Gift of the Maasai:

A Problem-Free Philosophy

by Phyllis Eckelmeyer

Changes, They Are a Comin’
When I turned 50, I had already celebrated 30 years of marriage and raised two sons and a daughter. Both boys had graduated from Penn State University, and their sister followed their footsteps to Happy Valley. We were a family of Nittany Lions.

With my kids grown and out of the house, our septic tank was happy, and I knew there was food in the refrigerator. I missed the excitement of our teenagers and the mom-to-son and mom-to-daughter talks, but after college graduation, the kids settled about half an hour from the nest, so all was good. Even though I felt extremely fortunate to still be part of their lives, and would ultimately be involved with their spouses and our six grandchildren, my life was changing dramatically.

The details of my empty nesting years may make more sense in context of my early family history.

Phyllis’s parents, George and Miriam Gaumer, c. 1940.

My father, who served in Iceland as a medical doctor in World War II, died suddenly of a stroke when I was 10. So, my mother raised her three daughters on a limited income, determined that we all would graduate from college. My relationship with my mother and sisters was a source of great strength to me.

Although I had difficulty learning to read in first grade and didn’t have a lot of confidence, I had a very traditional childhood. I loved to dress up and play “cowboys and Indians,” and I always wanted to play the Indian (Native American) princess. As a child, I enjoyed athletic activities such as softball, bike riding, table tennis, and ice skating. I also liked Girl Scouting, summer camp, and swimming with the local swim club’s team. Taking after my mother, who was a nurse, I was always interested in helping people, and as a young teen, I liked to babysit for neighborhood children. I loved to dance with my sister while watching Dick Clark and American Bandstand. After my father died, I learned to value life and to enjoy and make the most of each day.

Family and Career
My older sisters graduated from college and got married, and I did the same. After I had my first baby, Mom announced that she had met a wonderful man—a widower with no children—who had a home at the Jersey shore. So, mom’s new nest was quickly filled during the summers with kids and grandkids visiting her at the seashore.

Phyllis (5) enjoying a session at the riding academy, in Oreland, PA.
With a degree from Penn State University in elementary education, I taught kindergarten while living in Upper Darby, PA. When our first baby was born, we moved to Warminster and lived there for seven years, had our second baby, and then moved to our home in Buckingham for the birth of our third child. For 15 years, I was a substitute teacher, blessed with the opportunity to stay at home to raise our family and also with the ability to occasionally substitute in our children’s school and classrooms. The boys were avid soccer players, and all three also children played a variety of sports, so we spent many happy times cheering for our kids as they grew.

When our daughter was 10 years old and our boys were in high school and college, I started a nonprofit adult day care center in a local church. We provided daily care for elderly patients, including my mother, who was suffering from dementia. Five years later, after my mother passed away and our second son was headed to Penn State, I decided to change directions again. I took a civil service exam and was hired as a social worker with Bucks County Children and Youth Services. That position opened my eyes to many serious social problems in our community as I worked with at-risk families who needed help. I empathize with children and parents who struggle financially and who suffer from poverty, addiction, and lack of an education.

New Adventures
Between parenting, teaching, welfare work, and adult care for the frail elderly, I was getting the big picture of life just as another big change was occurring in mine. Our youngest child and only daughter entered her freshman year at Penn State, and I had the opportunity to change careers again. My nest was now empty, and I had an itch for adventure. As many women in midlife do, I wanted to try something new.

Phyllis (far right) and sisters Arlene (left) and Mary (right), with their mother (Miriam), in June 1992.
As a teacher and social worker, I had developed confidence in my public speaking and organizational skills, and my eyes were opening to the world. Raising my children has always been the single most important and challenging “job” I have had and, thankfully, the most fulfilling, enjoyable, and rewarding. But I was ready to follow some new dreams.

Looking through the paper for a part-time job one day, I saw an ad for modeling classes and thought I’d give it a whirl. An old friend thought I looked like Sara Lee (the cupcake lady) and encouraged me to get into commercials. After working up the nerve to walk on a catwalk in high heels with teen girls younger than my daughter, I took the classes and entered a beauty pageant. To my horror, it included a bathing suit competition. Spider veins, gray hair and all, I pulled it off and won first prize—acting classes! I learned the ropes in the modeling world and soon was asked to teach runway and modeling at several schools. Print work offered nice dividends, and I booked jobs with L’Oréal, Lactaid, Hershey Hotel, Sub-Zero Refrigerator and Wolf Stoves, Verizon, Vanguard, Rite Aid, and so on.

