Maasailand Cultural Safari: Beyond the Looking Glass
Our journey to Masai* land was a true homecoming. Personally, this trip was among the most important and meaningful Wildland Adventures I've experienced. It affected the rest of the group members in a deep level as well; I've never seen such emotion from our guests!
July 30, Masai Mara
As I write this journal entry from the Masai Mara Game Reserve in the heart of Masai land in Kenya, an old Masai woman sits before us. Our guide, Meitamei Olol Dapash, walks over, puts his arm around her and introduces our group to his mother. She traveled to our camp with my eldest brother a half-day across the Savannah and forests of Loita to welcome all of you to our family.
Meitamei and I planned this one-of-a-kind safari itinerary for active and inquisitive travelers, those who want to go beyond the looking glass by meeting Masai, learning about Masai culture and wisdom, and understanding the complex issues of ecology and wildlife conservation in Africa. Our design was to go on safari beyond the search for Big Five game that is the single-minded goal of so many travelers to Africa. This is a trip about personal discovery, being a conscientious traveler and giving back, as much as it is about experiencing the awe and excitement of being on safari.
Meitamei has an extensive family reaching far beyond the wilds of Africa. We became brothers ten years ago after his family fled Kenya to avoid persecution for his activism in behalf of wildlife conservation and the cultural survival of the Masai people who have been marginalized by colonization, disease and development. Many members of this Wildland Adventures group from Seattle are the same individuals who helped the Dapash family establish a new life in the Pacific Northwest. Therefore, Meitamei's mother made the hard journey to our camp to thank us for taking care of her son and grand kids in America. She insisted the next Wildland Adventures traveler who comes to Africa must make the trip to their family boma in rural Masai land!
MERC: Maasai Environmental Resource Coalition
After Meitamei arrived in Seattle we formed a US branch of the non-profit Maasai Environmental Resource Coalition [MERC], an African-based grassroots coalition of Masai communities throughout East Africa. Our intent was to help Meitamei and his colleagues at home by bringing international attention and resources to bear for protection of Masai land rights and political sovereignty, cultural integrity, and preservation of the wildlife that has co-existed with Masai for centuries.
Last year MERC and Wildland Adventures embarked on an ecotourism project to reform tourism in East Africa, in part by creating an entirely new kind of safari that would bring our travelers in direct contact with the Masai, engendering a more in-depth, and authentic encounter. By planning our itinerary through MERC's grassroots network, our Masai hosts are prepared and excited to receive us into their villages, schools and homes. They share their lives, teach us how they co-exist in harmony with nature, and describe the hardships they face living among wild animals crowded for space by national parks, uncontrolled tourism, farming and other land exploitation that pushes the Masai onto marginally productive lands. Our collaborative goal is to develop a cross-cultural exchange whereby the Masai receive direct benefits from our visit and our guests enjoy an intimate and honest experience of life among the Masai.
"...never have I experienced a safari like this."
An award-winning journalist of a leading East African newspaper accompanied our group with the intent of writing a feature story about this inaugural Wildland Adventure. He concluded, In my three years of writing about tourism and the environment in Africa, never have I experienced a safari like this that cares so much about the people and gives back so much to the Masai. Another journalist from a different leading newspaper, The Daily Nation, also joined us. We held a mini-press conference on the grounds of the Mara Intrepids Camp wherein Meitamei and I presented some of the destructive impacts of conventional safari tourism on the environment and wildlife of Masai Mara. We discussed the struggle of Masai people to retain their traditional way of life in the face of encroaching Western development, and how ecotourism is the only form of tourism that will preserve the vast Mara-Serengeti ecosystem and provide the Masai with a means to determine their own future. And from the travelers point of view, tourists today have little opportunity to have authentic, meaningful, positive interactions that benefit the Masai.
