A Little Adrift… Dispatch from Africa: Grassroots Tourism Edition

My mornings in Uganda are a noisy affair as the town wakes up, birds and roosters too. But oh, the views.  The small town of Jinja is home to the point where the Nile River branches off from Lake Victoria, also known as the Source of the Nile. I found a shady spot and watched the boats criss-cross the waters for hours. This was a needed a break from catching up on work after traveling through remote regions of Kenya these past few weeks.

And speaking of those remote regions, I uncovered some wonderful community based initiatives. Good stuff, can’t wait to share more.

Source of the Nile River

The Source of the Nile River in Uganda flows from Lake Victoria. The river exits the lake in the lower left of the photo and flows to Egypt and empties into the Mediterranean Sea.

Time with the Maasai

Picture the statuesque figure of a Maasai warrior standing tall over the vast plains of East Africa. This iconic image is relatable to most of us who grew up on a steady diet of watching the National Geographic channel. Like anyone planning East Africa travels, I wanted to learn more about their culture. Ethically undertaking the task though, was harder.

Maasai women

Women from Maji Moto’s widow’s village welcome us to their compound with a lively traditional song and dance.

And the problem is, there are lots of opportunities, but not all are positive tourism initiatives.

My safari trip last month in Tanzania included a short visit to a Maasai camp on the path between the Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti. The cultural experience set me back a mere $10 and the Maasai performed a spirited welcome dance and offered back story on the Maasai people. On the surface it was fascinating, here was the intricate and beautiful beadwork adorning the necks of the women. Warriors carried their sharp spears, a reminder of their fierce capabilities. And yet, 30 mins later, as we left the small circling of manyattasmud hutsthe experience felt hallow. It was a canned tourist experience repeated many times a day, week in, week out as safari tourists flood into the region.

Fast forward a few weeks and I found myself searching the markets of Narok, Kenya for Salaton, a charismatic Maasai chief running a cultural camp near Maasai Mara National Park.  A camp representative contacted me over the holidays, and from pre-trip research, the Maji Moto Cultural Camp looked like the perfect execution of a community-driven social enterprise. , I love supporting these types of businesses on the road (like in Panama and Thailand). At the core, this form of tourism puts the solution to a social issue directly into the hands of a local community. Social enterprises allow them to develop a sustainable solution on their own terms. (And it’s this exact tourism model that GV supports and it’s also the reason for my NatGeo honor.)

Maasai woman

I took a sunset hike to a nearby rock outcropping to learn more of the Maasai culture and stories. The view of the Loita Plains was stunning and vast.

Meeting the Maasai at Maji Moto

Decked out in traditional jewelry I borrowed so I could attend a nearby ceremony with Meri and Salaton, our two primary guides for my week in the African bush living at their cultural camp.

Sunrise over the Loita Plains in Kenya

Sunrise is a bold affair over the Loita Plains of Kenya. I bolted awake each morning just before 6am to the sounds of bird song and morning quiet and rushed from my manyatta so I could catch that day’s sunrise.

Salaton’s camp is a reversal from the idea of assembly line tourism. Rather than push tourists through the camp to increase revenue and appease snap-happy, camera-toting tourists, the Maasai at Maji Moto guide visitors into respectful interactions and welcome them to immerse in the traditional village life.

I joined a small group of touring medical volunteers to learn more about Salaton’s business model and the camp. Funds from the cultural camp support a nearby school, a health clinic, and a widows village he started to provide a safe-haven for girls escaping early marriage or genital circumcision.

My experiences over the five days I spent at Maji Moto are among my favorite from my Africa travels. I have thousands of photos to edit, more thoughts to process, and stories brimming to come to the surface from that week!