I also started landing commercials and did some extra work in a few films, such as Unbreakable and Twelve Monkeys with agents in Philadelphia and NYC. I began modeling regularly on QVC and acting in community and regional theater with roles like Ethel in On Golden Pond. Vocal classes and ballroom dance lessons were really enjoyable and developed skills that helped me land roles in the musicals Hello Dolly, South Pacific, and My Fair Lady. In Follies, I had the chance to dance the tango in a long, sapphire-blue, sequined dress. I also started a family program at our local community theater and worked with children and parents who auditioned for plays such as Peter Pan, Honk, and The Emperor’s New Clothes.

Meeting the Maasai
As exciting and fun as modeling and acting can be, something was lacking. Let’s fast forward to my 59th birthday, when our daughter, who was now a chemistry teacher at our local high school, decided to teach in Kenya for a year. She was no stranger to travel; during her teens, she journeyed to Japan for a month on an exchange program with seventh and eighth graders. While she was in high school and college, we took many trips to Europe and across the United States, visiting national parks and friends and family in CA and HI. But she had never been to Africa, and I was questioning her decision. She, however, was determined to fulfill her dream.

I figured I better start looking at the atlas and travel magazines to see where she was going. I found out that Nairobi is the capital of Kenya and that a tribe called the Maasai lives there. The Maasai are frequently pictured in travel magazines promoting tourism in Kenya and Tanzania. I realized that Kenya is far away and that a lot of people get horrible diseases in Africa. I also knew I had better get myself an email account if I wanted to communicate with my daughter while she was away.

In May 2004, about a week before Allyson was scheduled to leave for Nairobi, I was on my way to NYC for an audition. While I waited at a New Jersey train station, five distinctive African men stood next to me on the platform; they were wearing red plaid robes and intricately beaded tunics and jewelry. With my daughter leaving soon to teach at the Rift Valley Academy (RVA) in Kenya for an entire year, I seized the opportunity to ask the gentlemen about their heritage and share my daughter’s plans. Introducing themselves in English as Maasai from the Great Rift Valley, they knew RVA. Reassuring me with “Hakuna matada” (no worries) and saying, “Don’t worry about your daughter,” they promised to visit her in Kijabe and help her feel welcome. They shared that they were traveling to New York City to speak at the United Nations Forum on Indigenous Issues, advocating women’s rights, education, water, and health.

Daughter Allyson with Godfrey (left) and Francis (right), during the Maasai's first visit.
Boarding the train, Maasai leader Francis ole Sakuda asked me for my email address, and luckily I had one. My hotmail account was already coming in pretty handy, because the next day I invited the Maasai to our home for dinner. My husband rolled his eyes a little, but he and my daughter and her boyfriend (later her husband) were there to meet my new friends. I had no idea what to feed my Maasai guests but decided to have a backyard picnic with hamburgers and hot dogs. I found out that they love beef but don’t eat pork.

Mr. Sakuda, founder of the NGO (nongovernmental organization) SIMOO (Simba Maasai Outreach Organization) spoke about his dedication to improving the living standards of the Maasai community. He described the intense problems of daily life without clean water and how that was such a threat. We told Francis and the others that we were planning to visit our daughter in December, and the Maasai insisted that we come to their village, too. My husband had just had both knees replaced and wasn’t sure he could use the pit latrines in their compound, but Francis assured him that it would be fine.

We talked a lot that night, and it was becoming clear that my road was taking another direction—one that was leading to Kenya. I suggested that we establish a U.S. nonprofit organization to receive public donations for water, education, and the empowerment of women. We discussed various fundraising ideas, such as scheduling Maasai presentations at schools and community events and a “Walk for Water” around Lake Galena, in Bucks County. I asked Francis if he would come back to the United States and give cultural programs in our area, and he said he would.

A Second Maasai Visit
Remembering his promise, Francis journeyed to RVA to surprise our daughter when she arrived in Kenya. In November 2004, five Maasai guests, including Francis and two Maasai women, visited us for two weeks. They stayed in our home, which had three bedrooms and two baths. I arranged many speaking engagements for them, to provide a cultural exchange with churches, schools, and businesses and to raise funds for wells and education.

Members of the visiting Maasai group demonstrating traditional jumping during a cultural presentation.
Soon, I realized that the story of the Maasai could reach a wider audience if we filmed our guests during their visit. So, with the help of a 13-year-old student I met through our community theater program, Skylar Bird, I began work on a short, amateur documentary. The young man was studying film and editing at Bucks County Community College.

With the Maasai in our home, we all became family. I learned about their culture and enjoyed their singing, dancing, and jumping. Ironically, the night before they were to return to Kenya, our water pump broke and we had no running water. No worries; they took it in stride.

Visiting Kenya
In December 2004, my husband and I traveled to Kenya to visit our daughter and the Maasai. We were greeted at the airport by a dozen Maasai; Francis and his wife, Susan, generously hosted us. We stayed in huts made of dung and mud, with no running water, toilets, or electricity—the ultimate humbling experience of a lifetime. The arid rocky terrain and lack of potable water was worse than I could have imagined. Each day at dawn, Maasai women trekked to fetch contaminated water in five-gallon containers strapped to their heads.