Most of our over-40-year-old group recalls the John Wayne movie entitled, Hatari!, which is Swahili for Danger! Once we left Nairobi and our safari was underway, we all looked back and scoffed, What Hatari!? What was this concern about danger among group members (and their families) before coming to Africa? Several members of the group had expressed unease about terrorism and perhaps some trepidation traveling to the dark continent. However, from there, among the wildlife and the pastoral way of life in this beautiful land, our minds were at ease. There was no feeling of hatari on this Wildland Adventure. Well, some of us weren't so sure about the wild animals outside our camp at night, but there certainly was no danger from any terrorists! In fact, everyone in this group of 14 travelers from ages 18 to 75 felt pampered and safe in the capable, professional hands of our drivers-guides and in the comfortable, well-appointed tent camps and lodges we use on this safari.
It was a relief getting away from the US media, and we learned more from there about US foreign policy and our State Department Travel Advisories. The East African News reported a story about pressure on Kenya from the U.S. government to pass an anti-terrorism bill. Many Africans, especially Moslem's, felt this bill would go too far to restrict personal freedom and allow unwarranted arrest and interrogation leading to torture, all at a time when Kenyans are beginning to enjoy democracy and human rights under the new government. Furthermore, the Bush administration is pushing hard to establish a new military base in Kenya. It is common knowledge in East Africa, and became pretty clear to our group, that the U.S. Department of State is using its warning for U.S. citizens to avoid travel to Kenya more for political leverage than an honest assessment of risk for American travelers especially since the British, Australian and Belgian governments lifted their warnings before we departed.
leepless on Safari
We visited three protected areas in Masai land in order to gain a diverse cultural and natural history experience. In 11 days we traveled to the Masai Mara Game Reserve and Amboseli National Park in Kenya, and to the private wilderness camp of Sinya in Tanzania. Although the trip was well paced with plenty of time to fully experience each place, this group of Seattleites felt a little Sleepless on Safari just because each day was so full of incredible experiences from dawn to dusk that we were bushed by nightfall.
Our first accommodation on this trip was Siana Springs Camp, a permanent tented camp with spacious tents, en suite shower including flush toilet, spread out on lovely grounds surrounded by acacia, palm, and bamboo. The common dining area accommodated up to 60 guests with a plentiful buffet, bar-lounge and many tables. It was just right for the first several nights out of Nairobi as it offered a camp atmosphere in the bush but with an extra margin of security and comfort, including an electrified fence to keep the real wild game out.
Next we stayed at the Amboseli Serena Lodge, one of many properties in Kenya and Tanzania owned by a conglomerate East African enterprise. The Serena lodges, although catering to more conventional lodge-bound safari travelers, is noted for its higher standards of environmental management. Compared to the Siana Springs Tent Camp, this was a step up in comfort, food quality and spacious grounds with a spectacular view overlooking flooded grasslands where zebras, hippo, elephant, gazelles and other wildlife graze. Some of us enjoyed the pool and we all spent time relaxing and meeting on the lovely grounds. We also stayed here because we could walk with our local MERC Masai guides to the nearby village in our program.
In each area we would usually go on game drives in the morning and late afternoon, then meet with Masai during the day. The first day out of Nairobi we found ourselves on a game drive in the Masai Mara. In the golden light of a waning day we turned off onto a side road to find ourselves in the middle of a herd of elephants with no other vehicles in sight. With the engines turned off, we watched and listened to them breathing, chomping, and treading lightly through the tall grass. And to think I was just walking around Green Lake [in Seattle] last week! whispered Janet in awe.
We moved on to another area where a few other cars had congregated but we couldn't see anything. Out of the tall grass of the African sunset arose a very large lioness. She sat up, looked out over the tall grass and then disappeared again. How many other lions were in this pride lurking in the cover of high grass? Then, one driver of another tourist group couldn't resist and started driving off-road through the vegetation to give his guests a better look. Our group protested because off-road driving is damaging the habitat and harassing the wildlife in many popular parks. The driver finally stopped but we reported him to the ranger on our way out. He will be fined, or if its his second offense they will ban him from the park. Our drivers understand off-road driving in parks is not permitted, and we encourage all of our clients to watch out for and report errant drivers.
Hyenas play Capture The Flag with zebra tail!
