Bringing Opportunity to the Maasai Mara
By Guest Author: John Hockenberry
In the spring of 2022, seeds planted by the Oliveseed Foundation have started to sprout. This is the story of how a small NGO can make significant changes on the ground by engineering low-tech labor and building materials, high-tech solar lighting, graphic design, and publishing tools to rapidly bring literacy to imperiled communities in Morocco and Kenya. Founded in 2014 by former software UX designer Barbara Mackraz, Oliveseed has made a mission of education, community empowerment, and environmental stewardship. MPOWERD products have been a part of their mission for years.
Perhaps the most dramatic story of Oliveseed’s recent success was a nighttime visit on May 23, 2022, to get some pictures of the inside of the brand new Manyatta library dedicated earlier that week. Barbara’s eyes are emotional as she tells this story, but her face and arms are browned with the tawny evidence of hard work in the daylight building the first library this village had ever seen. A Manyatta is a small Maasai settlement of earthen homes without power or light. Barb says that as she and her Maasai colleague, Amos Kipeen, approached the new library, the air screeched with peepers and insects. Then they saw something astounding and dream-like. The library building was invisible in the dark, but its windows covered with bright red and yellow fabrics were all glowing from lights shining from within the building. They could hear the quiet hum of murmuring voices. They climbed the steps and opened the door to a library full of children reading. Every chair was taken with more seated on the floor, and a community volunteer supervising. Everyone had a book and a Luci Core light that illuminated their excited eyes, as they read stories aloud.
“They looked like they were wearing jewelry,” Barb says, describing the flexible yellow handles and how the children clutched them as though they would never let go. “It was like watching a forest bloom in the springtime sun,” Barb says with emotion. “We didn't expect to see the Manyatta library full of kids reading late at night, especially just a couple of days after opening.” Amos says, “We are already working on expanding the library for more students with more books, chairs, tables, and of course more solar lights. “Sunlight,” Amos says jokingly, “We have plenty of that.”
There also is the story of 8th-grade Fatima Zahra Taghlaoui, who joined an Oliveseed-built English literacy project called “The Purple Library” in Morocco. As part of the program, she and Barb distributed MPOWERD Luci lights to nomad families in remote areas of Morocco without electricity or running water. The Luci lights brought light into the darkness of desert tents and structures that shield the fierce desert sun. Fatima was so inspired by the work of helping people she shared history with, the pre-Islamic Amazigh people of North Africa, that it changed her life. Refusing to accept the limited options for women in Morocco she became fluent in English, along with four other languages she speaks and went to California determined to be a voice for her people. After proposing a documentary film project on the Amazigh, she was accepted as a student to the UCLA Film School in 2022. “Preservation of culture is important, and I want to ensure that our cultures and ways of life are not forgotten,” Fatima says fiercely. Apparently, the Filmmakers at UCLA agreed.
Barbara Mackraz is a whirlwind in person with a kind, warm voice that inspires trust and bright red hair that parts crowds everywhere she goes. The Oliveseed Foundation focuses on bringing equal access to quality education, sustainable livelihoods, and empowerment to young girls and women in Morocco and the Maasai Mara of Kenya. It is equally dedicated to promoting sustainability and environmental responsibility and especially learning the lessons of a sustainable approach to the world that so many indigenous cultures can teach the rest of us. At its heart, the foundation aims to be good stewards of the natural world in all that they do. Their newest venture is bringing clean water, solar lights, power, and opportunity to the Maasai Mara in the form of a sustainability center pilot project, the first of its kind, along with a women’s center for making local textiles, beadwork, jewelry, and other handicrafts for sale to the growing eco-tourist trade. People from the industrialized world are eager to get what they hope is not the last look at the profound wildlife diversity in the Maasai Mara. The Oliveseed Foundation, Amos Kipeen, and Barbara Mackraz are determined that these tourists are changed forever after seeing these marvels first-hand.
“I loved my career in tech,” Barbara insists, “But when I began Oliveseed I felt that this is what I was meant to do. When I was in college, I couldn’t imagine what being my age now would be like. I feel now as though my life is just beginning.” Barb pauses. “It’s the biggest surprise of all.”
Barbara Mackraz is the founder along with Amos Kipeen of the Oliveseed Kenya Trust. Barb spends her time in Palo Alto, Morocco, and Kenya. Amos lives and works in the Maasai Mara, in Kenya.
Donate: If you’d like to support Oliveseed and their programs uniting literacy and light, please visit: https://www.oliveseed.org/donate
About the Author: John Hockenberry is a former broadcast and print journalist with extensive experience in the Middle East and Africa. He has followed the success of Oliveseed for years through his decades-long friendship with Barbara Mackraz and her family in California.