Phyllis with Francis, his wife Susan, and their children Ezekiel (left) and Amos (right) in Kenya, December 2004.
Severe drought over the years has exhausted surface water in ponds and streams in the part of Kenya where our Maasai friends have been forced to live. The only hope for clean water is to drill deep wells (600 feet), which cost $30,000 each. Francis told me that his dream is to drill 10 wells for his village of 5,000 people. The Maasai held a party for us and invited everyone in the village. More than 150 men and women joined together in the bush for a spiritual gathering, and a Maasai interpreter shared my desire and pledge to raise funds for a well. I also promised to help fund the education of Maasai women, to empower them, with hopes of improving their standard of living. We celebrated with goat meat after watching the slaughter and drinking the blood. The Maasai sang traditional songs and translated stories told in Maa, the native Maasai language. Francis also kept his promise to my husband. He bought a bag of cement and formed a raised pedestal above his pit latrine and put a toilet seat on top. Problem solved!

The Maasai Cultural Exchange Project

Women arriving at the gathering held in honor of the Eckelmeyers’ visit to Kenya in December 2004. About 150 Maasai tribespeople walked many miles to attend.
When we returned from Kenya, I was determined to help the Maasai, and to do that, I needed to establish a nonprofit. I was introduced to Jennifer Ellsworth, a graduate in Mass Communication from Boston’s Emerson College and CEO of Frog Pond Productions, a 501 (c) (3) private nonprofit organization. She lives in Point Pleasant, PA, and we became cofounders of MCEP (Maasai Cultural Exchange Project). We also decided to build on the film idea and produce a feature-length Maasai documentary. Jennifer’s film experience has been invaluable in the production of the full-length film Quench and its six-minute trailer.

Each year that the Maasai visit the United States, my home is base camp. The nest is no longer empty. I’m learning to cook Maasai dishes, and they are learning the joys of plumbing and refrigeration. The Maasai give inspirational, cultural presentations about their heritage; these include native songs and dance, as well as indigenous stories. Once focused in the Central and Upper Bucks County (PA) area, MCEP programs now extend to Harrisburg, Allentown, Philadelphia, and New Jersey. We show the film trailer whenever we deliver a program. It offers an innovative, first-hand cultural opportunity and opens up fascinating discussions. We also make the trailer available for viewing on our Website:

Phyllis with Francis (left), Dedan, and Alice at the Doylestown (PA) Wellness Center, November 2004.
Discussing social similarities and differences, Maasai are wonderful teachers of peace and conflict resolutions, ancient Maasai traditions, rights of passage, mutual self-governance, constructive family relationships, preservation and recycling of valuable natural resources, and living in harmony with animals and nature. I have developed programs that address the basic needs for water, food, health care, and education.

Raising $30,000 for a well was an ambitious project, but when the Maasai visited in May 2005, we were invited to present our program to the Doylestown Rotarians, whose focus was to provide funds for clean water. Our local newspaper published an article about the Maasai’s desperate need for water. We also invited the community to meet the Maasai at a cultural event at Lake Galena, New Britain, which we now schedule each May.

A week after the first such program, Jennifer received a letter (at P.O. Box 222, Point Pleasant, PA 18950). A local college girl read the newspaper article about our project. She had been in a serious car accident and was recovering from a broken back. Wanting to help the Maasai women, she anonymously donated $30,000 for a well. Her generous gift provided the gift of life—a potable, sustainable water source serving 5,000 people and vast herds of livestock. Since “Christine’s Well” was drilled, donations have also funded pipelines and cisterns, carrying and storing water for schools and infirmaries. And through Rotarian efforts, three more wells have been funded.

The digging of Christine’s Well, December 2005.
With funds for the first well in December, 2005, I returned to Maasailand with three MCEP members, including Jennifer Ellsworth, Skylar Bird, and his father, Michael. We also had a film crew of six professionals, who volunteered their time and equipment to document the drilling of our first well. We were hosted by Francis ole Sakuda for 10 days and returned with 70 hours of film to be edited for a feature documentary.

While in Kenya, we noticed the Maasai ladies working tediously on leather beaded bracelets with the words “Wave of Hope” sewn into the beading. When we were ready to leave, the women gave me bags and bags of bracelets to take home with me and sell. They had heard of the horrific hurricane that hit our shores and wanted to give a donation to the children who lost their homes and schools. It was a testimony to the generous spirit of the Maasai. We raised $1,000 in jewelry proceeds for the Katrina disaster, and through the Salvation Army and the BucksMont Katrina Relief Project, the money was used to help build a preschool in Waveland, Mississippi. The Maasai gift to the Katrina effort prompted another anonymous donation of $30,000 for a well from a Bucks County Philanthropic Foundation. We were up to five.


