Articles & Columns

Jewish Torontonian turned African tribal elder spearheads nature conservancy

After social innovation Prof. Eric Young’s adoption into the Maasai tribe, he quickly came to implement his traditional ‘tikun olam’ upbringing in a new homeland

  • Eric Young with his Maasai 'brother' Nelson Ole Reiyia. (Courtesy)
    Eric Young with his Maasai ‘brother’ Nelson Ole Reiyia. (Courtesy)
  • Maasai community members. (Marianne Nord)
    Maasai community members. (Marianne Nord)
  • Portrait of a Nashulai Conservancy scout and member of the Maasai community. (Nora Nord)
    Portrait of a Nashulai Conservancy scout and member of the Maasai community. (Nora Nord)
  • From left to right: Eric Young; Ole Kasoi, first landowner to join the Nashulai Conservancy; and Nelson Ole Reiyia. (Courtesy)
    From left to right: Eric Young; Ole Kasoi, first landowner to join the Nashulai Conservancy; and Nelson Ole Reiyia. (Courtesy)
  • Two warriors in the Nashulai Maasai Conservancy. (Nora Nord)
    Two warriors in the Nashulai Maasai Conservancy. (Nora Nord)
  • A Maasai warrior. (Marianne Nord)
    A Maasai warrior. (Marianne Nord)

    Since Eric Young helped start the Conservancy Project, animals are returning to the savanna. (Nora Nord)

    Since Eric Young helped start the Conservancy Project, animals are returning to the savanna. (Nora Nord)

TORONTO — Among the first things visitors see on entering Eric Young’s century-old house in midtown Toronto are two exotic objects from Africa. One is a wooden throwing club called an orinka, the other is a tall, carved stick called an oseki.

Neither has any financial value or application in Young’s day-to-day routine in Canada, where he’s the founder of The Social Projects Studio and a distinguished visiting professor of social innovation at Ryerson University. But due to their provenance and how they came into his possession, both are among his most precious belongings.

In his other life, halfway across the globe in Kenya, Young is deeply involved with the Maasai tribe. This ancient, semi-nomadic community has embraced him — literally — when it officially inducted him as an elder member in a traditional ceremony in 2013. The feeling is mutual, as reflected in his words and actions.

Young has cofounded a conservancy with and for the Maasai where he’s also developing a cultural center; he’s contributed financially to their community; he’s involved in a new safari business with them; he’s bought land and is building a house there; he’s made friends among tribe members that he considers family and he’s effusive in his praise and affinity for the Maasai.

To some, it might seem unlikely that a nice Jewish boy from a white, upper-middle class family in Toronto would become so engaged with a rural, tribal community in the Great Rift Valley. In Young’s eyes, it’s a natural extension of his decades-long career, and not unrelated to his Jewish background.

Maasai community members. (Marianne Nord)

The Maasai are a Nilotic, pastoralist people numbering just over a million who live in southern Kenya and neighboring northern Tanzania.

With their distinct way of life, iconic traditional red clothing and colorful, hand-beaded jewelry and accessories, the Maasai have long attracted international fascination.

Historically great warriors, which helps explain why they’ve never been taken as slaves, they are considered the aristocrats of east Africa. As certain customs resemble age-old Jewish practices, some believe the Maasai are one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel.

In March, Young will travel to Kenya as part of his close relationship with the Maasai and to work on his projects there. It will be his seventh trip since his maiden voyage in 2013 when he first became smitten with the community.

Portrait of a Nashulai Conservancy scout. (Nora Nord)

On a recent winter day in Toronto, when the bone-chilling temperature outdoors and deep snow couldn’t be more juxtaposed with the Maasai’s arid, sunbaked habitat in Africa, Young sat in his living room, expounding with great reverence on the Maasai and their impact on him.

As he spoke, his British-born wife, Louise Dennys, a prominent book publisher, was meeting in the adjacent dining room with Michael Ondaatje, one of Canada’s most illustrious writers. They were going over the manuscript of his next novel.

Young first met Dennys on a blind date in London in 1971 when he was studying film there. They’ve been together ever since.

Eric Young at home in snowy Toronto. (Etye Sarner)

“The Maasai people, their environment and the projects in their community have absolutely got my heart,” says Young, who turns 70 in June. “Ever since I first spent time with them almost five years ago, so much about them has resonated with me. It’s not because of an absence in my life in Toronto, which is actually exciting. It’s not like I’ve gone there and suddenly discovered myself.”

While in Kenya, he did discover he wanted to make the Maasai a big part of his life.

“For me, it’s an amplification of everything I’ve been working on, thinking about, working on, the person I’ve become from the time I was a young Jewish boy,” Young explains.

Two warriors in the Nashulai Maasai Conservancy. (Nora Nord)

“In whatever way I’m a product of that, somehow the twists and turns of life have led me to this involvement. As exotic as it may seem on one level, the strange thing about this is how resonant and natural it is and how I don’t feel radically different when I’m there,” he says.

