A Maasai man waits for his cattle to finish drinking water near the Rift Valley town of Suswa, about 70 km (43 miles) west of the capital Nairobi, March 2, 2013. Kenya will hold its presidential and parliamentary elections on March 4. REUTERS/Karel Prinsloo (KENYA - Tags: ANIMALS POLITICS ELECTIONS SOCIETY)
A Maasai man waits for his cattle to finish drinking water near the Rift Valley town of Suswa, about 70 km (43 miles) west of the capital Nairobi, March 2, 2013. Kenya will hold its presidential and parliamentary elections on March 4. REUTERS/Karel Prinsloo (KENYA - Tags: ANIMALS POLITICS ELECTIONS SOCIETY)

In 1983, on his 22nd birthday, David Patient was diagnosed with what would become known as Aids. He was given six months to live by his doctors. The young man was fraught and even attempted suicide. Fast forward to 33 years later and Patient is still going strong. From facing down death, Patient – along with his partner Neil Orr – became a gallant activist, placing himself on the front lines in the fight against the spread of the disease, using education as a tool.

He shares some of his experiences in the second excerpt taken from his book Make a plan: possibility and empowerment in a time of AIDS, co-authored by Donna Mosher. It will be launched at the conference this week

Our programmes have flexibility built in. We know we need to assess each and every group we lead and customise our teachings – often on a moment’s notice.

This news that the Maasai consume only a liquid diet sent Neil and me on a long walk to discuss modifications to our curriculum.

“We deeply respect where you are coming from,” I said to the chief. “What if you grow vegetables to feed your cows to make them healthier?”

We knew any improved nourishment the livestock received would be passed to the people through the animals.

The leaders loved the idea. They were happy to discover any ways to make the animals worth more, particularly since their grazing sources had diminished over the years.

On the third day of the training, the chief approached us again.

“If this stuff is so good for the animals,” he asked, “might the women and children benefit as well?”

Remember, the Maasai rank their women and children lower than the men. So what would be the harm to feed them solid food?

The lodge prepared a sumptuous buffet. The women approached the table with some anticipation and not a little fear.

The men stood watching with a morbid curiosity, posed in the traditional Maasai one-legged stance, as the women and children tasted the solid food.

A natural fascination with colour drew them towards the platters of green, red, and orange fruits and vegetables; they avoided the meat.

Watching a woman taste a carrot for the first time in her life was a joyous experience.

When another dared to take a bite of coleslaw or a cherry tomato, she squealed with delight.

Needless to say, their digestive systems were unprepared for the fibre-rich fare. The bushes were a busy place after lunch.

A few days later, the chief approached us again. “We’ve noticed that the women and children are enjoying this,” he said.

“If they can benefit and the animals can benefit, do you think we as men can benefit?”

The lodge’s chef was asked to prepare a feast for the whole crowd, including the Maasai warriors, who delighted in the buffet. Mind you, their delight was controlled, because showing emotion is improper for a Maasai warrior. And, of course, the bushes were full for some time after the meal.

My heart was overflowing with warmth and pride. I truly could not imagine how I could feel more gratitude for these stoic warriors: men who were willing to abandon a fundamental cultural tradition to provide for the ongoing health and well-being of their people. How could they possibly give so much?

In 10 days, we taught 130 people a lifetime of health information.

We taught them how the body works, what it needs to stay healthy, and what they need to do to support it. We taught them safe sex and the importance of using condoms to protect themselves from HIV.

We taught them how to grow food in a garden. We taught them the connection between pollination and crop abundance. We taught them permaculture and companion planting.

Would it make a difference?

Fourteen months after that first training, andBeyond asked us to come to Kenya to conduct a follow-up training. As we flew to the lodge, Neil and I looked down on to lush, green plots of land. We didn’t learn what they were until we landed.

Once on the ground, we found that the Maasai women had begun growing vegetables for the cows, the goats, their children, and even for the men. But these were no backyard kitchen gardens. The women had been given an acre or two each! And because the Maasai culture is polygamous, this meant each family had several women growing food.

The women took it upon themselves to engage in informal competitions, growing as many as 15 different types of produce.

These gardens boasted an abundance of carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, and squash. To keep the elephants out of the gardens, the women surrounded the land with fences of acacia thorns. They rubbed a chilli concoction around the entrances to dissuade the wildlife from coming through the openings.

The health of the people improved dramatically, thanks to the increased nutrition they received from eating primarily raw produce grown in soil fertilised with manure.

Even after supplying their large families and livestock, the women found themselves with a surplus of food. Which, of course, they could now sell to nearby lodges and tourists.

And because in their culture these women have a lesser value, whatever they generate is considered to be of no value. If a woman brings in money, it will belittle her husband if she tries to give it to him.

But these women understood the power of the money they earned. Over the course of about 10 years, the positive transformation of the first village we visited was clear.

The and Beyond staff were so proud of the programme that they shared it with the guests, who were also moved to make a difference. Their generous donations to the Africa Foundation built health clinics and schools.

The Maasai children – girls as well as boys – attended school for the first time to learn the fundamentals: reading, writing, and speaking another language. With the money earned from selling their produce, the Maasai women were able to pay for their children’s school fees and other expenses, to buy clothes for the family, and to get medical care.

The women also began a cottage business selling honey. I had taught them about the importance of pollination to crop success. So these women pooled their profits, purchased beehives, and trained themselves to keep bees. AndBeyond funded a small factory workshop to produce Maasai honey, which they sold to tourists and buyers in Nairobi.

The women next started raising chickens. Farmers sent them day-old chicks, which they raised in the bush. A month later, the grown chickens would be returned to the farmers to be processed into food.

These women, as a result of the basic training we offered in health and wellness, now have a purpose. They have a sense of pride. They have become economically empowered. They are improving the health of the community.

Perhaps most importantly, these Maasai women are creating stability and a future for their community at a time when their culture is experiencing an earth-shaking transition.

More than this single village received the benefits of the training. A ripple effect passed through the tribe, and women in other villages began to plant gardens, keep bees, earn money, and empower themselves.

The Maasai people’s physical world changed when they were prevented from migrating with their cattle. The Kenyan and Tanzanian governments didn’t consider the impact on the Maasai when they developed legislation and policy to protect the tourist industry. The temporary kraals became permanent. Their health was being degraded. The Maasai were destined to extinction.

How did Neil and I encourage these people to adapt to a new ecosystem without changing the essence of who they are? We started by appreciating their greatest value, their cattle, and we leveraged that. We spoke to them in a way that they could hear.

They considered our suggestions and accepted them because they made sense.

We did not force them to eat solid food or to treat their women differently. They adapted by seeing their values just a little bit differently, by first wondering what might happen if their livestock ate healthful foods.

The Maasai began to change without realising they were changing. A transformation was quietly coming about, organically and almost accidentally.

* The book is published by Micromega Publications and retails at R150 excl VAT and can be ordered online at www.rippleweb.co.za or e-mail [email protected]