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Rising above his plains life

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.

"He had a lot of initiative and drive," said David Giles, a missionary with Christian Missionary Fellowship in the 1980s. "And he was profusely thankful to us because he came from a family that did not have the resources."

A decade later, with a degree from a nursing school near Nairobi, Njapit was among the most respected members of the tribe. His tribesmen proudly called him doctor. They gave him a seat of honor during ceremonies and a colorfully beaded club traditionally used as a talking stick by chiefs.

"He is the Masai community umbrella," said Margaret Nabaala, a childhood friend who was granted political asylum in the U.S. three years ago after her fight against the practice of female circumcision resulted in death threats.

"He is their gynecologist, their pediatrician, their pharmacy and their dentist. When there is an emergency, he's on a bike, going through the rain or in the dark to help them."

****

The morning Andrew Peart walked into Njapit's clinic, the only one for miles, he was feverish and aching with malaria. The Briton from Zimbabwe was a hot-air balloon pilot, one of the few catering to the thousands of tourists who descend on the Mara each year.

Njapit invited him to recuperate in the clinic's bed. He gave him medicine. The two became friends. One morning, Peart invited Njapit to go up in his balloon.

"It was magical," Njapit remembers. "You could see gazelles, elephants, thousands of them, wildebeests and zebras going together like ants moving on an hill."

Just as impressive was what tourists paid Peart for an hour-long ride: $400 each. Njapit barely earned that much in a month.

"I thought to myself, 'I can do this,'" Njapit said. "I can fly a balloon early in the morning and work at the clinic in the day. I can have money for supplies and for an ambulance."

He estimated he would need about $10,000 to travel to and from the U.S., enroll in a flight school and earn his pilot's license. Selling his animals would raise about $6,000.

Njapit knew he needed more money, but his quest had made the news across Kenya. He felt swept along by his own excitement and the expectations of his fellow tribesmen.

"Everybody was asking, 'When do you leave? When do you leave?'"

****

His first weeks in America were not easy.

At LAX, a stranger scolded him after he got lost in the terminal. When he finally found his ride — someone from the flight school holding a "Welcome Jackson" sign — he was driven straight to Adventure Flights in Lake Elsinore.

There, at the dusty dead end of a potholed trail, he was shown to his new place: a blue-and-beige motor home (rent: $30 a night). He spent his days sitting in a nook by the window, studying wind patterns, pressure systems and federal regulations.

In the evenings, he walked down the hill to the office to Skype his wife, Sintoyia, and his three young children. On YouTube, he searched for videos of his tribe — jumping, singing, chasing lions with spears.

Home felt a world away. So did his goal.

The $6,000 from selling the animals was long gone, and he still owed the school half of the $8,000 tuition and thousands more for lodging. When food, transportation and other expenses were added, he needed to come up with $11,000.

****

A lot of people go to the Mara looking to help the tribe — from the U.S., Sweden, Canada and beyond. As a leading Masai, Njapit met many of them, including Marlise Karlin, a spiritual teacher who became stranded in a rainstorm while on vacation in 2007. When she learned of his dream, Karlin raised money for him and arranged his enrollment at the flight school.

In August, two months after he arrived in the U.S., Karlin invited him to Los Angeles to meet her friends and drum up donations.

He heard the strangers' names in a blur: Kim and Kip in Woodland Hills, Joanne and David in Brentwood, Aviva and Syd in Beverly Hills, Shawn in Pacific Palisades.

For a month and a half, the visitor was passed from friend to friend, house to house. The homes were unlike anything Njapit had ever seen — swimming pools, plush pillows, fine art, stainless steel.

"I felt small because everything was big," he said. "Big ceilings, big kitchens, big offices, big beds, big televisions."

When he saw a lobster at a farmer's market, he cringed and wondered why anyone would eat a big red cockroach. He thought Disneyland was too crowded, the cars were too fast. The few cows he saw were lazy. They lived behind iron fences, and each time Njapit saw them, he wanted to set them free.

Fishing on a boat was nauseating; golfing was relaxing. Doggy day care seemed absurd. He gave surfing a try, though he was convinced "this is for people who want to kill themselves" and was never able to stay standing on the board.

