Ecotourism in Kenya’s Savannah
By Marie Javins
“Tippa, darling, how do you stay so thin?”
“Why, Marie, I drink milk, eat beef, and I like to jump. I also spear lions.”
Okay, this conversation didn’t really happen. But only because my Swahili is limited to about six words.
Tippa was the resident Maasai in the safari truck I went around Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve in. He was our game spotter, though he personally had little use for lions, giraffes, hippos, and the like. He declared his favorite animals to be goats and sheep.
“May I take a photo of this lady?” asked one of the other tourists later, when he saw a svelte young Maasai later (from the back).
“Do you mean this Maasai warrior?” was the shocked reply.
Maasai are so very skinny. But how do they get this way? What lessons can our overly hefty nation learn from the Maasai culture? First, one must eat lots of beef. The Atkins craze has taken care of this.
Second, one should consume lots of milk and some corn meal.
Third, you have to walk a lot. I mean a LOT. Chase animals if possible. If you live in Ohio, walk to Indiana.
Fourth, you must leap straight into the air while dancing. Another Maasai (not Tippa) told me privately that the jumping is to impress girls. But then he admitted that some people do it for fun. It also helps to dress in a red-and-black-checked blanket, stretch your earlobes, and wear shoes made of recycled tires. “These shoes are good for the bush,” explained Tippa. “Thorns cannot get through them.”
This also means there’s less chance of Maasai abandoning recycled-tire-sandals in favor of Adidas or Nike. The Maasai culture, though certainly endangered by globalization, has resisted change to traditional ways.
Picking and Choosing Change
Change is happening all around East Africa, but the Maasai have so far picked and chosen what they wish to incorporate into their society. They speak wistfully of the value of education—Tippa himself took driving lessons—and they certainly don’t mind earning money.
There are many Maasai villages—collection of mud huts encircled by fences made of sticks—that welcome tourists. They explain their cattle-herding lifestyle and let tourists wander the villages, for a small fee. A fair exchange.
Porini Ecotourism is one example of a cooperative Maasai/private venture that earns funds for the tribes involved and offers incentives for the Maasai to preserve their culture. The steady influx of tourism dollars also encourages the Maasai to foster the growth of wildlife, instead of spearing animals or chasing them away for the protection of herds and villages.
Maasai tribes own the land that Porini established its camps on, one at Masai Mara and one at 392-square-kilometer Amboseli National Park in southern Kenya. The tribes earn rent, and Maasai workers staff the camp. They are wildlife spotters, waiters, security guards, and road-builders.
The camps are classified as “luxury,” because each huge tent has solar electricity, en suite bathrooms, and the meals are equal to 4-star meals in Nairobi, but the entire camp could be dismantled within a few days, and there would be little evidence that the camp had ever existed.
Showers from a Bucket
Alarm clocks are two Maasai, chirping “Hello Hello,” before unzipping the tent flaps and carrying in a fresh pot of Kenyan coffee. Showers are hot, with water warmed over a fire and then poured into a bucket above the tourist’s tent while the tourist waits the signal.
“Your shower is ready, Madame.” One Maasai travels in each tourist vehicle as a game-spotter.
Another advantage to staying on Maasai lands is that tourists are not limited by the rules of Masai Mara. The Mara itself closes at 6, but the nearby Maasai lands on Ol Kinyei conservancy house Porini Camp. As guests of the Maasai, we were able to go on night game drives in the conservancy, spotting nocturnal animals by floodlight from the safety of our Land Rover.
“Aren’t you worried?” I asked Tippa. “With all these tourists coming in, and money being made, and kids getting educated, don’t you think that the Maasai might adopt the culture of the tourists?”
He admitted that education was as likely to change the Maasai as was tourism. Probably more so.
“The teachers tell the children not to pierce their ears. And not to get tattoos. But education is going to help us in the future. Our future is in the hands of students.” He himself had gone to driving school, and some Maasai warriors drive tourist Land Rovers in addition to game-spotting.
“But it is not about tattoos or ear piercing. We will not change. We will not lose our heritage,” said Tippa fiercely. “Even the Maasai member of Kenya’s Parliament, when he comes home, he takes off his suit and puts on traditional clothing and joins us.” He pretended to dance, his blanket swaying gently as he started to jump.
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