Throughout the rest of our journey, especially on game drives in the Mara and Amboseli we witnessed spectacular wildlife encounters. We learned that vultures circling overhead or crowded in a tree was usually a tell-tale sign of a lion kill. The first one we encountered was hidden in the bush so we didn't get a close-up look. But a few days later in Amboseli we came upon two zebras killed by a pride of 14 lions right next to the road! Just 20 meters away we watched, listened and photographed as they took turns crunching and gnawing on their fresh kill. But the most entertaining scene at the kill was watching the jackals and hyenas move in to take over as soon as the lions abandoned their prey. At first the lion walked away in hesitation. The hyenas moved in cautiously. When the lion casually turned his head to look back, the hyenas scattered in the dust! Then a bold little jackal moved up to the kill and grabbed the bushy, black zebra tail. Seconds latter he was chased down by a bully hyena who stole the tail and ran. When the rest of the hyena gang saw this it was like kick-off to a hybrid sporting event combining Capture the Flag and Rugby. The whole lot of them, about 20 frenzied hyenas, raced about the grassland trying to capture the scruffy tail from each other. It must have been a matter of pride because the tail certainly didn't have much nutritional value. However, it had high entertainment value for all of us observing the games!
Gazing across the cosmos.
On several occasions we came upon huge herds of elephants, a family of more than 40 individuals with babies just weeks old. We could see them approaching from the far horizon and drove ahead into their path. Spacing our three Land Rovers out to give them plenty of room we turn the engines off and wait. This passive approach to game viewing, letting them approach us rather than the other way around, makes me feel less intrusive as they pass by at a comfortable distance, which for some confident males and playful teenagers was an arms length from the vehicle, close enough to look into their eyes and feel their cautious curiosity as they cross the road. Watching these large herds of elephants lumbering across the African wilderness, especially the elephants of Amboseli National Park known for their very large tusks, is a timeless experience, like gazing across the cosmos millions of years ago when mastodon roamed the earth.
Throughout our game drives in the Mara and Amboseli we saw herds of gazelles, impala, wildebeest, zebras, giraffe and buffalo. We viewed several prides of lions, saw jackals, hyenas, and hippos. Our list included Vervet monkeys, baboons, warthog, cheetah, ostrich, the beautiful Crowned-crane, impressive Secretary bird, and much more, particularly when taking into account the hundreds of species of spectacular birds.
The Little Five You really don't experience the real Africa without getting out of the vehicles and going for walks in the bush. We make sure every Wildland traveler takes a bit of African soil home on his or her sole and in their soul! Typical tourists to Africa are herded around in vehicles through the parks and wildlife reserves hell-bent on seeing the Big Five: lion, buffalo, rhinoceros, elephant and leopard. But our resident naturalist guide at Siana Springs Camp, Haroun Parsoi Kamoye, a Masai from that area, prefers to show guests what he calls the Little Five. Creatures like the Ant Lion and Dung Beetle. Several of us joined him on a morning nature walk outside the fenced boundaries of the tent camp, accompanied by an armed ranger. Outside the camp, where elephants roam and lions and hyenas were heard the night before, we walked slowly, spotting birds, identifying scat and tracks in the volcanic soils, learning about the 40 species of acacia and the varied insect life. Haroun sacrificed a black ant by dropping it into the small crater of an ant lion so we could watch the ferocious predator emerge to grab its prey unable to climb out of the deadly sand pit.
Between Two Worlds
Masai are a gifted race who can achieve much in their world and the mind of the Western intellect when given resources, access to education and an equal opportunity to participate in political, economic and social affairs beyond the boundaries of their traditional pastoral life. Haroun Kamoye is an example of many educated, English-speaking Masai who find themselves between two worlds. As the Resident Naturalist at Siana Springs Camp, he literally changes his physical appearance twice a day from traditional Masai warrior bedazzled in colorful beaded jewelry with ochre paint and long braided hair to khaki camouflaged naturalist guide donning a hat and binoculars with bird book in hand. Haroun excelled in primary school and qualified to attend a professional high school in northern Kenya. He spent a year at Mweka College in Tanzania, a challenging technical program for wildlife managers and game wardens. He combines his 26 years of life in the bush as a Masai warrior, with an impressive technical proficiency of African ecology, botany and amazing bird identification skills.
