maasai east africa exploitation

A Little Story… How One Maasai Tribe Is Changing the Face of Responsible Tourism

The sharp guffaw of a wild baboon startled me from sleep. Close as a whisper, the eerie sound ricocheted through my dreams. I awoke in full fight or flight response mode. My eyes whipped open, careening around the space; they slowly adjusted to the soft ochre light emanating from the banked campfire. From somewhere outside the dim glow came soothing melodic murmurs. The language was at once familiar from my months in East Africa, yet incomprehensible.

My heartbeat slowed as my consciousness caught up with my surroundings. A wall of trees shrouded our campsite, creating an impenetrable ring of darkness. A carpet of thick bush began a mere spitting distance from my sleeping spot. Again, a flurry of baboon calls crept across the Loita Plains. The sound echoed in the far distance; it had seemed closer in my disoriented dregs of half-sleep. The ground murmured nearby; my gaze collided with the smiling eyes of Quela, a Maasai warrior and my fearless guide. His head quirked to the side, offering quiet reassurance.

A cushion of sage leaves hugged me as I snuggled into my sleeping bag. Deep breaths filled my lungs with gentle, sage-scented air. The shooting stars overhead left fiery trails—a riot of stars more numerous than I had ever before seen. A Fourth of July sparkler had splattered its joy across the sky. It was just shy of 4am and I was alone, but not. An earthly quiet settled over the night—a quiet that hummed with noise. The slow and methodic breathing of fellow travelers acted as a metronome for my thoughts. Moments and memories played like a slideshow across that canvas of glittering night sky.

maasai experience kenya women in shukas

Five days at the Maji Moto Maasai Cultural Camp. It seemed impossible. Time had contracted. Instead of measuring days, I had counted moments. I had collected hundreds of moments. Moments of learning, moments of beauty, and moments of friendship.

That first morning at Maji Moto, I woke with a happy jolt. My body wakes with the sun each day, and a quick glance out my window confirmed that darkness was giving way to light. I threw on my shuka, a colorful wrap the Maasai had gifted to me the night before. It braced me against the cool morning. Snatching my camera, I darted from our circle of manyattas, small mud huts that were well-appointed and cozy. I live for a good sunrise and I was looking forward to watching this one.

I walked to the edge of the campsite. The cool breeze ruffled the leaves and a snap of sticks sounded from the Maasai campfire nearby. Creeping into a new day, the sun began to tint the landscape. The sunrise washed Kenya’s Great Rift Valley in a pastel wonderland. A rising chatter of birds emanated from the thicket of trees—they were excited, too. Mirroring the shutter of my camera, I mentally froze that moment, pressing it into my memory.

review of Salaton's Maji Moto Culutral Camp in Kenya

sunrise in Maasai Mara ethically visit the Maasai of East Africa and experience sunrise in the Maasai Mara National Park sustainable tourism Kenya

After sunrise, and with the rest of the camp still drowsing, I grabbed my book and headed for the dining area. My visit to this Maasai camp in Kenya was the cornerstone experience of my four months in East Africa. Although I rarely plan my travels beforehand, I had booked this week at the Maji Moto Cultural Camp long before the other moving pieces and parts.

I visit social enterprises when I travel; it’s one of my favorite parts of discovering a new place. For months, I had corresponded with Susan, the U.S. facing partner of the Maji Moto camp. Now, I was finally in the one place where I could uncover answers to my many questions.

[quote style="boxed" float="right"]I visited with the hope and promise that tourism was the most profound commodity this Maasai chief needed in his village. I visited to support a social enterprise using tourism funds to create, run, and manage projects within its community.[/quote] In the months leading up to my visit, I had heard of canned tourist experiences with African tribes. Now that I was at Maji Moto, I again worried that my money had bought me a one-way ticket to cultural exploitation. Until now, my knowledge of the statuesque Maasai tribes came from the pages of National Geographic magazines. Over the years, internet shorthand and fading attention spans have reduced many ethnic groups to seductively exotic images. They are a blip on our Pinterest board. A rapid “like” in our Facebook feed. Deep thought has given way to a passing interest. In this digital world, we often forget to consider the stories behind those foreign faces and obscure traditions.

After an ethically sketchy slum tour in Cape Town, I had heightened my awareness of my lack of knowledge. There were questions larger than I was thinking to ask. There are issues in Africa deeper than outsiders can ever understand.

Ethical tourism is a complicated subject. The edges and boundaries of responsible travel experiences are soft and porous. Something unprecedented and innovative in one community might unravel in another. The underlying belief that there is a panacea to perceived problems has wrought havoc in Africa. But, I also believe that effective avenues of responsible tourism exist; there are ways to visit the region and support projects that steer far clear of the exploitative models of past colonialism. African-led businesses are solving local social issues and locals are shaping their own communities. But finding these voices among the cacophony of outside development solutions is difficult.

