Monthly Archives: July 2016

MEET IRIS SCHNEIDER, Journalist and former Los Angeles Times photographer



Mpaayon Loboitangu and Iris

I met Iris when she attended the 2015 Splash Bash. She was quite impressed with the work we are doing in Samburu and later approached me about the possibility of visiting Kenya on an upcoming trip.  We kept the conversation going over several months until earlier this spring we put the wheels in motion to travel to Samburu together this summer.  Iris has wanted to do a story on African women for a very long time.  Naturally,  I am thrilled that through TSP her life long dream came true.  (Personally, I was thrilled to have her on our team. I don’t often travel with a journalist.) Together we shared some amazing experiences in Kenya. Here is just a taste.


Iris stayed with me for a week in Samburu, visiting village after village, talking to hundreds of women about their lives, what it is like to be born into the Samburu tribe, their culture, their rituals, their beliefs and their dreams for themselves and their children. We both received quite an education.


Fertility is a point of much pride for the Samburu people. It is quite common for women to forego formal education and marry as young as possible so as to start bearing children. A common conversation starter is, “how many children do you have?” When speaking to women at the Lolgerdad well community, we asked if they had any desire or need to learn to read.  At first they said they could never attend school because it was too late, they couldn’t sit in a classroom with their own children.  When then asked, if they would want to learn if they had a special class, just for them, they resoundingly said, YES!  Mpaayon immediately told us, “I would at least like to know how to write my name.”  That simple request started a name writing session that lasted for quite some time. Turned out that everyone wanted to know how to write their name. We found a willing teacher in the crowd by the name of Rose Paula.  She helped us translate and the name writing began!


Mpaayon Loboitangu writing her name for the first time with assistance from Rose Paula and Jackie.

We’ve heard that Rose has continued her classes with the women of the Lolgerdad village. They’ve borrowed the chalkboard from the local school and are practicing their new skills that way.  They are holding classes three times a week.  TSP has plans to expand their thirst for knowledge when we launch the Samburu Sisters program later this year. 


Iris spent the day, from sun-up to sun-down with the ladies of the Ntilal well community. They generously invited her into their huts. She collected firewood with the women there, witnessed the slaughter of a goat and yes – walked for water with them. Stay tuned for future articles about her time in Samburu and a possible book later in the year. 

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Hello Aldo

I met Aldo Lesuutia last fall when I spent time at the  the Lekiji community during their well drill.  You might remember reading that Aldo showed up one morning and never left my side. To say that Aldo is an unusual person is a bit of an understatement. Aldo grew up in Samburu East but as a young man, headed for Mombasa where he met and fell in love with an English tourist. They married and he subsequently spent four years living in East London where he was introduced to Chinese and Italian food, the underground, and a vastly different life than he knew in Kenya.  Eventually he returned to his tribal community where he is now married with a new baby and occasionally cooks Italian food for his family.

Aldo is one of the many Samburu volunteers that work directly with TSP in the local community.  He is always available to report on the goings-on in the community and the status of our wells. As you can imagine, Aldo’s understanding of western culture and command of the English language are invaluable to The Samburu Project (and who can resist his smile and keen fashion sense). Aldo sends a big Thank You to all the TSP donors and supporters for the water wells they are providing in Samburu East.


Saipani and Aldo Lesuutia.



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Lunch with Elephants


Samburu is home to some big, beautiful herds of elephants.  Tourists come to Samburu just to see them. When you see elephants in their natural habitat it is exhilarating.  That sight never gets old. They are magnificent creatures.  Here at The Samburu Project, we’ve heard many times that elephants are a major threat to our wells. They need water too and when their highly efficient trunks smell water, they try to get it. It’s terrifying and dangerous for anyone at a well.  Sometimes, where these threats exist, the communities construct a fence of spiky bushes around the well to keep these magnificent creatures at bay.  Imagine our reaction when we came across the site of two elephants having lunch right next to our well near the Sere Olipi Trading Center.

This is a site that is not deep in the bush. In fact, it is right along side a major roadway and close to town.  We were able to get out of the car for a brief well inspection but Eric insisted we not stray too far or call too much attention to ourselves.  Elephants pose a real challenge to our work.   I felt lucky to have witnessed this sight with my own eyes after hearing about it for so many years and am happy to share the photo with our supporters. It is an excellent illustration of the challenges we face working in this remote but beautiful area. 

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Greetings from the Lekiji Well Community

As some of you might remember, last October I spent 5 days with members of the Lekiji Well community as their well was being drilled.  It was a long process. Day after day, we all watched the drill bit go round and round, adding more rods as the borehole got deeper and deeper.  Finally, the water came gushing out!  It was a big day that I shared with the community.  I knew then that doing work for The Samburu Project was a gift – not without challenges but a gift nonetheless.

Now, on my first official visit to Samburu as the Executive Director I wanted to visit the Lekiji well community to see the finished well and witness first hand how the lives of the people there have changed because of the water.  We arrived to find a small group of women doing laundry as the children helped to pump the water.  I was told again and again, “Ashe Oleng” (Thank You)!  “We are so happy that we don’t have to walk far for water anymore!” I am sharing these expressions of gratitude with everyone who supports TSP and especially the ABAR Foundation who sponsored this well.



Lekiji Thank You

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Meet Eric Lekolii, TSP’s Newest Staff Member

With 84 wells and more on the horizon, the area where we work in Samburu East is growing.  We realized that TSP needed more staff on the ground to ensure our wells continue to function properly and offer support to our well communities.  We were very lucky to find Eric Lekolii in early 2016.  

