Jessica CensottiJessica Censotti is the President & Founder of My Chosen Vessels (MCV), a non for profit registered in the USA and Kenya. MCV’s mission is to empower Maasai people through our water, education, and culture conservation initiatives. We believe every Maasai person should have access to clean water & education for their ancient culture to survive. Our programs are led by a Maasai Chiefs Council which consists of 15 traditional Maasai chiefs spanning Kenya and Tanzania. Jessica is also the Director of Communications at the Islamic Medical Association of North America, a non-profit professional association of physicians with an active worldwide medical relief program. Her professional experience includes strategic planning, leadership development, human resources management, organizational development, creative design and visual media. Her practical insights are gleaned from direct work experience in humanitarian project development and organizational development, in particular with underdeveloped communities and indigenous people. Jessica has dynamic public speaking and presentation skills and expertise in facilitation as well as adult and children learning methodologies. She is also a professional photographer and creative documentary producer. She has successfully managed multiple projects working with people of diverse backgrounds. Ms. Censotti earned her Bachelors of Arts in education from Northeastern University in Chicago, IL. Ms. Censotti has traveled overseas to many countries and has lived in Africa for extended periods of times managing water, health and sanitation projects in Kenya. She demonstrates a natural aptitude to work with diverse groups of people from grassroots to community leaders to policy makers. She has coordinated logistics and program management involving undergraduate students and professional engineers. She is dedicated to making an impact in indigenous peoples lives through her NGO and its partners. Humanitarian work is her passion, especially amongst the indigenous people. She loves to learn and radiates toward anything new and challenging. Check her personal website and her organization My Chosen Vessels.

INTERVIEW QUESTIONS:

1) How did My Chosen Vessels (MCV) started and how does it work?

In 2009, I began my journey working with the Maasai as an artist, photographer and videographer. I traveled to Kenya to assist Maasai mothers and girls who were saying no to female genital mutilation (FGM) also known as female circumcision. Through the sales of artwork, the Vibrant Voices Empowerment Center was established in Kenya which was a ceramic facility for Maasai mother’s to learn new skills for employment and a safe house for girls saying no to FGM. I went to Kenya to train Maasai mothers to design ceramic products to gain employment and pay for girl’s school fees so they would not have to get cut and married off at an early age.

During this time, I lived with the Maasai communities to learn about their indigenous lifestyle and to get to know the communities I was serving first hand. It was during my time living in the villages that I learned about the severity of the water crisis and how it was effecting Maasai woman and girls who were spending 80% of their day simply looking for water. It was heartbreaking to witness children drinking diseased water that causes illnesses and even deaths.

For seven years, I visited various Maasai areas spanning Kenya and Tanzania to learn about the Maasai people and I recognized their struggle to uphold their culture. I began documenting the Maasai’s cultural traditions, daily life, songs, and ceremonies. I realized that in areas where Maasai people lost land and water rights, the culture was rapidly disappearing. Many of the Maasai people themselves believed that the Maasai traditions no longer existed and believed their culture was becoming extinct.

In 2011 My Chosen Vessels (MCV) was founded as a nonprofit charity organization in the USA and a Non-governmental organization in Kenya with the mission is to address the most critical issues facing the Maasai: water, education and cultural conservation. MCV is currently led by 15 Maasai cultural chiefs to ensure our programs are preserving Maasai culture for future generations. Our programs are run by volunteers in the USA & Kenya to facilitate our programs to empower the Maasai people.

 2) What are the challenges that you conquered during the foundation of My Chosen Vessels?

There are many challenging starting a nonprofit organization, the most obvious is fundraising and running daily operations on volunteer time due to lack of funds, which tends to be a challenge for most nonprofits in the startup phase. However, besides limited funds, it was even more critical to establish a reliable and transparent team in Kenya to oversee our operations. MCV’s goal is to develop sustainable programs that last generations, so it was essential that we had an accountable team in Kenya, led by the Maasai people.

In the areas MCV is serving, the majority of the Maasai speak their tribal language Maa, and they live in rural areas without internet or electricity, therefore it took MCV several years to establish a reliable communication system so the Kenya team could update the USA team with weekly updates. Thankfully we now we have an excellent communication system in place and a passionate team that operates MCV programs effectively. 15 Maasai cultural chiefs oversee our programs, and we also have Maasai volunteers and translators that are trained with MCV’s charitable model to facilitate water, education and cultural conservation programs successfully.

3) Tell us a few success stories and recent achievements of MCV.