During one outing, he met Mary Argimon, a yoga teacher who had spent time helping the Masai in Kenya. She offered to raise money for him.

"I knew what he was doing wasn't easy, " she said. "It was like trying to put a Masai on the moon."

The days flew by in a rush of adventures. When October came around, Njapit realized he had less than three months before he had to leave.

Supporters had raised about $3,000, but Njapit had done little studying and his most difficult exams were just a few weeks away.

"I needed to go and finish what I came here to do," he said.

****

November in the Inland Empire was rainy and windy. When the weather obliged and Njapit managed to get up in the balloon, he struggled. He crash-landed by mistake and forgot to give passengers safety instructions. Twice during set-up, he melted holes in the balloon's fabric.

As he soared 500 feet over Sun City one morning, the retirement community stretched below in an endless grid of gray rooftops and gravel yards, punctuated by the occasional aqua of a backyard pool. Over and over, the burner roared and spit a flame into the purple-and-pink balloon to keep it aloft.

Seeing a clearing, Jim Bilbrey, the flight school's owner, instructed Njapit to go in for a test landing.

But instead of releasing warm air to begin the descent, Njapit added heat.

Seconds later, he scrambled to correct his mistake. The basket hit the ground with a jolt, then skipped clumsily along a field, jostling the passengers.

"You've got to have control of the balloon at all times," Bilbrey warned him. "If the examiner has to take over the aircraft, you will fail."

By then, Njapit had used the 18 hours of flight time available in the pilot's course. He was approaching 40 hours and would have to pay for the extra instruction — at $350 per hour. Bilbrey had begun to wonder whether he could settle his tab.

"He's a really good guy, an honest guy," Bilbrey said. "But I do a lot of charity work already, and I've made a huge investment to help him."

****

Just before Thanksgiving, two dozen of Njapit's supporters gathered in a Hollywood home to discuss how they might help. One supporter gave him $2,500.

At the end of the night, after hors d'oeuvres, desserts and wine, Njapit waved his beaded club in the air and thanked his American friends.

"I may not be able to see you for the rest of my of my life," he said, "but you will not regret all you are doing for me."

In the days ahead, however, efforts to raise money fell flat. People wined and dined Njapit, but hardly anyone wrote checks. Because he was a long drive away at the flight school, planning events was tricky.

On Dec. 9, the moment Njapit had dreamed of finally came. He passed his final flying exam and officially became a pilot. He posted the news on Facebook for Kenyans to see: "today is my day of victory, i have earned and received my commercial pilot licence..."

The next day, he returned to L.A., eager to focus on raising more money. Even with the donations he'd received, he still owed the school about $10,000 and had less than three weeks left in the States. But in Los Angeles, people were busy — Christmas shopping, flying out of town, spending time with families.

"Everybody had the best intentions," Argimon said. "but things got so scattered."

****

The morning Njapit left for Kenya, he was relieved and ecstatic.

He missed his connection in Dubai and arrived in Talek a day late, long after the sun had set and the news reporters had given up and left. Early the next morning, the feasts began in his honor. The first day, nearly 500 villagers showed up at his house. The next day brought 300 more. Njapit slaughtered seven sheep and four goats to feed everyone, even those who had once mocked his dream.

It wasn't long before his phone rang with job offers, including one from his friend Andrew Peart.

"They are fighting over me," Njapit said with a laugh, speaking by phone from Talek. "But I know I am going to fly with my mentor, Andrew."

He will need an additional six months to clock the training hours that balloon companies in Kenya require for pilots. Then, he can start collecting a salary and begin paying back Bilbrey.

"No matter what, I will find a way to pay," he said. "I have to."

Two weeks after coming home, he awoke early to tag along with a pilot friend, David Eris, as he flew a balloon full of tourists over the Masai Mara.

The passengers were from New Zealand, Germany and Texas. They settled into the basket and eagerly waited for liftoff instructions.

Just then, Eris introduced Njapit, and the Masai smiled proudly.

"This is Captain Jackson. He just came from training in the United States."

esmeralda.bermudez@latimes.com

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