In camp he gives evening slide programs. He also coordinates all cultural activities with local Masai who perform dances for the guests (those guests who don't venture out to visit local villages like we did), and he gives afternoon talks about Masai culture. When a few of us took time out to sit one-on-one with Haroun he shared his personal aspirations and life purpose. What emerged was a challenge of balancing sensitivity and respect for Masai tradition with his personal transition into modern life in Kenyan society. He was pleased that he was beginning to convince his parents to accept the girl he likes instead of the wife they picked for him to marry. Haroun is taking advantage of his position at Siana Springs Camp to gain more professional experience and host people from around the world until his next opportunity emerges. We hope to hire him as a trip leader for our Masai land Safari program.
The human condition.
On all Wildland Adventures safaris the wildlife is spectacular, but its the African people we come to know that are the most meaningful and memorable part of any safari. Meitamei had set up visits in small villages and schools that are not on the tourist circuit where traditional pastoral life reigns and the need for small-scale tourism support is greatest. Since many Wildland Adventures travelers to East Africa become members of MERC, and the trip is organized through local MERC community leaders, we are warmly received with fanfare and gratitude. We visited schools including the Siana Springs Masai school, considered the best Masai school in all Masai land, and one of highest rated primary schools in Kenya. We never expected such a profoundly dedicated and masterful Head Teacher. Charts and lists covered his walls documenting his five years of stellar achievements raising grade averages and the rate of higher education among his graduating students. Primary school is now mandatory in Kenya so when the charts indicated a missing year of attendance for a few students, he explained that he had tracked down and rescued girls from their parents, girls taken out of school for a prearranged marriage. Other girls were pregnant, but this persistent teacher would return to the family the next year to be sure the student finished her schooling.
Foreign dignitaries in khakis.
The entire student body of 400 students and all the teachers in the boarding school awaited us in the dining hall. We were honored with front row seats for a concert performance, like foreign dignitaries in khakis. We were so astounded by the dancing, singing and poetic recitations of this highly accomplished award winning group of performers from the bush and were so impressed with the Head Teacher and staff, our group was inspired to pool a donation amounting to several hundred dollars. Unbeknownst to us at the time the students had been planning to leave the next week to participate in a national student music competition in Nairobi, although the budget had still not yet been approved from the district level. The students went wild when the Head Teacher announced our substantial contribution. And, not more than 30 minutes after our donation was given, the school District Manager arrived on his motorcycle with sad news that the district did not have enough funds this year to send the group back to the music competition to defend their title. Thanks to our donation, his announcement was cushioned with a silver lining. The students were now able to fund their trip!
Several of us shared our pictures from home with many of the kids who were eager to practice their English. We were each assigned to a teacher and group of students to plant a tree on the school grounds, adding to hundreds the students had been planting over the past several years as a practical lesson in restoring these overgrazed lands. The next item on the Head Teachers checklist was a fence around the school, but not to keep the kids in the playground. This fence was to keep the wild animals, lions, elephants and buffalo out! In fact, the lights are extinguished by 9 PM at this boarding school because its too dangerous to walk about at night.
Living with wild animals.
Throughout our itinerary we visited small Masai villages and were greeted at each one by local MERC leaders who introduced us to community challenges. Challenges such as living on marginal lands among wild animals that freely roam in and out of surrounding national parks. The Masai have traditionally co-existed with wild animals since they don't eat wild meat and therefore do not hunt. But a Masai warrior, armed with a spear and club, is prepared and capable of protecting his herd of cattle or goats from predators, or his family from marauding elephants, so the wildlife respects the Masai in most cases. The village of Meshenani is just 100 yards from the entrance gate to Amboseli National Park where over a million dollars of park fees are collected each year. But the Masai gain a measly 2% of the income. They use the park to graze their livestock and live just outside its borders, but they are not employed to work in the park, nor are they called upon by the Kenya Wildlife Service [KWS] to participate in park decisions that affect their community.
