MANCHESTER - Many students at northern Carroll schools saw a familiar face from another continent Monday, dressed in colorful clothes and with his orinka leadership stick in hand.
The familiar individual was Chief Joseph Ole Tipanko from the Maasai community in Kenya. He and two others, John Kilenyi and his wife, Sarah, joined him in visiting Manchester Valley High School for the first time, and making return visits to Manchester Elementary and Ebb Valley Elementary schools. Their visit is part of a cultural outreach program where the three visit several East Coast states and share their customs and way of life.
He has been visiting area schools since 2007 after a fourth-grade pen pal relationship between children in his community and Manchester Elementary School students began in 2005. The exchange included letters, pictures, drawings, games and even some gifts.
Manchester Valley juniors Devynn Breen and Emma Conine, who used to write letters back and forth to their Maasai pen pals, spoke with Joseph about starting the exchange again.
Breen said she felt guilty when correspondence ended with her pen pal, Paulina. She remembers learning about the Maasai culture and receiving letters filled with pictures.
"I thought it was so cool, I sent her a picture of myself and a birthday card," she said. "The experience taught me that not everywhere is as privileged as we are."
Conine said she was surprised to learn the typical way of life for her pen pal, Becky. Her community is dependent on nature rather than technology, she said.
"It was a different way of life I wasn't familiar with, so I liked hearing about it," Conine said. "I miss her."
Ole Tipanko shared that in addition to being chief, he is a school teacher and the father of four. Unlike students in the U.S. who are driven to school in vehicles, he and his students must walk many miles to school each day.
"You are very lucky that you have school buses," he said.
The community is nomadic and pastoralist, raising sheep, goats and cattle. The Maasai tribe is in both Kenya and Tanzania and make up more than 1 million people. Its main food sources are milk, meat and blood, but an animal is only killed if it is absolutely necessary, John Kilenyi said.
"We believe that every living thing has a right to live," he said. Women, children and cows are regarded as sacred.
The tribe just started sending its children to school, but that formal education is still rooted in the community's traditional cultural values, he said.
Sarah Kilenyi, who is visiting the U.S. on this trip for the first time, spoke of the different gender roles of both men and women in the community. Women are very strong and construct the village's homes, which garnered a round of applause from the high school audience. To build they use cow dung, oil, ash and sticks, and because there is not a lot of water, cow urine is used as well, she said.
Beds are made of sticks and leaves, with a cow hide serving as a mattress. Women and girls fetch water for the community from many miles away and make decorations using beads.
"Everything that I do, I teach my daughter," she said.
Bead necklaces and bracelets made by the women, which were given to a few students during the presentations, are also sold to make money for the Maasai people.
Men are responsible for providing security, looking after the cattle and being the breadwinners, she said.
Dolly Mersinger, fourth-grade teacher at Ebb Valley Elementary, coordinated the original pen pal exchange and transported the guests to the different schools Monday. Her daughter, Blair Mersinger, studied abroad in Kenya in 2005 and got to know the Maasai people.
"It is wonderful, I think, that we are now making a full community connection" with the Maasai visiting both younger and older students, she said.
At Manchester Elementary, students learned about the duties of children in the Maasai community. Fourth-grader Andrew Brynes was one of the two selected to jump with John Kilenyi during a traditional song and dance.
"I like the song and how they dance," he said.
All donations received go toward building schools and other projects in the Maasai community, such as water systems, wind power and solar power, Ole Tipanko said. He has learned a lot in the U.S. and taken it back to his home, such as useful knowledge about education, health and sanitation, and hopes students in this country have learned a lot from the Maasai people.