Learning about Rural Health Issues

Just after leaving Maji Moto, I met with Dan Ogola, the founder of a large health initiative in one of the poorest provinces in Kenya. Dan founded the Matibabu Foundation in 2001 to address the pervasive health issues in Ugenya, Kenya. What started as a single clinic for maternal and child health is now a hospital, a girl’s school, a nursing school, and much more.

matibabu, kenya

Visiting the Matibabu Health Clinic in Kenya. Right now we’re debating if I need another baby on my lap… the verdict? One will do. :-)

Dan asked me to visit his projects with the hope that through GV I can access long-term teaching, agricultural, and medical volunteers for his projects. After days of kind hospitality in this rural community, I am committed to supporting his projects. I also agreed to take on the title of Goodwill Ambassador for maternal child health; this role will allow me to continue working with Matibabu and supporting their efforts.

Weeks of low internet access means I still have hundreds of photos to process before I write more about my time in this rural region of Kenya. Realistically, this will happen in June when I return stateside.

What’s Next?

What dispatch would be complete without an update on what’s next?! I arrived in Uganda a few days ago and have reveled in lots of connectivity (during my time in the rural regions I mostly just had 3G on my phone… on a good day).

Next week I meet up with my favorite traveling and blogging couple, Dan and Audrey. They are finishing up a tour of the region and we plan on some hiking funnies together here and in Rwanda.

If you know of any projects I should check out in either of these two countries, please let me know!

Many thanks,

~Shannon

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44 Responses to A Little Adrift… Dispatch from Africa: Grassroots Tourism Edition

  1. Lollivia June 20, 2015 at 4:09 am #

    That looked like an incredible experience!

  2. kaitangsou May 27, 2015 at 1:18 am #

    Africa is wise…other places…otherwise…

  3. kaitangsou May 27, 2015 at 12:13 am #

    Lovely!!

  4. Maisa Morrar February 5, 2015 at 9:59 pm #

    <3 all this Shannon so happy to see your blog and so glad I met you in my Travels! I'll be reading your blogs more often and can't wait to see all your future adventures.

  5. Turkey Family Vacation package January 17, 2015 at 2:13 am #

    Great Post and Nice Article.All of the Photos are so good.I like it.Thanks for sharing.

  6. Adventures of Josie December 30, 2014 at 6:57 pm #

    I want to go to Africa a little later on my world adventure.. but it kind of scares me to travel there alone, as a woman. Do you have any tips for that?

    • Shannon O'Donnell December 30, 2014 at 8:58 pm #

      I found that a lot of the locals looked out for me in Africa, and I am very glad that I decided to face my own fears about traveling there. That being said, I think it’s a good idea to go later in your trip, after you have some travel wits and experiences behind you that can help you quickly suss out different situations. It’s a gorgeous country and a lot to enjoy there, but you are right in that it’s a bit more dangerous (not just for women, just in general). Pick some spots that interest you in the country and head there first, with some travel confidence you can definitely handle it.

    • kaitangsou May 27, 2015 at 12:22 am #

      Well, I was born in Africa, and it is without doubt the safest continent in the world for travellers. Locals invariably are extremely caring, will bring you into their homes, share with you all they can, because that is African culture, Ubuntu.
      Just in a small country like NZ with its tiny populaTION OF A COUPLE OF MILLION, MORE FOREIGNERS DIE EACH YEAR THAN IN ALL OF THE MASSIVE AFRICAN CONTINENT TOGETHER!!
      Other so called Western countries are not much better safety wise. Personally I would NEVER set foot in the USA, simply too dangerous to make it worthwhile, with its gung-ho, gun happy cops and all!
      Africa has almost 60 countries, and the vast majority of them extremely safe and peaceful. Those few that are NOT, has been ruined by Foreign WESTERN invasions and interventions!! Libia was once described as the best country in the world, but look at it today after the US and EU invaded? It resembles another state of the US, with guns and violence everywhere! CIA trained and armed terrorists are infiltrating Africa, don’t forget Bin ladin was American trained and armed…now they are all over Africa too…and even the US militrary, those angels of death, destructiion, torture and rape are all over Africa like a rash…sad, very sad…