We met in the local school, a ramshackle, two-room shed with just a few desks to discuss these community matters. Nearby the community well had collapsed several years ago leaving the population of 3,000 people to walk 20 km to the nearest source of water. It was hot, dry and desolate. We met young children who were orphaned by wild animals that had killed their parents, and yet the community continues to respect and protect the wildlife that tourists come here to enjoy. Clearly this village was living on the margin. One of the women was asked to speak on behalf of the other gender of this patriarchal society. She shared how much harder it was for women living in such marginal conditions because on top of their daily responsibilities of cooking, keeping the fire, taking care of children and affairs in the boma, here the women have to walk farther to collect water and gather firewood over land where lions, elephants and buffalo roam.
The hardship was obvious, and the community is bitter that they are ignored by the KWS. They remain determined to improve their situation and were grateful to have interest from outside. MERC has helped pay for the construction of the school building, and plans to upgrade the facility and materials as funds allow. The need was evident, so the group made a decision to make another out-of-pocket contribution to the school. But more than our financial support, the fact that we traveled 8,000 miles to visit their village, and that this Masai land Safari program is expanding a worldwide network of citizens beyond their village brings hope and excitement to the community.
The real value of money.
Two thirds of the way through the trip everyone began running out of cash. Beyond the $4,000 donation that Wildland Adventures gave in advance to MERC as a charity trip, each of us had been inspired to make our own individual contributions. We were so moved by stories of orphaned children, political disenfranchisement, and marginal conditions, balanced by self-determination to improve their situation that we began to meet in the evening before dinner to discuss our individual observations and feelings. It was really an emotional investment that stirred the need to talk. Then one couple of the group made an offer that provoked a prolonged and open group discussion: If there were enough of us who would commit to raising $6,000 to repair the well at Meshenani, they would take a loan on their home equity line of credit and immediately wire the money to MERC as soon as they reached Seattle so the community could begin work rebuilding a new water supply without waiting for future funding.
Gathered together in a circle in the lounge of the Serena Lodge, we had an intense discussion of concerns about tourists dropping such sums of money on a small community. We were mindful of other ongoing environmental and social causes at home, but in the end, the value of $6,000 paled in consideration of what it would buy in Africa: clean water supply for a community of 3,000 people living in a dry, desolate land with no means of support from its own government or the tourism industry that uses its land and enjoys the wildlife the Masai help protect. The decision was made. Everyone was committed to fundraising when we got home.
Don't run. He's just a teenager, only bluffing.
The big bull elephant didn't look like a teenager, and he didn't look like he was bluffing as he lumbered towards me, head bobbing and ears flapping wildly. So, I turned and ran. He won my bluff! My Masai guide only laughed!
We could see the elephants in the surrounding forests when we arrived at our favorite camp of the entire safari, Sinya Elephant Camp, located at the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro just across the border of Tanzania. One hour later, as we were eating lunch a bachelor herd of 10 elephants started moving nearer the camp attracted by the tall grass and acacia trees. After lunch most of the group retired to their tents for the afternoon ritual of napping or journal writing. Mark and Jean were fast asleep when one bull elephant arrived at their back door to drink the water in a shower bucket hanging outside their tent. Just a week before, that same errant bull broke a water pipe. This time the camp manager was not going to have any more of that. He hopped in the jeep and peeled out into the center of the camp to chase the bull away. As I was photographing the comical scene the elephant called my bluff. Later our guide pointed out that I wasn't a direct threat. I was just too close to the elephants escape route out of camp. Every animal needs an escape route and is always aware of where it will run if a threat approaches. Always be aware of your own escape route and give wild animals plenty of room for theirs, explained Kipulani, the resident Masai guide at Sinya.
After visiting the famous game parks of Masai Mara and Amboseli, and staying in established safari accommodations, everyone agreed that the wilderness environment of the Sinya Elephant Camp at the foot of Kilimanjaro in Tanzania was far and away the best place we stayed during our safari. Even though this low impact wilderness camp was a bit more rustic, the tents were plenty big for two with en suite bath and shower, and comfortable mattress beds with all linens. Plus they had the best service and most delicious and nutritious meals! The camp is spread out under the shade of Acacia forest looking out on an open plain where zebras, gazelles, elephants and giraffe are commonly sighted grazing while guests dine. Paw prints and hoof marks of predator and prey are recorded in the dust and hard-pan cracked earth. Bowling-ball size elephant dung litters the area. This is a migration route for the famous elephant population that travels here from Amboseli and has been studied by Dr. Cynthia Moss for 30 years.
