Climbing in elevation up what should be considered more of a pile of corrugated rocks than a road, this is not the Maasai landscape I thought I knew. Holding on to the door handle so as not to fly across the vacated backseat, I look out at the valley that seems to shrink with every tire rotation.
Narok County, located in the south-west region of Kenya, is home to over 800,000 people. Situated alongside the magnificent Great Rift Valley, Narok south alone is home to countless around 200 villages – the majority of whom are Maasai.
A significant portion of Narok’s landscape can be compared to what many know as ‘quintessential Kenya’. It’s common for those who have not visited Kenya to envision it as a country filled with tall Maasai men draped in checkered blankets, balancing on one leg while holding a large stick, and peering out over a seemingly endless savannah (where a lion is inevitably crouching amid the tall blowing grass).
Though this is a fairly accurate image of Narok, the rolling green hills outside of my window convince me that this popular image cannot stand alone.
After three jostling hours, the car reaches what appears to be the top. Breathless, I gaze out at the rolling green hills. Everything about this area is different from the previous Narok villages I’ve visited. It’s chilly, lush, and even closer to the equatorial sun (something a person of very pale skin is quick to notice).
We’ve arrived in Olemegili.
Later, sipping fresh milk tea inside of the chief’s tin roof home, James Ntiyani explains in proper English that out of the village’s impressive 3,000 person population, a mere four adults are educated.
Albeit it’s crisp air and mountainous beauty, Olemegili is somewhat of an island on its own. To travel to school, the market, an adequate health center, or even a clean water source, the community fights a (literally) uphill battle.
Sipping tea with the chief.
Because the chief is adamant about educating the entire village he has assisted the community with building a small school, “I focus most on education because I realize that it’s the greatest avenue for change to come to the people. Since I found some education, let my village become like me.”
This is great news and leaps and bounds beyond Olemegili’s recent education history. Unfortunately, the one-room school only goes up to grade three. This means that students are forced to repeat grades, travel ludicrous distances to attend grade four (around 16 kilometers round-trip per day), or, sadly, drop out of school entirely.
A belly full of sugary tea, we step out of the chief’s home meander down a grassy knoll to meet a community member named Elizabeth Noolmeyeki. Pausing to turn in circles and fully soak in the view, I wonder out loud where all of these supposed 3,000 people are. All I can see is six scattered homes.
The slopes of Olemegili appear to engulf individual homesteads, hiding significant sections of the village within their folds.
Far in the distance, if you squint hard, is Olemegili’s nearest health center.
An air of inherent confidence to her stride, Elizabeth greets us with firm handshakes and smiles. She invites me into the doorway of her home (this is hands-down my most favorite location for talking and taking photos), where we proceed to sit on her carefully combed dirt floor.
Peering through my lens, this 28-year-old mother of five breaks down life in Olemegili through hers.
Elizabeth at home.
After marrying her husband Jeremiah about ten years ago, Elizabeth made a new home in Olemegili. Rearing five children between the ages of six months and 13 years of age, she continues to work her tail end off to make sure they are fed and in school.
[Evidence Of A Life Of Hard Work :: An Average Day in the Life of Elizabeth]
6am: Wake up and leave the home straightaway to fetch water.
“I have to make sure to draw water first because there is very little. I have to get there before the other ladies.”
(Definition of there: a dirty water hole that only fills when it rains.)
9 – 10am: Return from fetching water, milk the cows, and let sheep out of their pen.
“We struggle here with a shortage of water. During dry season, we travel from 6am to 6pm, so all of our effort is toward gathering water. There is no time for work in the home. Where we get water is where every person and animal gets their water. This gives us stomach aches.”
Olemegili water pan.
11am: Head to the garden to begin digging.
“There is a lot of agricultural potential here. This land is beautiful.”
(Elizabeth plants potatoes, maize, beans, kale, and onions.)
12pm: Return home to cook lunch.
1pm: Pick up axe and venture out to collect firewood, then return to garden.
2pm: Finish gardening and bring animals back to their enclosure.
3pm – Dark: Cook dinner, feed children, bathe and put children to bed, close up gates and door, sleep.
On the family property.
Yet, even after the aforementioned 24/7 work schedule, Elizabeth’s food and money is not always sufficient. “Sometimes it’s enough, sometimes it’s not enough, but this is all we have.”
Her days may be full due to the necessary measures required to survive, yet it’s clear that Elizabeth toils with conviction.
Using her red handkerchief to swat the incessant army of flies away from her face, she states with the steadfastness of a dream envisioned years past, “My greatest desire is for all my five children to be able to go to school. Once they are through with school, their lives can change. I am not educated but I will be happy if they are.”
Olemegili’s one-room school. Hosting up to grade three.
Unfortunately, Elizabeth’s eldest child has already fallen victim to the grade three cut-off. “My son Samuel was forced to travel to the neighboring school eight kilometers away after finishing grade three. Every day he faces cold and walks very long distances.”
Trying to disregard the flies as thick as a Georgia summer air creeping into the crevices of my eyes and nose, I contend to balance my camera. It’s in this moment that I am struck by Elizabeth’s words – she is the fourth person to mention the impact of the Olemegili cold.
Elizabeth and three of her children (L to R): Elina, Tunini, Ketemian.
According to the general community, people die every year from pneumonia. To blame is the nearest health care center, almost a full day’s walk away. Because the pneumonia has not been treated properly, the disease has continued to manifest itself into new, resistant varieties.
“I can count the people we have buried just because they weren’t able to get to a hospital on time,” Elizabeth whispers, staring me directly in the eyes.
“As much as I want other things for this village, I would push the need for a health facility as a priority.”
The paradoxical beauty of Olemegili’s landscape in contrast to all that it lacks leaves me dissatisfied. Yet the poignancy of Elizabeth’s passion and clarity of her conviction births within me an awareness of hope for the future of her family and her village.
Resting a weathered chin on the palm of her hand, Elizabeth states, “We are open to new ways of doing things.”