  7. Samantha December 12, 2014 at 1:09 pm #

    HI Shannon!
    What a great post! I picked this up through Continental Driftings, where I am a contributing writer. What’s so amazing is that you were at Matibabu! I was there about five years ago and know Dan Ogola. He is truly an amazing man. How cool that the world is so small!
    Best to you in Kenya,
    Samantha

    • Shannon O'Donnell December 12, 2014 at 8:21 pm #

      What a small world that you were at Matibabu as well! Dan is such an inspiration, and I love the work he’s doing. Thanks for visiting the site :-)

  8. Parrotfish Journey Blog November 27, 2014 at 7:42 am #

    Interesting post !

  9. Parrotfish Journey Blog October 26, 2014 at 9:43 pm #

    Heart warming posts !

  10. Angelina September 2, 2014 at 6:59 am #

    I want to be in your place during all those trips, it seems very wonderful there.

    • Shannon O'Donnell September 2, 2014 at 8:46 am #

      Thank you Angelina, Africa was a beautiful trip, I hope you make it there some day soon!

  11. Katrin July 29, 2014 at 9:21 am #

    I stayed at Maji Moto camp just three weeks ago during my trip through Kenya and Tanzania.
    It’s such a special place, and I loved my time there. It was fascinating to
    learn from the Maasai people about their use of plants and herbs to create all
    sorts of remedies (and poisons :-), and I wish I could have stayed longer. To sit on
    a rock at sunset and look at the beautiful vastness of the Loita Hills was definitely
    one of the highlights of my trip.

    • Shannon O'Donnell July 29, 2014 at 10:28 am #

      I am so glad you had a positive experience Katrin! I also loved my time there, it is such a wonderful way to learn about the Maasai culture. :)

  12. Rashi singh July 28, 2014 at 6:07 am #

    I think Africa is a good place to visit.The masai culture is famous and is considered good.

  13. The Scuttlefish/paperboats.net July 4, 2014 at 5:49 pm #

    Getting to the grassroots while travelling is absolutely essential to me for understanding a place, its history, people and culture. Love what you do and will come back for more stories.

  14. Shane Hayes - Physio June 30, 2014 at 3:38 pm #

    Some amazing photo’s there, i’ve lived and worked in Africa before and i have to say i love the photo’s you captured (many better then mine) and true culture (what normal touristsd miss)

    • Shannon O'Donnell June 30, 2014 at 5:11 pm #

      So glad the piece resonated with you. I love sharing the other side of travel so people see elements they can add to their trip that may make it more enriching. Thanks for reading!

  15. Andy May 28, 2014 at 9:09 am #

    What an experience. Great pictures and story to go with it! I would really love to visit Africa one day!

  16. travellingforfun May 28, 2014 at 3:26 am #

    Great post and great photos

  17. Ludvig Sunström May 26, 2014 at 4:27 pm #

    Hey, I just found out about your site via Ragnar’s blog (Tangible Freedom).

    This is a cool thing you’re doing!

    And I like the book you recommend. Keep up the good work and have fun!

    • Shannon O'Donnell May 27, 2014 at 3:27 pm #

      Thanks Ludvig! Glad you found the site and that it resonated — cheers and thanks for reading. :)

  18. a&b May 18, 2014 at 11:32 am #

    Your photos are stunning! What an increadible experience!

    • Shannon O'Donnell May 18, 2014 at 12:44 pm #

      Thank you! So appreciate you reading along with the journey. :)

  19. Theboywander May 17, 2014 at 12:17 am #

    I also grew up on a steady diet of National Geographic and after reading The White Masai (cliche I know) I’ve been hooked. Amazing photos and I look forward to reading more.

    • Shannon O'Donnell May 17, 2014 at 1:19 am #

      Not cliche! It looks like a great book and I hadn’t heard of it before. I will add it to my reading list, thanks for sharing. :)

  20. Guest May 16, 2014 at 8:01 pm #

    Love your posts!

