the former president and current senator — whose book he has read — some Masai jewelry.

But the Stanford commencement was not the first time the Clintons, who asked to meet Naiyomah, had heard of him. They had also read the 1996 Washington Post article that reported on the Masai village’s extraordinary fund-raiser for Naiyomah.

In many ways, that article shaped Naiyomah’s future as much as the villagers’ generosity.

A University of Oregon administrator read the article — and helped arrange a partial scholarship for Naiyomah and to bring him to the United States. A professor with Kenya connections also gave him a job helping her put together the first dictionary of the Masai language.

Others also stepped forward to help, including Alex Sanford, president and CEO of an Internate radio network in Foster City.

“His story touched a strong nerve in me,” says Sanford, who periodically mails the student a modest check to help him with expenses.

For the past year, Jim Bryson, a wealthy Oregon manufacturer, has been sending Naiyomah a $1,000 monthly stipend to help pay part of his tuition. He will also be traveling to Kenya to install a filtration system in the creek that serves Naiyomah’s village.

“I’ll be spending three weeks in a dung hut with no electricity,” Bryson joked — but expressed as much enthusiasm for the creekside venture, which he will be paying for, as he has for helping advance Naiyomah’s vision in general.

Bryson has no doubts about Naiyomah’s sincerity.

“He’s either the most earnest person on the planet — or the biggest con man ever,” said Bryson, laughing. “But Kimeli does what he says he’s going to do, and there are lots of of people pulling for him.

“His story is mythic. . . . I feel very honored to be standing at least on the periphery cheering this kid on.”