Young first traveled to Africa because of a speech he delivered at the first-ever World Indigenous Network Conference in May 2013 in Darwin, Australia. In his address, which opened the event, he told the true story of a poor, indigenous community on the west coast of Canada and what he calls their magic canoe.

He recounted how British Columbia’s Haisla First Nations people faced the prospect of their ancestral home and natural environment being ravaged by a massive logging project.

Eric Young at home in Toronto. (Etye Sarner)

Young explained how his friend, Cecil Paul, an elder in the Haisla community, managed to raise consciousness to protest commercial development on the last untouched piece of Haisla land with the story of a “magic canoe.” Against all odds, the Haisla ultimately prevailed in 1994, saving the largest intact coastal temperate rain forest in the world.

Among the 1,300 indigenous notables from around the globe who were in the audience at the Indigenous Network Conference was Nelson Ole Reiyia, a Maasai community leader in Kenya. He was so touched by Young’s speech that he approached him afterwards.

“After saying he was moved by the magic canoe story, Nelson told me I spoke like a Maasai,” Young recalls.

Eric Young with his Maasai ‘brother’ Nelson Ole Reiyia. (Courtesy)

“We became friends almost instantly. The more we talked, the more he impressed me. Although he was a poor man, he had the most noble bearing of almost anyone I’d ever met. The conference went on for three days during which we developed a deep friendship. He invited me to come visit his community in Africa and added that if I came he’d see about having me adopted as a Maasai elder. I thought he was joking,” says Young.

Three months later, in August 2013, Young and his wife traveled to the Maasai Mara in southern Kenya. It’s a vast national park, home to a natural wonder — the world’s greatest and most diverse migration of large animals such as lions, elephants and giraffes that roam the enormous savanna. Early in their four-week sojourn, Young and Dennys did what most foreign visitors to that part of the world do — they went on a safari.

Eric with his wife Louise Dennys at Canada’s most prestigious literary event, The Giller Prize. Louise wearing a Maasai belt made for her by Nelson’s Ole Reiyia’s mother. (Courtesy)

“It was a great experience,” says Young, who goes by Ric, not Eric. “I loved seeing giraffes, lions and cheetahs. It was very exciting, but I was as interested in the Maasai people and their stories as seeing animals on the safari. I became fascinated by Maasai culture and felt so at home with their way of being. Somehow there was a congruence of character and culture. We had an ongoing, rich conversation about Maasai ways of life and the significant challenges they’re facing.”

Young also made an impression on the locals.

“We became intrigued by Ric’s constant questions about our culture and his desire to learn and connect with our people and the land,” says Nelson Ole Reiyia, 44, in an email from Kenya. “We often sat under an acacia tree and shared stories and the poetry of our people with Ric. The elders were so impressed by the way he wanted to know and connect with the community.”

While staying at the Oldarpoi Mara Safari Camp, elders often would come by to engage Young in conversation and observe. He felt as if they were checking him out.

Eventually, one presented Young with an oseki, the carved walking stick carried by Maasai elders which is steeped in tradition and charged with authority. He would soon learn this was the first step in a process.

Later that week, he noticed young warriors bringing a goat into the camp. The next thing he knew, it was being slaughtered for the elaborate ceremony in which the community was adopting Young. Later, as part of the ritual, he was expected to drink the animal’s blood from its neck with other elders.

At the ceremony making Eric Young a Maasai elder. (Courtesy)

“I had no hesitation about drinking the blood,” Young recalls. “For the Maasai, this is a delicacy. For me, not so much. But I had learned enough about Maasai culture by that point to know Maasai don’t flinch in the face of challenges.

“I was being inducted as an elder and the slaughtering of the goat was an honor, so I had to comport myself accordingly. I was more focused on the meaning of the moment than any queasiness I may have had,” he says.

The ceremony was far removed from his life in Toronto, where Young and his wife are part of a coterie of high-profile people active in the city’s arts and culture scene.

Eric Young at the ceremony inducting him as a Maasai elder. (Courtesy)

Personable, soft-spoken and articulate, coupled with a radiant smile, flowing hair and a twinkle in his eye, Young has an amiable presence. A Canadian magazine described him as “a tireless connector of people and a charming flirt, known affectionately around Toronto as Mr. Tall, Dark and Handsome.” At 6 foot 5 inches, he’s indeed tall.

He’s also likely the only Canadian white Jewish man ever adopted by the Maasai and invited to join their council of elders. The only other white man Young knows of who the Maasai adopted was British billionaire Sir Richard Branson in 2007.

“In contemporary Maasai society, it’s not common to adopt an adult — especially a foreigner from overseas — due to the belief that such a foreigner won’t easily follow our customs and traditions,” says Ole Reiyia. “This was a very rare case where the elders were impressed by how easily Ric understood our traditions and so they decided to bless him into joining the Maasai nation.”

Ole Reiyia says some educated Maasai believe they are one of the lost tribes of Israel. He claims that studies, supposedly conducted by an Israeli biology professor, uncovered a gene common to Jews and the Maasai.

