The Maasai of Kenya

Maasai beaded necklace.

There are many great countries in Africa to experience the wildlife up close.  In the past 20 years safaris have become big business for Africa’s tourism. In Maasai Mara alone the number of lodges has tripled.  Each country is wonderful in its own way providing its own unique adventure. Given the choice though, I’ll always choose Kenya. Why? The Maasai.

My first trip to Kenya was Christmas of 1984. There were many things from this trip I’ll never forget. It was unbelievable to see a wild elephant or giraffe close enough to hear the sound of their feet pounding the ground or the crunch of leaves in their mouth. But it was the Maasai that caught my attention like non other. I found them to be the most fascinating people I had ever met. As our van crossed the African plains the Maasai stood out as bright as a red cardinal in a forest.  The Maasai wear bright red shawls over their shoulders and around their waists as a Scotsman might wear a kilt.  With long slender legs the men appear as if they are walking on stilts. They tread lightly and with caution to not disturb nearby wildlife.  Both men and women move with the grace of a gazelle, but with the confidence of a Wall Street Banker.  They adorn their bodies with intricate beaded bracelets, rings, necklaces and headgear. At this time it was also customary for the Maasai to pierce and stretch their ear lobes. Sometimes we saw a film canister in their ear lobes, but usually the ears were beautified with colorful bead work.

One of our guides trying to spot rhinos in the area. Taken from our 2010 trip.

In 1984 we were told we could not photograph them because it would rob them of their soul. But with some heavy cash, the soul could easily be bought. Everyone in our tour group agreed to hand over the necessary amount to enter a Maasai village with a camera in hand.

A traditional Maasai village. Taken in 2010 near Maasai Mara.

In the shadows of Mount Kilimanjaro we entered the Maasai village. It was made up of several small adobe huts  from a mixture of soil, cow dung and water. The huts were positioned in a tight circle with a small open area in the middle. A Maasai village may consists of several women married to the same man. Each wife is responsible for making her own hut to house herself and her children. The village is usually surrounded by dead branches from an Acacia tree. This is because an Acacia tree has 2 inch long thorns to prevent giraffes from eating all the leaves. Each night the family’s livestock is brought into the village. The thorny tree branches provide a natural fence for nightly protection from predatory animals.

Upon entering the village I was surprised by the extreme poverty and malnutrition. Even though the Maasai have a healthy diet of milk, grains, and blood from their animals, this was the year of the Great Drought. If you are old enough you may remember the terrible famine in Ethiopia in 1984 that sparked the Live Aid Concert and the hit song, “We Are the World.” You could see the sadness and lack of hope in their eyes. Many of the children were covered in flys and too weak to brush them away. It broke my heart to see this sad situation knowing that I could do little other than offer money to provided food for their animals and themselves.

Another piece of this problem was also created by colonization in the early 20th century. The following information comes from the Kitumusote website.

 In 1911, Maasai lands in Kenya were reduced by 60 percent when the British evicted them to make room for settler ranches, subsequently confining them to present-day Kajiado and Narok districts. Maasai lands were further enclosed to allow for the creation of game parks, including Amboseli, Nairobi, and Masai Mara in Kenya and the Serengeti/Ngorongoro Conservation Area in Tanzania. Ndagala states that were the colonial and post-colonial eviction of the pastoralists from some of their best grazing lands were rationalized to protect the wildlife. The transfer of these lands has served to enclose many pastoral and semi agricultural groups onto parcels of lands that are unsuitable for either semi-nomadic pastoralism or agriculture at a sustainable level.

Upon returning home from Kenya in 1984 everyone asked what animals we saw, but my mind remained with the Maasai. What must life be like for these people? How different their life was from mine. Before they were only pictures in a National Geographic magazine, now their lives were real.

In 1998 my husband and I finally had a chance to return to Africa. The main objective was to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. After the climb we took a 5 day safari trip through the main game parks in Tanzania. I was surprised to see the change in the Maasai. During our absence Tanzanite had grown in popularity providing  a few lucky Maasai who live in the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro a new income outside their livestock. It was amusing to actually see Maasai driving Mercedes on the dusty roads around Arusha.  However, this luxury is offered to only a few.  Most Maasai at this time were still living in poverty conditions in Tanzania and Kenya.

The traditional Maasai Jumping Contest and dance.