Although we take game drives at Sinya in their open vehicles (not allowed in the parks), the best part about this camp is its location on communally owned Masai land which does not have restrictions against walking in national parks. So we have plenty of opportunities to take bush walks with Masai from the community who teach us tracking, show us the toothbrush bush they use to clean their teeth, and explain survival skills in the bush such as how to defend yourself against a lion or to start a fire without matches using two sticks. Not only does it feel good to stretch our legs and walk, but it was so important for everyone to experience the African wilderness on foot, like any other animal on the savannah, albeit with the advantage of the keen sensitivities of our Masai guides. We saw herds of zebras and wildebeest, Thompson's gazelles, giraffe, huge troops of vervet monkeys and baboons, and plenty of birds including the spectacular Lilac-breasted roller. But the elephants of Sinya are the most impressive. They allowed us to approach particularly close in the vehicles without disturbance. We sat in the quiet just watching as they shook tree trunks like maracas, dropping seed pods and knocking down whole trees while devouring leaves and small branches.
The Sinya camp in Tanzania was the best experience of oneness in creation. ~ Jean Poole
Sinya is so relaxing. Each morning we are awakened just before dawn with a fresh basin of warm washing water and coffee or tea. Hot showers are available anytime on call. After a quick snack of coffee, tea and ginger biscuits, we head out on safari for a few hours. When we return the dining table is set outside under an Acacia tree for a full breakfast/brunch to order. A visit to the kitchen elicits amazed appreciation for how they prepare such delicious cuisine including peanut or pumpkin soups (my favorites), meat entres with reduction sauces, fresh breads daily, and fresh organic garden fruits and vegetables provided by our guide, Willy Chambulo from his 500 acre farm at Ngorongoro Crater.
Sinya is the best example of real ecotourism at work. Willy is half Masai and was born in this region. He negotiated in good faith with the village to lease their land and build a low-impact tent camp that would employ local Masai as guides and camp staff. The village earns $30,000 per year for the lease to use their land, $20 a head for each tourist, plus donations made directly by guests for deposit into the village fund. In between naps, hikes, game drives and eating, we visited the Masai village and boarding school to see how tourism has improved health, education and transportation in the village. Each evening before dinner we gathered around the campfire for drinks and appetizers. Willy serves a full open bar (all inclusive) in the middle of the bush!
The last sunset of our safari, the night before most of us were scheduled to catch our international flight home from Arusha, Tanzania (others took an extension to see the mountain gorillas in Uganda), our drivers took us to the top of a high hill overlooking the savannah all the way north into Amboseli National Park. Mt. Kilimanjaro revealed itself as the sun set in a deep yellow and red African sky and we had a champagne sundowner toast in gratitude to natures displays, the Masai people who greeted us so warmly, and the incredibly warm, helpful and professional staff of guides and drivers who delivered us through East Africa.
Motivated by love.
Participants on this trip must be willing to step in "cow patties", make an effort to learn cultural courtesies and a few words in Maa, and to bear witness on their vacation to poverty and injustice. And yet, in spite of the hardships and inequity that Masai face in these times, we encountered only traces of bitterness, overshadowed by hope, resiliency, and a determination to create a future that protects their land, cattle and traditional way of life in co-existence with wildlife and nature.
We embarked on this trip motivated by love, with respect for the dignity of others and a reverence for nature that we understand is inextricably linked to ourselves. By taking the time away from game viewing and making the extra effort to visit remote villages, to listen and learn from our Masai hosts, our trip inspired faith within both cultures, that together we can help each other create a better world.
Jean-Michel Cousteau's words at the turn of the millennium summarize our feelings at the end of our journey to Masai land:
What inspires us to act more responsibly is not the logic of preservation, but our capacity to make an emotional investment. With love comes understanding and the humility to realize that we are vulnerable yet strong. It gives us the strength to deal with our difficult past and the confidence to move into the great adventure of the future.