WESTBURY, New York — Friends of Woni supports Maasai villages at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro in Southern Kenya with water and food. The Borgen Project spoke with Evie Treen, co-founder of Friends of Woni, to better understand the organization’s efforts in Kenya.
The Maasai People of Kenya
The Maasai people are one of more than 50 recognized Kenyan tribes that still retain their traditions and lifestyles, emphasizing a common coexistence with the plants and animals around them. They are nomadic and pastoral people who have long survived herding cattle and goats, yet poverty is driving many Maasai people from their ancestral lands to the region’s largest cities. As changes in the climate disturb the fading pastoral tradition and increased competition for resources makes providing for their people more difficult, many Maasai people are leaving their homes in search of new opportunities.
Straining their predicaments, policies dictating land rights are fracturing territories and driving the cultivation of crops to secure land rights. With an increasing population and cultivation rate, the crops are becoming less resistant to droughts, further eroding the pastoral traditions of the Maasai tribe.
Friends of Woni and Evie Treen
Friends of Woni is a non-governmental organization co-founded by Evie Treen and Woni Educational Trust founder, Magdaline Ngina, in Santa Barbara in 2005. The initial aim of the organization was to fund water well drilling throughout Kenya. The co-founders set about their mission identifying regions of water insecurity in Kenya and began funding infrastructure projects, like wells, that allow school children to go to school rather than hauling cans of water every day. Today, Treen and the Friends of Woni take on other projects like building bathrooms and supplying local villages with food.
Treen explains that lately, about every three months, the organization has been sending money to a contact in Kenya to purchase and deliver food to a Maasai village. After a four-hour one-way drive to the village, the village people, as well as school students, receive food.
Drilling Water Wells
Treen says, so far, she has secured funding for three water wells with the help of the Santa Barbara Rotary Club, an international organization focusing on humanitarian aid. The first well was drilled in the southern Maasai village and the second is in Ngu Nyumu, a farming village of the Kamba people in Central Kenya. Treen says this well now serves more than 5,000 people and it is colloquially known as the magic well because it overflows with water even when the pump is down for maintenance.
The third well at Kyaani High School, a local school for boys and girls, runs on solar power. Treen says building this well was imperative because the next closest available water source is approximately four miles away. Water collecting activities often force children to drop out of school, fueling the cycle of poverty. “The women, of course, they still are the ones right now having to walk four miles one way to get water,” says Treen.
Alongside the well, Treen says the organization funded other projects at the Kyaani School, like a dormitory for girls. The dormitory now houses more than 75 girls at a time. Additionally, from an old outhouse, the organization built a state-of-the-art bathroom for the girls, boys and staff at Kyaani High School.
Treen says the organization requires everyone in the community to participate in projects via labor and services so that everyone can feel that they have a part and sense of ownership in these projects. Treen says these kinds of projects offer local people salaries and alleviate the Maasai and Kamba people’s water access issues. She says the projects also create self-supporting jobs for local people, like the water well attendants, the maintenance people and the women who collect money per can of water.
Less obviously, children benefit from the water infrastructure as they can receive an education instead of spending hours collecting water, thereby, breaking the cycle of poverty. By improving the Maasai and Kamba people’s access to water, people have more time to spend on productive activities to help them rise out of poverty, such as paid employment and education.
“The day the water came out of the ground at the mine site, they all came together and stood,” says Treen. “They gave a prayer in their language and then they started singing. Truthfully, there were no dry eyes right around me.”
In the COVID-19 Age
For the last two years, Friends of Woni has faced pandemic-related tribulations that haltered some of the organization’s operations. Treen says an annual project to deliver boys and girls soccer balls, uniforms and other sporting equipment for the various schools cannot be carried out this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, she says the organization purchased workbooks for math and writing at the Maasai preschool. Treen says the organization even began planting trees in the schools and helping students move on to higher education.
For the rest of this year, the organization is working to raise funds for solar panels, solar pumps, a reservoir and a pipeline to better pump water at the Maasai village by Mount Kilimanjaro. Friends of Woni is also raising funds to drill a new well for the Kenyan town of Salama. As Treen and her team continue fundraising, donations to their projects will ensure that Friends of Woni can continue its support of the Maasai in Kenya.
– Andre Silva