And so above all else, I hoped my presence at Maji Moto lived within the precept of “do no harm.” I wasn’t there to volunteer—I have no skills needed in their communities. Nor did I visit with a mission to change them. I visited with the hope and promise that tourism was the most profound commodity this Maasai chief needed in his village. I visited to support a social enterprise using tourism funds to create, run, and manage projects within its community.

campfire songs with the Maasai

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[fourcol_three]Over my five days at the cultural camp, Salaton Ole Ntutu, the charismatic Maasai warrior chief of Maji Moto, led our small group through the customs of traditional Maasai life. With members of Maji Moto’s Maasai tribe as guides, we walked through the Loita Hills and learned the names of medicinal plants. We watched sunset from a rock outcropping. We sang around the campfire each evening. Grounding each day, we visited the local projects that run, in part, with support from the cultural camp.

On the surface, our trip was a simple way for us tourists to responsibly engage with the Maasai culture. Underneath, the cultural camp is a single string in a wider, interlocking web of projects bound by Salaton’s a vision and careful execution.

There’s the Enkiteng Lepa primary school, a gated building on a dusty dirt road a short walk from the cultural camp. That first day at Maji Moto, Rose walked us to the school. A dry baking heat pulsed around us as Rose explained the school’s importance to her community. Although it looks like schools most anywhere in the world—rows of windows, space to run—this one is unique. Enkiteng Lepa emphasizes two primary learning goals: a modern education and a comprehensive understanding of Maasai traditions.

It’s this adherence to traditions that underpinned so much of what I learned at Maji Moto. Although Salaton has created a modern tourism model for his community, every new project sympathetically marries modern development and cultural preservation. It’s this balance that has made his work successful. In addition to the school, the Cultural Camp supports a widow’s village and a girls dormitory.

Widows are unable to remarry in traditional Maasai culture, nor can they own property. As a result, many face difficulties supporting themselves and their children. Maji Moto’s Widow’s Village gives the women a support network they traditionally lack. It also provides them with a source of income—the women teach beadwork to the tourists and sell their exquisite, intricate jewelry.

One other piece of Salaton’s vision had a significant effect on my perception of the Maji Moto Cultural Camp. Salaton and other key leaders in his community are leading a campaign against early marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM) within the Maasai community. He began this work with his mother, a renowned medicine woman and shamanic healer.

Over decades, many foreign NGOs and international groups have campaigned as outsiders against this practice. Salaton, his mother, and local Maasai leaders envisioned a different path that would shift attitudes and traditions. Together, their internal campaign is strong but mighty. It has the ability to affect lasting change in the practice of FGM among the Maasai. Together, they put in motion a movement that ripples across not only his community, but throughout East Africa.[/fourcol_three] [fourcol_one_last]

Salaton Ole Ntutu, Maasai warrior chief

Women in the Widow's Village

Maji Moto Cultural Camp[/fourcol_one_last]

ceremony at Maasai Widow's Village in Kenya Rose; review of Maji Moto Cultural Camp what it's like to meet Maasai women

Fighting for education in the Maasai tribes of East Africa exploring the Loita Plains near Maji Moto

The lake near Maji Moto, Kenya.

[hr]

[threecol_two]On my last evening at the camp, Meeri, one of my Maasai guides that week, shared with me her story. We were walking to a camping spot about two hours from the village. The Maasai had promised us a night of friendly conversation, singing by the campfire, and sleeping under the stars. Meeri and I walked side-by-side over the shrubby savannah.

She wasn’t always a part of the Maji Moto community. At her family’s prompting, Meeri dropped out the fourth grade to become circumcised and married. When most preteens are dreaming of their future goals, Meeri became the fifth wife of an old man. Not long after their marriage, her husband died. Meeri, however, was already pregnant. Her husband’s wives and their eldest sons seized Meeri’s possessions and forced her to leave.

She went to her father, but he denied her reentry into the family—he had received a dowry and did not want to return it. Meeri had few options.

She had vague knowledge of a widow’s village in a different Maasai camp; she set out alone and determined. She walked for three days. Each night, she slept in trees to avoid the wild animals. Once at Maji Moto, the community welcomed her. She now had a new future. The Widow’s Village provided Meeri with a support system that most Maasai communities lack. The other widows offered to raise Meeri’s child so she could return to school and continue her education.

The sun hung lower as Meeri and I walked, the soft tread of my uneven gait scuffed the dusty rocks. Although Merri’s words looped through my mind, Meeri continued with enthusiasm when she spoke of her future. Having finished at the local school, Meeri planned to continue her education. She hoped to become a certified guide. Her long-term goal was to lead tours through the nearby Maasai Mara Reserve.

