Maasai Youth Outreach Organization founder presents to history classes

Pictured above is the founder of the Maasai Youth Outreach Organization Jonathan Saoyo Simel alongside WHS students. Simel gave a presentation to WHS history classes. “I wanted the unfortunate to feel proud and grow up well, Simel said.

Credit: Courtesy of Kevin Delaney

Pictured above is the founder of the Maasai Youth Outreach Organization Jonathan Saoyo Simel alongside WHS students. Simel gave a presentation to WHS history classes. “I wanted the unfortunate to feel proud and grow up well,” Simel said.

Meg Trogolo

Jonathan Saoyo Simel, founder of the Maasai Youth Outreach Organization (MAYOO), gave a presentation to WHS history classes. Simel spoke about his childhood, MAYOO and ways that students could get involved.

He discussed his organization, which runs a safe house for at-risk Maasai girls in Kenya and builds water systems for Maasai villages. The Maasai are a semi-nomadic tribe who live in Kenya and northern Tanzania.

“The community needed help, and because I grew up as an orphan, I said, ‘I should start something to give,’” Simel said. “I wanted the unfortunate to feel proud and grow up well.”

As a child, Simel lost both parents and helped his grandmother raise his siblings. A family from Philadelphia paid his high school and college tuition, and his education inspired him to start MAYOO in 2009.

MAYOO aims to pipe clean water to Maasai villages and to improve the safety of girls there. The MAYOO website states its mission is to “[empower] the Maasai youth in being independent, proactive and high-achieving through improving access to education and a healthy lifestyle.”

Many villages do not have access to clean water, and drinking from unclean sources can cause diseases such as trachoma. Carrying water to a village is considered a woman’s job, and the distance between a village and the nearest clean well can be as much as 3.1 miles. In addition, the drought that currently hangs over Kenya has reduced the water supply greatly, causing livestock to die of thirst.

MAYOO builds water piping systems for remote villages in the Ingarooj region. Each system costs $4,000 to build and brings clean water to 1,000 people and their animals. The money comes from donations, fundraising events and the sale of Maasai jewelry.

The organization also runs a shelter for Maasai girls who are at risk for early marriage or female genital mutilation (FGM), two issues Simel considers to be major problems with his culture. Many girls marry when they are as young as 13 years old, and although there are laws against FGM in Kenya, the Maasai tribe is exempt. However, according to Simel, many young people who attend school come back with greater knowledge of other cultures and object to these practices.

The MAYOO safe house was built in 2012 and has served 70 girls. The program is authorized by the Kenyan government, and although the girls may choose to return to their families, their families cannot go to the shelter. Each girl receives clothing, school supplies and food, which are paid for by a long-term sponsor who keeps in contact with her. Once they graduate high school, the girls are able to find work as teachers and secretaries, often in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital.

Simel is currently on a multi-week fundraising trip in the northeastern United States, and has gained sponsors for 16 girls who live in the safe house. While here, he has found that many of the people he speaks to are hearing about the issues facing the Maasai for the first time.

“I realized that so many people don’t know about this. So many people don’t know about early marriage and FGM,” Simel said. “I’m trying to tell them, so they can understand.”

Simel also discussed ways that students could contribute, such as forming clubs to raise funds and buying jewelry sold by the Maasai.

Sherry Anderson of Holliston, who arranged for Simel to come and speak at WHS, also attended the presentation. Her son volunteered with MAYOO at the beginning of the summer, and she invited Simel to stay at her house while he was in Massachusetts. She has helped raise funds for MAYOO’s water piping projects.

“One of the things I was interested in that he told me about was the need for water in the village and the difficulty of going to collect it in big barrels,” Anderson said. “We just hit our $4,000 goal last Thursday, so the water pipe will be completed when he goes home in about a week.”

Anderson says that being involved with MAYOO has changed her outlook on life in general.

“Just being able to help has put everything in perspective for me. Every time I turn the water on, I turn it off fast,” Anderson said. “It’s been a life-changing experience for my son and me.”

The volunteer help does not go unappreciated.

“We stayed almost two years without having funding,” Simel said. “Since I started the volunteer program, I got connected, and now we are moving ahead.”