A native of Wamba in Samburu County, Eric is 100% Samburu through and through. Married and the father of three children, he grew up in a traditional Samburu village and knows every tree, bush, valley and village in Samburu.  In addition to his knowledge of all things Samburu, Eric is also a graduate of Nairobi University and a bronze level tour guide.  He spent five years as a guide at the Samburu Sabah Lodge.  Ask Eric the sound a Golden Breasted Starling makes and he’ll tell you along with its scientific name and mating habits. Ask him if he’s ever come face to face with a leopard and he’ll share a good story with you.  Spending time with Eric on this trip was quite a treat. 

Eric first knew about The Samburu Project when we put a well near his village in 2007. Now, he is quickly becoming the second face of TSP on the ground as our new Field Manager. Engaging in this type of work requires a unique skill set; first of all they must be Samburu, speak the language and have the trust of the people, have a knowledge of wells and mechanical issues is equally important, being able to communicate with our California staff and pass on information to our donors are all important traits.  We found all of the things and more in Eric.  We are thrilled to welcome Eric to our Kenya team on the ground and I can’t wait for you to meet him in person.


Eric Lekolii (left) with TSP Project Manager, Lucas Lekwali. (Photo courtesy of Iris Schneider)


Bonus Fun Fact: Just one of the fun facts we learned from Eric during our long bush drives; we all know the “Big Five” to look for when on safari: Rhino, Buffalo, Lion, Leopard and Elephant.  Can you name the Little Five?  Hint: their names bear resemblance to their larger namesakes. (The rhino beetle, buffalo weaver, ant lion, leopard tortoise and elephant shrew).


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Mzungu, How Are You?

In Swahili the word “mzungu” means a foreigner, usually a white person.  It can be used in a derogatory manner, but when I hear it from an adorable little girl in a purple dress, smiling and waving to me as our 4Wheel drive speeds by her hut on a dirt road, I am delighted to smile and wave back. She means no insult. The fact that she speaks English to me means she is reaching out, wanting to connect with a foreigner in her home. I am flattered and wonder, sincerely, how am I?

It’s been four months since I became the Executive Director of The Samburu Project (TSP) and I have been in high gear ever since. Volunteering for TSP had been my pet project and hobby for more than 5 years before it became my job. In between our Walk for Water, re-vamping our website and going through my first financial audit, I’ve been asked several times, what makes TSP different than other water charities? There are so many water charities as there is such a tremendous need around the world for clean water. We all know we aren’t as big as Charity Water or but with 84 wells and providing water to more than 80,000 people, TSP has done some fantastic work in ten years.

In addition to providing clean water, eradicating death from water-borne diseases, and sending more girls to school, the fact that people around the world are connected through TSP is something of which I am particularly proud. As the director of an art gallery for so many years, one of the things I loved most about being in the art world was the people I met along the way. The artists, collectors, scholars, writers, who became friends and brought their gifts and talents into my world was something I absolutely LOVED about being a part of the art community. As the ED of TSP, I am finding a similar sense of community in our work.

Our interns and volunteers who are so young and passionate and want to change the world inspire me every day.  Kiki Swanson, my right hand and “gal Friday” has made the ED transition as smooth as silk.  Not only is she organized and capable of 101 things at once, because of her passion for all things African, she has connected her family and friends from all over the country to TSP.  Our staff in Kenya who know every bush, hill, tree, manyatta and family in Samburu impress me immeasurably. Lucas and Eric each speak Samburu, Swahili and English and probably more languages than that. They know how to survive in the bush and get the car moving when it’s stuck or broken. They are diplomats in the community, engineers in well maintenance and are the face and voice of TSP in Kenya.  The donors are our lifeline. Without them, there would be no water, no sense of community, no TSP. The lives they lead as global citizens give us all purpose to do the work – and some of them are art collectors! The people I have met since becoming involved in TSP have already enriched my life in ways I couldn’t have imagined.

Now, that I am in Kenya, in Samburu on my first official visit, I am meeting the people in village after village whose lives have been changed because of TSP, and that feeling of connecting is stronger than ever. When we roll up to a village in the TSP truck, people come to meet us to say “Ashe Oleng” (thank you in Samburu) and begin to sing and dance as is their way of saying thank you. I want to share that feeling of connectedness with everyone back in the states and UK. We are all connected through this small but mighty organization. As the Dalai Lama said in a lecture I attended before leaving LA to come to Kenya, “we must respect and love eachother, we are all inhabiting this small blue planet.” Through TSP, I truly feel the power of that sentiment.

So when people ask me why TSP is different than the other water charities, I answer that we are a charity that truly connects people, connects them through water, around the globe, on our tiny blue planet. And in answer that that little Samburu girl in the purple dress, this “muzungu” is great, happy to be in this place, right here, right now.

I hope you will stay tuned and continue reading my “Samburu Stories” as I share my adventures in Kenya with all of our TSP friends and family.

Ashe Oleng


Members of the TSP team for this trip (left to right): Me, Eric Lekolii (TSP Kenya Team), Brendan Curran (Intern), Lucas Lekwale (TSP Project Manager, Kenya Team), Iris Schneider (Journalist and former Los Angeles Times photographer) and the members of the Lolgerdad well community near Archer’s Post, Samburu County, Kenya.

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