Then in 2010 I was reunited with the Maasai in Kenya. My husband and I chose to do a five day Maasai cultural tour in the Laikipia District close to Mount Kenya  with a company called NICE (Nature and Inter-Cultural Expeditions) Safaris.  We were able to participate in Maasai cultural dances such as the men’s jumping contests and camped in a traditional Maasai village. Our time involved daily hikes along with game drives to the  Lewa Conservancy and nights at the incredible Il Ngwesi lodge. This is the only lodge in Kenya run 100% by Maasai. To prove the quality of the lodge, both Prince William and Kate Middleton have signatures in their guest book. We were lucky enough to get Prince William’s room where the bed was rolled out onto the deck so we could sleep under the stars.

The Maasai luxury lodge Il Ngwesi. Prince William’s room with the bed rolled out on the deck.

Even though the Maasai continue to hold on to many of  their traditional ways, they have been forced to adapt to the modern world. Most now own mobile phones. They understand the need for an education for their children. Many of the young men plan to only have one wife with only a few children, unlike their grandfathers with ten wives. The Maasai no longer pierce and elongate their ear lobes for health reasons. The young people want homes that provide running water and electricity.  Unfortunately, to achieve this they need to find work and finding employment is difficult for most Maasai. The current unemployment rate is at 40%. One thing I relished about the 2010 trip was knowing that every tourist dollar we spent went to support the local Maasai.

For this reason, I chose to return to Kenya again this last summer in 2013. On my prior trip we had been introduced to the Twala Women’s Center located an hour north of Nanyuki.  The women at the center had established a center to help them become empowered. Traditionally Maasai women could not own any livestock or land and had little say in their future. Many were married to older men by the time they were 14.  Today, the Maasai women are starting co-ops where they sell their beaded jewelery to tourists, raise livestock and grow vegetables for profit. A few like the Twala Women’s Center and Ol Gaboli Community Lodge provide accommodations for tourists._KEN0190

The Umoja Women’s Group

Along with the Twala Women’s Center my trip included a few nights stay at the Umoja Women’s Group in the Samburu District. The Samburu people are similar to the Maasai, yet have their own language and culture. The Umoja Women’s Group provides a safe place for abused Samburu women to live. The Umoja women are also fighting to stop the  custom of female genital mutilation. To raise money to support themselves, they sell beaded jewelery to tourists and provide simple accommodations for tourists along the banks of the Uaso Ngiro River.

On my last night at the Twala Women’s Center it was cool with the threat of rain heavy in the air. Many of the women in the nearby villages came by to join me around the warm fire to sing songs.  The Maasai traditionally sing in harmony with one lead singer picking the title.  The rest of the women then respond with one unanimous call in acknowledgment. On this night they sang a song thanking me and asking me to invite others.

Should you ever have the opportunity to travel to Kenya I encourage you to fit in time to stay in a Maasai village or a Maasai women’s center. Fortunately most are located near prime game parks. This past August the New York Times had an article about staying at the Maji Moto Maasai Cultural Center.  My tour operator at NICE Safaris helped to arrange this trip and accompanied the writer Michael Benanav on his journey. Read his article, Through the Eyes of the Maasai at the NY Times website.

To learn more about my past two trips I welcome you to view my images of the Maasai in Kenya: http://ginalrodgers.com/images/maasai/index.html

Recommended Reading about the Maasai today:

My Maasai Life: From Suburbia to Savannah by Robin Wiszowaty

Facing the Lion: Growing Up Maasai on the African Sabannah by  Joseph Lemasolai Lekuton

Travel Company

NICE (Nature and Inter-Cultural Expeditions) Safaris

NICE Safaris Contact: Mali Ole Kaunga Johnson – olekaunga@yahoo.com

Travel Tips: 

  • If bringing cash, make sure to have only American bills printed after 2000. Paper money that is torn or has handwritten scribbles can also be turned away. I hear America has a new $100 bill, I suggest using that instead of bills printed before 2013.
  • You will need small bills of the Kenya shilling to buy items and tip your guides, make sure to do this before leaving Nairobi. There are few banks outside the capital and few places take credit cards. You can not rely on your lodge to change your money and most prefer to not use a credit card for small purchases.
  • Bring along some good hiking shoes and long pants. The African bush is full of thorns.
  • If staying at one of the women’s centers you will need a good flashlight.
  • Bring an electrical plug adapter for the vehicle. This can be a lifesaver for charging camera batteries. Electricity is hard to come by in the African bush.
  • Bring your British plug adapter for charging at your hotel and lodges. 

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