When the Cows Come Home

The 9/11 attack on the United States has a number of villains rightfully attached to its history. But there are also a number of heroes who emerged on that day as well. Some ran into the carnage to save lives, giving theirs in the process. Others, realizing that they were ill-prepared to help in that way, tried to find other ways to help — even if symbolically.

Like by donating a cow.

Kenyan-born Kimeli Naiyomah was in New York City on September 11, 2001. His story was already one of perseverance and a desire to do good for his community. At a young age, according to CNN, he was battling against long odds: his father was out of the picture, his mother was an alcoholic, and his grandmother had been murdered. His family was destitute and the town he grew up in lacked electricity, running water, phones, and roads. Yet somehow, when his mother fell ill, she (with him in tow) managed to make it to a hospital. Naiyomah, inspired by what he saw there, wanted to become a doctor. When he reached high school age, he left his village without a penny to his name. He walked nine miles to the nearest school, where he pleaded with the administration to let him stay and learn. Even though he didn’t have the money for books, housing, or a uniform, the school agreed. And after high school, he earned a scholarship to the University of Oregon, and after that, to Stanford Medical School.

He was a Stanford med student on 9/11. But he wasn’t in California that day, as noted above. He was in New York to meet the President of Kenya, who was making a diplomatic visit. Naiyomah’s rags-to-education story made the student a celebrity back home; the student was the dignitary’s guest in New York. When the planes hit the World Trade Center, he wanted to help but wasn’t yet a doctor. Instead, in the spring of 2002, Naiyomah approached his village elders to ask their permission to purchase and donate a cow to the United States. Naiyomah is a member of the Maasai people, a semi-nomadic clan of warriors dating back centuries. Cattle play a large role in Maasai culture, as explained by Wikipedia:

Traditional Maasai lifestyle centres around their cattle which constitute their primary source of food. The measure of a man’s wealth is in terms of cattle and children. A herd of 50 cattle is respectable, and the more children the better. A man who has plenty of one but not the other is considered to be poor. A Maasai religious belief relates that God gave them all the cattle on earth, leading to the belief that rustling cattle from other tribes is a matter of taking back what is rightfully theirs, a practice that has become much less common.

Donating a cow? That’s a very big deal if you’re Maasai.

The elders not only agreed to Naiyomah’s gesture but also agreed to match it — each. In total, the Maasai tribe donated 14 cattle to the United States. The cattle were presented to an American attache in a special ceremony; Maasai attendees offered their condolences while the Star Spangled banner played in the background.

Because of agricultural regulations, though, the U.S. was unable to bring the cows to America. Originally, per the BBC, the cows were to be “sold at a local market and the proceeds used to buy beads,” after which “Maasai women [were to fashion traditional beadwork with commemorative messages, including perhaps the Stars and Stripes of the US flag [which was to] be handed over to the people of New York for display in the city.” But that didn’t go over  well with the Maasai. Instead, as CNN further notes, on the five-year anniversary of 9/11, the U.S. Ambassador to Kenya worked with Naiyomah to establish a preserve for the donated cattle. The cows were to stay in Kenya under the watchful eye of Naiyomah’s tribe. (The cows and their progeny have special tags on their ears depicting the World Trade Center buildings.) And the U.S., in recognition of the gift, established fourteen scholarships for children from Naiyomah’s village to attend local schools.

Bonus Fact: The day after 9/11, a man appeared at a New York City firehouse offering to help. He was a former employee — he had worked at the firehouse from 1980 to 1984 before changing careers. Despite his nearly two decades away from the firehouse, though, he was still a familiar face — he was actor Steve Buscemi. According to Wikipedia. Buscemi spent the rest of the week doing 12-hour shifts looking for lost firefighters and other victims of the attack. 

From the ArchivesBen’s Big Decision: Another 9/11 hero.

Related: “14 Cows for America,” a book about the story above, made for children age seven and up.