Rising Above His Plains Life

jackson njapitJanuary 29, 2011|By Esmeralda Bermudez, Los Angeles Times

Deep in the bush of Kenya’s Masai Mara, the tribe had begun to wonder whether Jackson Njapit had lost his mind.

For years, he had spent his mornings at the one-room clinic, treating people for malaria, botched female circumcisions, the occasional lion and buffalo attack. Now he roamed the savanna, chasing hot-air balloons filled with tourists, and he had begun to sell his cows, his goats and his sheep.

He spoke grandly of traveling to America and coming back with something precious, a skill that would help keep the clinic going.

“When I return,” he said, “it will be great news for all of Kenya.”

Villagers in Talek heard his plan and laughed. They pointed from their huts to the floating wicker baskets and said surely he would fall out of the sky.

“They told me, ‘This is something only white men can do. No African, especially no Masai, can fly this balloon.'”

Undeterred, Njapit saved up for five years.

In June 2010, the tribesman who had never left the open plains of Kenya traveled to Los Angeles, his sword and club tucked in his luggage.

“I knew if I returned to the village without my pilot’s license, I will lose all respect,” Njapit said. “I will be seen as a fool by all of my tribe.”

At Los Angeles International Airport, he held out his passport to be stamped. He had six months on his visa to realize his dream.


Njapit was a small boy when Kenyan police arrived at his hut, demanding that his mother send one child to school. The tribe had long resisted enrolling its young, but now, having no choice, Nailepu decided to send him, her youngest.

He was one of 40 children of the five wives of Tente Njapit, a Masai warrior who used to raid neighboring tribes to steal cattle, the Masai’s most prized commodity.

By the time Njapit started school, his father had died of malaria and droughts had killed off the family’s cows.

To pay for his education, Njapit’s mother sold her remaining animals. She fetched firewood and water. She built huts the Masai way, using hay, cow dung and urine.

But when her son reached ninth grade and tuition went up, he was forced to drop out.

It was then that a group of missionaries from Indianapolis made a deal with the young man that changed his life. If he worked in their clinic in Talek, they would pay for his education, including a nursing degree.

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