 The greatest achievement is to give a village clean water! Last summer alone over 3,000 people received clean water through our programs. These communities that now have access to clean water have more children enrolled in school, women started spending time on income generating activities, and they can prepare nutritious meals all in the matter of a few months. It is amazing to witness how communities transform once they receive clean water – it is life changing!

MCV also developed successful educational programs for university and high school students to participate in service-learning projects to help the Maasai. We have several universities participating, and it is inspiring to have students join us in Maasai communities for cultural exchange opportunities to gain a better understanding for solving global issues.

This year MCV is also starting participating in the United Nations to advocate for Maasai rights. We are working on the local and national level to ensure the Maasai people have access to water to preserve their ancient culture.

4) Describe the Maasai Culture.

The Maasai are one of the last remaining indigenous tribal communities in East Africa. They are Known globally for their distinct culture. They are semi-nomadic, living in Kenya and Tanzania. Being the Maasai are one of the oldest tribes, their culture parallels the beginning of human history. Their traditional cultural values have remained unchanged for thousands of years. Now, in 2017, if they continue to lose access to their land and water resources, their culture and traditions are facing extinction within the next few generations.

5) Of all indigenous groups in Africa, why choose Maasai? What makes them unique and special?

The Maasai people carry a deep respect for humanity, and their traditions value the sanctity of nature; their knowledge is an asset that can teach the rest of the world how to live sustainably. The Maasai have lived in nature with the wildlife harmoniously since the beginning of time; therefore they also know how to protect the planet and wildlife. MCV passionately believes their traditions reflect vital rooted expressions of humanity and should be remembered and shared with the rest of the world.

 6) Share with us a memorable experience you had in Africa especially around the Maasai people?

My most enjoyable experiences with the Maasai are during my extended stays when I have the opportunity to live with them. Last summer I had the opportunity to celebrate my birthday in Amboseli, Kenya and deliver clean water to 2,000 Maasai people. It was a joyous time as we celebrated clean water and life together.  We also had an opportunity to finalize MCV’s legacy project to establish a Maasai Cultural Center and Training Institute that will be implemented in 2018.

 7) What are the valuable lessons you learned along the way while doing humanitarian work?

 All mission have their unique challenges, and the most complicated missions are the most rewarding. I have learned that success comes through persistence. Currently, we are working in a village where Maasai woman and girls are walking 12 miles every day to collect water. This will be by far one of the most challenging projects MCV is implementing, however, this will bring the greatest rewards to over 2,000 people that are suffering immensely from the water crisis.

8) You are living a wonderful legacy empowering women especially the Maasai Women, what’s your best advice to them amidst all the difficulties and challenges they are facing?

 My advice to Maasai women and all people is to remember that their strength and their beauty remain in their unity. Maasai women in traditional villages share each other’s joy and burdens. Each day they wake up and share their strenuousness workload to fetch water, collect firewood, milk cows, prepare food; and in the evening they join together around a campfire to design beadwork, share stories and sing songs. Despite the fact they live in extreme poverty and are struggling to survive when they work together as a community, they have the miraculous strength to conquer their hardships and still live a joyful life.

9) As a woman, how can we be empowered and how can we empower others?

My advice to women is to trust your instincts and use your voice to advocate for your rights to have equality and live peacefully.  There is plenty of injustice in this world and many challenges that are facing girls globally, however as difficult as it is to make change happen, by advocating for our rights we can make a better world for the next generation and make an impact for girls globally.

10) Lastly, who is your role model while growing up and why?

I’m thankful I’ve had many inspiring role models in my life, including my mother, who raised me to follow my dreams.  However, the two role models that made a major impact in my life are my grandmother and my mentor Diane Earls.

My Grandmother was my greatest mentor during my childhood. Towards the end of my grandmother’s life, I witnessed her desire to travel and see the world often she didn’t have anyone to travel with her, so she began traveling by herself. I think this is what gives me the courage to travel the world alone and stay in remote villages without knowing the language to experience different cultures without being afraid. I traveled to Mexico with my grandmother to climb the Teotihuacan Aztec pyramids when I was a child, and this experience left a lasting impression on me and a desire to learn about cultures around the world.

Also, my mentor Diane Earls, who I call her “Mama Earls” taught me about the power of prayer in my adulthood. Mama Earls has battled Multiple sclerosis (MS) for over 35 years. Despite the pain and hardships she endured as she lost her mobility and ability to walk, she continued to pray and did not let the disease stop her from living gracefully as she continues to radiate God’s love and kindness. She taught me that we all have struggles in life, but through prayer, we can channel our pain and make something beautiful and give back to society because giving to others, even when we are in discomfort, is what uplifts us.

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