Review By JENNIFER GANNETT
14 Cows for America is the true story of a Maasai village’s response to the September 11, 2001 attacks. One of the villagers, Wilson Kimeli Ole-Naiyomah, was in Manhattan on that day, and when he returned to his remote village in Africa months later, he brought news of the devastation and recounted the American experience of the tragedy. The elders, distressed by Kimeli’s news, ponder how to best offer their condolences. Kimeli mentions that he would be willing to give the grieving Americans his cow. Since cows are an extremely important part of Maasai culture, this declaration was taken very seriously, and others also offered up their cows. A total of fourteen cows were “given” to America, a token of the Maasai villagers’ sympathy for the tragedies that they had endured. A U.S. diplomat traveled to the village to accept the gift. (It was eventually decided that the cows would remain with the Maasai, for logistical reasons. Members of the Massai continue to tend to the original animals and their offspring.)
This book raises a lot of hard issues and questions. The underlying subject matter about the terrorist attacks is of course tragic and scary and many adults are still processing the events and aftermath themselves. Additionally, the background of much of the Maasai culture, such as their style of keeping cattle, is at odds with vegetarian and vegan lifestyle. Maasai are also known for killing lions in their territory, part of the decline in lion populations (though some Maasai are now trained to track and protect lions). A healthy dose of cultural relativism is in order.
As an interesting aside, Kimeli notes in the epilogue that as a boy, his mother told him that he was too gentle to become a fierce Maasai warrior because he cared for nestlings and attempted to rescue ants. Consequently, he was put onto a path of scholarship, studied in the United States and now studies peace and conflict resolution in Austrailia.
“To the Masaii, the cow is life, ” reads the back of this book. For some veg parents who work to demonstrate to their children that we do not need to take lives to live our own, the underlying differences in the way cattle and other animals are treated by the Maasai culture may overshadow the powerful message of compassion toward other humans. For others, this book may be perfectly appropriate to illustrate how there can many different, heartfelt responses to support people who have experienced disaster.