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Viewpoint by Leonard Pitts Jr.: A gift of the Masai

June 13, 2002

The photograph was taken in the first breathless hours after the Sept. 11 attack. Someone in some far-flung outpost of Islamic radicalism had scrawled a sign and held it up for a photographer's camera. The message asked Americans to think about why they are hated all over the world.I suppose it was intended to make Americans who saw it uneasy or uncertain. The only thing it ever made me was angry.Not that the sentiment was unique. To the contrary, it repeatedly popped up in my e-mail and on various editorial pages. Always some variation on the same theme: We are a wicked people who got what we deserved.I won't pretend there aren't many spots on the globe where the United States is viewed ambivalently, critically and even, yes, hatefully. Nor for that matter do the people who feel that way always do so without good reason. You prop up enough dictators, condone enough corruption and export enough Britney Spears CDs, and you're bound to hack some people off.It is, however, a long leap from there to the contention that the United States hasn't literally, a friend in the world. And here, I could offer a pretty impressive list of those who do not, in fact, hate us. But I want to talk about just one: The Masai.They are an isolated and nomadic people in Kenya who shun modern technology. So it wasn't until just a few days ago that they learned of the attack. The news came in an eyewitness account from one of their own, a man named Kimeli Naiyomah, who happened to be in New York on that awful day.Naiyomah came to America after an American journalist wrote about how villagers had raised $5,000 to help him realize his life's dream of becoming a doctor. Administrators at a U.S. university saw the story and offered him a full scholarship. He's now a pre-med student at Stanford.Last month, on a visit home, Naiyomah told some of his countrymen about Sept. 11. They were so stricken by this attack on the nation that had shown him such kindness that they arranged to present a gift to express their solidarity with America. In a solemn ceremony with the American ambassador, the Masai gave the people of the United States 14 cows.Now, there are — I looked this up — already 100 million cows in this country, and for Americans, they represent little more than meat and milk. So it is, perhaps, difficult for us to appreciate the significance of the gift. But for the Masai, cattle are sacred — among the greatest treasures a person can own. They are used as currency, as clothing and as food. They are believed to possess supernatural abilities. The Masai even drink the animal's blood.

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"The cow is almost the center of life for us," Naiyomah told a reporter.And they just gave 14 of them to the United States.It's a small, sweet story. And maybe because of that, it won't mean much to those pseudo-sophisticates who fixate implacably and hyperbolically upon American sins. I'll tell you what it means to me, though. Taken in conjunction with all the expressions of empathy and support that poured in from world capitals, it suggests that maybe others see something in us that is not so bad after all. Maybe something that is, on balance, fundamentally decent. Maybe we're not the worst people on Earth. Maybe not even close.That's no claim for American perfection. And, no, there's nothing wrong — indeed, there's everything to celebrate — in our willingness to engage in honest and unsparing self-criticism.Yet something has gone absurdly amiss when that willingness becomes such an ingrained reflex that even in a moment of national trauma, some of us can only whine and moan about our supposed awfulness. They have a perspective of this country that sees only unremitting villainy.But I'll bet you 14 cows they're wrong.

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