After a time, Meeri left me to my thoughts. It was a lot to digest.[/threecol_two] [threecol_one_last]

eliminating FGM among the Maasai

Meeri

Maji Moto Cultural Camp

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Walking the Maasai Mara in search of our camping spot for the night — we hit a goat traffic jam.

Salaton, a Maasai chief in Kenya working to end FGM among the Maasai. goats on the plains

A rock outcropping near Maji Moto.

[hr]

Stories have the power to change us. Stories use a steel cable to cinch humanity closer; they bind us across cultures, time, and space. Once you have created a new story of a place, that connection can never be undone. It changes your perception of foreign events in far-off places. I will always have a connection to Kenya. A tapestry of stories bind me to the Maasai. In the span of a few days, I had solidified my once abstract associations. And though the Maasai had become more than just the magazine images from my youth, even more I realized that my role here was as a tourist.

The cultural camp affords the Maasai control over how the tourists experience their culture. Maji Moto’s mission is to create an experience that facilitates connections and stories between Maasai and tourists, while controlling outside impact on their culture. I would leave Maji Moto with a new story of East Africa’s Maasai and with a connection to a people different from my home country. But I would also leave behind my tourism dollars and the far greater impact that money has on this community’s ability to build and shape its future.

My moments of pressing introspection upon hearing Meeri’s story passed in a heartbeat. With alacrity, we arrived at our camping spot. Other warriors had arrived before us. They had prepared a bed of sage leaves for those who wanted to sleep outside, a few tents for others, and the beginnings of a large campfire. A goat rested in the corner; he would soon become dinner.

Once the sun had retired, we gathered around the campfire. Late into the night, I listened to the Maasai warriors converse through song. Melodies echoed with deep reverberations into the night. Some songs included high-pitched catcalls strong enough to pierce the star-studded sky. The Maasai’s contagious joy outlasted me; I crawled onto my sage pallet and into my sleeping bag. I fell asleep to the soft cadence of conversation as it warred with the rustling leaves and the distant hoot of birds.

Our group visiting the Maji Moto Camp, I was the only non-doctor or nurse in the group. Quela, a Maasai warrior who taught me so much about Maasai life. An elder in the community at Maji Moto helping to support women and stop FGM within the Maasai.

One of the Maasai warriors spins the stick quickly to create friction! the Maasai lighting a fire by hand learning how to make a campfire

roasting goat over a campfire

Traditional Maasai songs and dance. Experiencing an evening of Maasai song over a campfire

[hr]

In the two years since I visited Maji Moto, I have pressed each moment into my memory bank. Like a treasured flower pressed into an age-worn book, some memories have faded with the passing of time. But like that flower, each time I open the book, memories rush back to me. Textures, colors, and scents fill each memory.

My time at Maji Moto is memorable for more than providing me weeklong glimpse into a different culture. Pressed into my memories are those moments of human connection. There’s Meeri’s crinkling smile as I peppered her with questions. I have forever preserved Quela’s infectious laugh as I misidentified the local medicinal herbs growing in the fertile plains. I open that book and I hear Salaton’s measured lilt as he spoke of his passion to preserve his culture through innovative sustainable tourism programs.

The Maji Moto camp, and the people who welcomed me, crafted the tourism experience that I didn’t know I needed. My visit landed squarely in the camp of cultural tourism. Salaton and the elders designed our experience to steer far clear of the cultural exploitation rampant elsewhere. Each moment was guided by a visionary chief working to define what modern responsible tourism looks like for the Maasai of East Africa.

[hr] [box border="full"]The Maji Moto Cultural Camp operates year-round. They offer multi-night stays at the camp and safaris to the nearby Maasai Mara Reserve. Earlier this year, A Little Adrift readers visited with their two kids; they reported back that they had a wonderful family experience. The Maasai warriors are great with kids and have a range of activities designed to engage and interest them (from beadwork to warrior training). Be sure to book through the site linked here as the similarly named eco-camp nearby is not a part of this social enterprise.[/box]
massai

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.

[caption id="attachment_10634" align="aligncenter" width="700"]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.[/caption]

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.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="700"]Maasai women Women from Maji Moto’s widow’s village welcome us to their compound with a lively traditional song and dance.[/caption]

[divider_flat]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.)

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="700"]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.[/caption] [divider_flat] [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="700"]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.[/caption] [divider_flat] [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="700"]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.[/caption]

[divider_flat]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.

[caption id="attachment_10633" align="aligncenter" width="640"]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. :-)[/caption]

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

Kibera slum

A Little Adrift… Dispatch From Africa: Perspectives on Poverty

A month into my trip and travels thus far are filled with highs and lows; there were a few days last week where I just wanted to give up, which is normal on any given trip but usually later into the travels. Once Gary left, and I was on my own again, I was overwhelmed with the weight of balancing work and solo travel. But, I met new friendly faces in the past week, and partnering up for a few days helped straighten out some of the discombobulated feeling.