“There’s an odd type of mutual recognition, even a kind of Jewish-Maasai kinship,” says Young. “Some Maasai think they’re a lit bit Jewish sometimes.”

Eric Young at a ceremony making Nelson Ole Reiyia an elder. (Courtesy)

According to Young, he’s not the first Jew many Maasai have met, given there have been numerous Jewish tourists, including Israelis, to the region over the years.

Having received international media coverage due to its natural wonders, the Maasai Mara game reserve is on the bucket list of people from all over the world seeking an uncommon travel experience.

Young, who credits the Jewish concept of tikun olam, or repairing the world, with influencing his worldview while growing up, has been to Israel on many occasions. He was first there 40 years ago for the wedding of his brother, who married an Israeli. He was last there in 2016.

Young says his interaction with the Maasai has changed him, and triggered much reflection.

A Maasai warrior. (Marianne Nord)

“I’ve learned important things from them,” says Young. “Courage is at the heart of their culture. Not just the physical courage of warriors but also the courage to hold onto ideas of hope and goodness and community and to work and fight for them.

“Ideas that wouldn’t be alien to serious Jewish thinkers, or anybody in the world wanting to make a better life for themselves and their children: To leave the world better than you received it without feeling that the harm done to you is an excuse for giving up or being cynical. That you can’t be a full person unless your moral dimension is engaged in the world,” he says.

Throughout his career, Young has worked on social change issues (from public health to refugee integration) with governments, NGOs, corporations and communities. He’s long focused on the nature of change and how societies can be more effective as agents of positive, sustainable change.

Wildebeest making the great migration across the savanna. (Nora Nord)

Due to climate change, poverty, and commodification of communal land, the traditional Maasai way of life and habitat are under threat. They’ve been marginalized economically in an area where there’s a robust tourist economy.

After Young and Ole Reiyia discussed the situation at length, they decided to create a 6,000-acre conservancy that — unlike others in the region — would be run by the Maasai themselves. Its mandate: restore the environment, conserve wildlife, preserve culture and reduce poverty through social development. A tall order but much needed.

As a first step, Ole Reiyia persuaded local landowners to lease their property for the project which required money to pay them. Young and his wife contributed financially but much more was required. Instead of appealing to conventional philanthropies, they turned to Avvaz, a large global online activist network, and within a few weeks, 60,000 people had made donations which allowed for the first round of lease payments and to hire local people to be scouts.

Since Eric Young helped start the Conservancy Project, animals are returning to the savanna. (Nora Nord)

Today, two years later, the Nashulai Conservancy is making an impact including bringing back wildlife to the area and developing potable water projects. It’s hired 30 people from the community including 12 scouts (four of whom used to be poachers) who work on the land.

“Ric’s involvement with the Maasai is a marvelous part of our lives now but it doesn’t surprise me,” says Dennys, her British accent still strong despite living in Toronto for the past 45 years. “His work with the Maasai, especially with the Nashulai conservancy, exemplifies so much of what he cares about. I see constantly how, on a relationship level, he connects personally with people of different worlds in a way that few do.”

Young speaks of Ole Reiyia with great reverence and affection, referring to him as a brother. They’re in contact several times a week by phone, text or email.

Salman Rushdie, left, with Louise Dennys and Nelson Ole Reiyia in Toronto. (Courtesy)

“Nelson exemplifies the importance of moral action,” says Young. “He’s a very talented, incredibly intelligent, unbelievably capable man and probably the best community leader of anybody I’ve ever met — and I’ve worked with many in my life. Plus, he’s got rock-star charm and everybody who meets him, including rock stars, are amazed by him. He could’ve done anything with his life but he chose to return to his community to make life better there for his people.”

Ole Reiyia and his wife have contributed considerably to their community, through initiatives building schools, teaching hospitality leadership skills to youth, and helping end female genital mutilation and early female marriage.

Young’s next trip to see the Maasai in March will be a working visit. He’ll be focusing, with Ole Reiyia, on future plans for the Nashulai Conservancy and the affiliated safari business they recently launched. Nashulai Maasai Safaris offers people a customized safari experience led by top Maasai guides with the chance to be fully integrated into the world of the Maasai in the conservancy.

The Nashulai Conservancy is making an impact including bringing back wildlife to the area and developing potable water projects. (Marianne Nord)

At the same time, Young and Ole Reiyia are developing a cultural center that will be at the heart of Nashulai. Called Netti Apa (the Stories Café), it will be a knowledge center where the community will gather, in part to listen to stories of the elders, to help nurture in the young generation a greater appreciation of their culture and sense of place.

Back at his home in Toronto, standing in the front hallway where his orinka and oseki have pride of place on a 17th century dresser, Young never tires of speaking of the Maasai and his involvement with them.

“I’ve gained so much from the Maasai,” he says. “I’ve learned about community and what it means to be an elder, and the responsibility that goes with it. That the only way communities and societies make it through — and again this is also a Jewish thing — is we tell our stories and we mine them for the wisdom we need to figure out how to cope in the present to make a better future.”

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