  21. Tom Powers May 15, 2014 at 3:55 pm #

    Perhaps this medical mission you speak of is something I can volunteer for in the future. I wrote you a few weeks ago about just such an oppurtunity. Thanks for your response by the way.

    • Shannon O'Donnell May 16, 2014 at 6:39 am #

      Yes! This could be a great project Tom, it’s a very rural area of Kenya, and the village is so welcoming and thankful of visitors and volunteers willing to give their time and expertise. I don’t yet have the details up on GV, but if you’d like any contact details or more information, just let me know. :)

      • Tom Powers May 16, 2014 at 2:39 pm #

        I’ll look for it on GV when you put it up. No rush.
        Also, a strange question I’m sure, but seeing as you’re fair-skinned also, do you find it difficult to source suncreens and such to avoid burning or do you bring all you need with you? I’ve had this problem in India when I purchased what was likely “fake” suncreen manufacured in India. It was tragic.

        • Shannon O'Donnell May 17, 2014 at 1:21 am #

          That’s a tough one — I usually try to bring a big bottle of it (I like the Neutrogena stuff) but if I have to restock in Asia I usually go with children’s sunblock because it often doesn’t have the whitening ingredients and I just perceive it as better/stronger/fewer chemicals? I don’t know if that is silly or not, but it hasn’t failed me yet.

  22. Dana May 14, 2014 at 1:34 pm #

    Thank you for sharing your wonderful travels. I lived in Nairobi, Hurlingham area for about six months several years ago. There was a woman, Cheri and her husband, (forgot last name), also from Florida who ran a small school for street children. I was a volunteer with them while I was there. They adopted Rwandan children and later opened an orphanage in response to the Hutu/Tutsi genocide. All I know is that this orphanage is located in either the Kibera slum or one nearby. I hope you will be able to find and meet up with these wonderful people if they are still there. -Some of their orphans would be adults now and may be working there.

    • Shannon O'Donnell May 15, 2014 at 7:45 am #

      Thank you for those details Dana. I am no longer in Nairobi, but I will log this away and hopefully be able to track down their school — it sounds like they are doing some wonderful work and I would love to talk with them next time I visit. I appreciate you reading and sharing. :)

  23. Jimmy Dau May 9, 2014 at 8:33 am #

    Always guaranteed an awesome sunrise and sunset in the Mara. Stunning photos. I think you could fit a couple more babies on your lap ;)

  24. Corinne Vail May 7, 2014 at 4:10 am #

    It sounds like the Maji Moto Cultural Camp was a real eye-opener. I would love to go there and learn more about the Masai and their initiatives. Great dispatch!

    • Shannon O'Donnell May 7, 2014 at 5:01 am #

      I loved the camp so much! Really incredible work being done by the chief, Salaton, and it’s worth visiting when you make it to Kenya. :)

  25. Craig May 7, 2014 at 12:58 am #

    It must feel refreshing to find yourself on the other side of the wall. Tourism is by and large a positive thing, but, like you said, when done wrong it often takes so much away from local communities. It’s nice to give while you get, right? Anyway, yours is a remarkable experience. Thanks for sharing! :-)

    • Shannon O'Donnell May 7, 2014 at 5:00 am #

      Agreed Craig! Tourism has so much potential to help promote the exchange of cultures and tourism dollars, but there are times when I learn to be more cautious. Thanks for reading! :)

  26. Travels with Tam May 6, 2014 at 3:00 pm #

    I am thoroughly enjoying your dispatches, and I’m wondering how to make a living traveling!

    • Shannon O'Donnell May 7, 2014 at 4:23 am #

      Thanks Tam! Appreciate the support. Making money on the road is hard, I definitely don’t make my travel funds from writing/blogging, but rather consulting (I’ve detailed that in other places on the site). There are definite ways to make it happen, however! :)

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