Saskatoon group hopes to halt repeat of Canada's residential school tragedy in Kenya

Canada's residential school tragedy is being repeated in Kenya's Maasai Mara region, says a Saskatoon man working to change the situation.

Oltumo Maasi Project wants to build culturally appropriate school in Maasai Mara

Lialo Saalash of Saskatoon watches Maasai families harvest kale and other vegetables now that the Africans have a garden, well and solar power as part of the Oltumo Project partnership. They hope to build a Maasai school next. (Jason Warick/CBC)

Canada's residential school tragedy is being repeated in Kenya's Maasai Mara region, says a Saskatoon man working to change the situation.

"We want to keep the traditional knowledge and ways of learning," said Lialo Salaash, a Maasai man who has lived in Saskatoon for the past 20 years.

"I believe we're going in the right direction."

Kenya's Maasai people are famous for their colourful clothing and rhythmic dances. (Jason Warick/CBC)

Maasai have lived a semi-nomadic life for generations, herding cattle and living off the land. Their bright clothing, elaborate beadwork and distinctive songs and dances draw tourists from around the world.

However, Salaash says, the Kenyan government is herding his people onto reserves. At school, the Maasai children are forced to wear school uniforms and barred from speaking their language.

Maasai Mara is a region in Kenya. (CBC)

The Kenyan government has said the measures are necessary to bring the Maasai into the modern world.

But Saalash says Maasai culture is slowly being eradicated.

Saalash speaks with a group of bead makers at the Oltumo Project near his birthplace in southern Kenya. (Jason Warick/CBC)

"The Maasai are going through a transition, life-changing. When I talk about education, it's not only about learning how to read, but learning how to survive," Saalash said.

"I think Oltumo's an excellent example of what we in Saskatoon can do to work with people in other countries.- Dr. Gary Groot, volunteer and cancer specialist

​Saalash and others in Saskatoon started the Oltumo Maasi Project several years ago. They've raised money to build a solar-powered well and pump, and they're teaching community gardening and public health. But the ultimate goal is to build a Maasai school modelled in part on the "land-based education" in Saskatchewan that is reviving Cree and other Indigenous cultures.

They hope to develop a curriculum that covers all of the basic subjects such as math and science, but also reflects their culture. Locally trained teachers and a council of elders will teach the classes.

Lialo Saalash, a Maasai man living in Saskatoon, is the architect of the Oltumo Maasi Project, which plans to create a school sensitive to Maasai culture. (Jason Warick/CBC)

They also need a building. Saalash has worked for years for a local shelter company that has agreed to donate a 60-foot steel-and-canvas structure. They plan to ship it to Oltumo some time next year, when Saalash and his coworkers will install it and teach the locals to maintain it.

"It's really phenomenal what they're doing there. We wanted to get on board," said Norseman Structures manufacturing manager Jason Caissie.

Saskatoon cancer specialist Dr. Gary Groot, another of those helping Saalash with the project, has also worked on projects with Saskatchewan First Nations. He says there are "massive parallels" between residential schools and the situation in the Maasai Mara.

Groot says the structure can double as a community health centre.

"I think Oltumo's an excellent example of what we in Saskatoon can do to work with people in other countries," Groot said, adding he and Salaash will continue fundraising for the project before they return to Oltumo in the coming months.

"I'm very, very happy right now. Thank you for believing in Oltumo," Saalash said.

CBC reporter Jason Warick toured the Oltumo Maasi Project earlier this year.

About the Author

Jason Warick

Reporter

Jason Warick is a reporter with CBC Saskatoon.