Jesse Roman, Stowe Reporter
March 11, 2010

This weekend, cross-country skiers have a chance to do two things they most certainly haven't done all winter: Ski from Trapp Family Lodge Touring Center to Mt. Mansfield, and help build a school in Africa.

The plan is the brainchild of explorer-author Jan Reynolds of Stowe.

Both Trapps and Stowe Mountain Resort have donated their trails for Reynolds' fundraiser this Sunday, March 14, which she is calling “The Great Up and Over.”

Cross-country ski passes are free with a donation to help build a school for a Maasai community in Kenya. Equipment rentals are half-off, as well.

Skiers will meet at Trapps Touring Center at 10 a.m. and can ski around the property, or head up and over, to the Trapps cabin for lunch, and then through Stowe Mountain Resort to the Matterhorn, where Reynolds will give a presentation about her monthlong stay with the Maasai and her upcoming children's book “Life in the Wild.”

Donations will help Reynolds buy a computer to deliver to the Maasai living on Il Ngwesi preserve in Kenya, so schoolchildren there can communicate via video and photographs with children in Vermont.

The idea is to connect Vermont children directly to the project Reynolds is spearheading to build a school in the African community.

Right now, the school has a concrete foundation and some piping for water, which has been paid for largely with $600 raised by Vermont schools.

By having the ability to send photographs back-and-forth, the Vermont children will get to see a direct connection between their efforts and the actual work being done for the Maasai children.

“I want the kids in the U.S. to learn what philanthropy is,” Reynolds said. “I'm trying to get across that they can do a lot, and it doesn't necessarily mean directly donating money, and it doesn't take a lot. … It's empowering for kids to see what their work can produce on another continent. It's pretty amazing.”

Preserving culture

The Maasai are a nomadic people who live in scattered tribes across Kenya and northern Tanzania. The tribe Reynolds stayed with to write her soon-to-be-published children's book actually live on a preserve, which it manages.

The Maasai don't hunt; they farm and herd animals. After it was discovered that their extensive herding was harming the local ecosystem, they have tried to curb their impact by building irrigation systems, farming more and herding less.

The group of about 2,500 has been trying to bring back some of the indigenous animals that have disappeared in recent years. The tribe is attempting to straddle the line between maintaining tradition, yet transitioning into modernity.

The Maasai are also taking steps to diversify their simple economy, Reynolds said. For instance, they have built a treehouse on the edge of their preserve that has solar power and Internet capabilities; they rent it out to earn money for preservation efforts.

However, a key component for maintaining culture is missing.

Now, Maasai children have to travel many miles to the closest school, where they are taught in Swahili or English, Kenya's official languages. The Maasai speak Maa, but the Kenyan government won't pay for a Maa school to be built.

That makes learning difficult, and over time will likely mean a drastic decline in Maa speakers, which would be devastating for the Maasai's ancient culture, Reynolds said.

“If you don't speak the language, you don't learn the songs, the dances, the traditions,” she said. “Language is a key component to hold on to tradition. They are moving forward in some ways, but they are also desperate to hold on to their culture for their kids.”

Reynolds hopes that, once the first school is built, others in Kenya will follow, using the same model of kids helping kids. One Maasai warrior in the tribe speaks English, and will travel out to the remote treehouse once a month to exchange e-mails and photos with U.S. kids. If more schools can get involved, perhaps many more schools can be built, as can many more friendships between children on the two continents.

“It's kids building a school for kids. When I go into these classrooms and show them the pictures, the kids are so excited and cool. They say, ‘Are you kidding me? Let's make money for them.' It's so effective,” Reynolds said.

What: The Great Up and Over, cross-country skiing from Trapp Family Lodge to Trapps cabin and over to the Matterhorn. The trek will be followed by a presentation about the Maasai by Jan Reynolds.

Where: Trapp Family Lodge Touring Center.

When: Sunday, March 14, 10 a.m. Presentation at the Matterhorn at about 3 p.m.

Cost: Free with a donation to African Connection, an effort to build schools for the Maasai tribe in Kenya.

Who: Families, individuals of all ability levels, including people who have never cross-country skied.

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