Phyllis with friend Hannah, December 2005. Hannah is a widow, with three grown sons.
As co-founder of MCEP, I have enriched my life as a volunteer. I’m using my entrepreneurial skills for social change through public speaking, fund raising, advertising and publicity, administrative duties, bookkeeping, correspondence (local, national, and international), event scheduling, hosting, transporting, travel arranging, and film production and editing. I passionately advocate education, cultural awareness, and community service. Currently, my career in acting and modeling gives me a “stage presence”—confidence and poise while speaking in front of a group—as well as networking opportunities in the entertainment industry, and it also qualifies me to share the cultural diversity and desperate needs of the Maasai in a documentary film.

In seven years, MCEP donors and the Doylestown community have raised funds for seven wells, storage cisterns, pipelines, disaster relief, and the construction of greenhouses. Water piped to schools and infirmaries provides clean drinking water for 5,000 people plus vast herds of livestock. It also provides for crop irrigation and reforestation. Malaria, dysentery, and other water-borne diseases have significantly decreased since the wells have been drilled. Although the Maasai are traditionally pastoralists (raising livestock), they are learning farming, and three greenhouses have been funded and constructed to provide a sustainable food source in face of certain drought.

MCEP’s education program has sponsored 105 women and children in college and secondary and primary schools. The majority of Maasai children in the MCEP education program are sponsored by U.S. school students. High-school students have also chosen to do service projects for the Maasai, and three American students were mentored by MCEP to raise funds ($700/year) to send Maasai children to high school. School fees help Maasai girls avoid early marriages, and the Maasai council of elders is learning that if you educate a woman, you educate a family.

Phyllis with (Francis’s wife) Susan and Daniel, in May 2007, at the Town and Country Players Theater, in Buckingham, PA, where they attended a production of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Through MCEP, cultural and environmental practices are shared in student exchange programs that help participants achieve a global perspective. I introduced the Maasai to a local Quaker school, and in April 2009, Maasai children participated in a two-week International Peace Summit through Buckingham Friends School. Then, in June 2010, seven students from Buckingham Friends had an extraordinary exchange visit with the Maasai in Kenya.

I want to continue to encourage economic independence and sustainable business opportunities for the Maasai. In 2006, I introduced Maasai women to two American female CEOs, who were selling a beaded hair product on QVC TV. The U.S. women traveled to Kenya with Jennifer Ellsworth to begin a viable business relationship. MCEP also helped initiate an order of beaded key chains for Subaru.

As a personal five-year plan, I hope to travel to Kenya and also to other places in the world. I would like to raise funds for a total of 10 wells, secure ongoing education sponsorships, and complete the Quench feature documentary. We are also working to publish an original Maasai children’s folktale titled “The Lion, the Ostrich, and the Squirrel.”

What Now?

Fred and Phyllis Eckelmeyer and family, December 2008. (Standing) Oldest son Bert, (his wife) Karen, son-in-law Jim, daughter Allyson, son Bill, and (his wife) Lanie. (Seated) Bill and Lanie’s daughter Emily (7), Bert and Karen’s daughter Sara (9), and their son Matthew (12), Fred, Bill and Lanie’s son William (4), and Phyllis. (Jim and Allyson’s son, Thomas, was born later, in July 2010).
I’m 65 and going strong. My health is good, and I’ve had many opportunities to learn about other cultures and socioeconomic groups through travel to Kenya, Peru, Ecuador, Cambodia, Thailand, Iceland and Egypt. My recent trip to Egypt (January 21 to February 3, 2011) ended when I had to be evacuated because of the sudden political unrest in that country. My family surprised me with a hot air balloon ride on my birthday last November, and they often ask me where I’m headed next. Actually, I’m thrilled to be traveling to Orlando, FL, on a five-day trip with my 14-year-old grandson, who is playing in a soccer tournament at ESPN Disney World. My grandkids look forward to our Maasai friends visiting and love having them speak, dance, and sing at their schools. I hope to take them all to Kenya someday, so they can experience life as a Maasai.

Change happens if there is life. I’ve heard that aging is not about the years spent; it’s about how we spend the years. I try to live in the moment and enjoy each morning as a new start. I take advice from my grandfather, who always ate oatmeal for breakfast. (He lived to be 90.) I love the morning and breakfast, and most mornings it’s oatmeal. Love and laugh a lot, and don’t worry. Hakuna Matada!

Phyllis Eckelmeyer is a mother of three and grandmother of six, living her life to the fullest in Bucks County, PA. She is Executive Director of the Maasai Cultural Exchange Project and can be reached at See the Maasai Cultural Exchange Project (MCEP) Website for more information.

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