Pushing through the overwhelm, I finished out my time in Cape Town and caught a flight to Nairobi, Kenya. Arriving here was a surreal flashback to Mumbai—bustling traffic, congestion, and drive from the airport lined with slums. This is far from the Africa of travel brochures. A region that calls home to the “Big Five” animals travel dreams are made of is also a struggling, developing economy.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="700"]kibera, nairobi, kenya Walking the railroad tracks in Kibera, Nairobi, Kenya as the sun is sitting low and workers return home for the evening.[/caption]

Conversations with Taxi Drivers

The moment I landed, however, my driver’s enthusiastic exclamation of karibu!—which means welcome in Swahili—had me smiling. Language barriers are a fear point for many travelers, and I can only say that the gap here is small. Nairobi hums with English and Swahili both as lingua franca, and most Kenyans speak with fluency. Which makes traveling and learning about the country infinitely easier.

Taxi drivers are fonts of information on this trip. Travels in Asia are often filled with stilted conversations and games of charades, but my African drivers converse with the skill of a veteran barman as they the bob and weave through gridlock traffic. They field any topic you throw their way with ease and insight, though the talk here, as in South Africa, often circles back to poverty and politics.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="700"] All smiles and a wealth of knowledge from our guide as we visited music projects and local initiatives in Kibera.[/caption]

[divider_flat]And as we talk of life (and even philosophy on one late-night ride) my taxi drivers ask me about America. The great American dream is alive here, and throughout most developing countries I visit. Yet it’s skewed. Hollywood and our media have done an excellent job selling others on the big dream, and my drivers are shocked and most don’t believe me when I mention things like poverty, racism, and homelessness in the United States. Our poverty is relative rather than systemic like in many developing countries, but these issues are not a part of the consciousness outside the U.S. We are a vast land of opportunity in comparison, this is not an argument against the U.S., but we are far from the Utopian image portrayed outside our borders.

It’s hard to explain to them that we have traded much for the sake of our take on prosperity. A moving documentary I watched last year, God Grew Tired of Us, follows three Sudanese men on a journey from wandering across sub-Saharan Africa to life in the U.S. Their initial elation gives way to deeper insights as the boys remark on the odd state of our communities, the unconnected lives we lead from each other, and the hard work it takes to even to subsist for many Americans.

Like the route our taxi took through the city, our conversations wove through all these complex issues this past week as I made my way through three airports and three thousand miles.

Slum Tourism

In the way of weaving, let’s shift topics a bit. I mentioned last week my plan to visit a township in Cape Town on the recommendation of many travelers and as many South Africans. The resounding question is: what did I think?

My conclusion is muddled. I just don’t know if this is a positive form of tourism. It had never before occurred to me to partake in one of these tours, but somehow I found myself on two tours in one week. The standard recommendation is to find the right operator, one using the funds to build community projects and empower those in the townships and slums. There is, without a doubt, great need in these areas, but as much as I push local-level tourism, this feels off on a large scale.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="700"]Langa township Cape Town Outskirts of Cape Town’s townships[/caption]

[divider_flat] I didn’t love my Cape Town tour, and yet two days later I took a new friend up on a chance to see a different side of it all as he looked for partnerships in the Kibera slum in Nairobi for his music charity, Bridges for Music. I tagged along in the hopes of seeing an alternative side since we had a purpose, a reason for being there. And it was interesting, I learned a lot and saw incredible initiatives within the slums and heard some excellent local music to boot.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="700"]kibera bone crafts A worker grinds bone into jewelry for sale locally in the markets and to tourists in Kibera.[/caption]

[divider_flat] But in both places, our guides carefully mentioned the need to photograph areas and not people as we walked the streets, to not peer into homes and invade their privacy… and having to stress that this is not a zoo-like experience (their words) is the very reason I can only say that mass slum tourism is an ethically ambiguous area and as such, others should tread carefully.

And one last thought, NGOs catch a lot of flack in Kenya and it only furthers this idea of whether aid and development are progressing in a positive direction. Cynicism abounds, especially in the projects within Kibera, and it didn’t take long for locals to point me to Aid for Aid, a home-grown parody series about an international NGO that accomplishes nothing but is filled with do-gooders.

Moving Forward

Switching countries came with a marked change in the attitudes and welcome here in East Africa, and these next weeks have me jazzed once again. When I asked the community for recommendations on grassroots projects, you guys gave me heaps of wonderful work being done over here! Enough that most of my weeks are planned out from here until June when I head home. So, thank you. And, if you have any others, let me know, I can always squeeze in more along the way.

Next week’s update is a big one for me as I am visiting my first safari this weekend! I’ll make sure to edit my photos asap so I can share photos of the Big Fivelion, leopard, rhino, buffalo, and elephant.

Have a wonderful weekend.  :)

~S