A highlight of any East African safari – and one of Kenya’s best safari experiences – is a Maasai cultural experience, when you interact with these proud pastoralists in their own environment. They’ve made the Masai Mara their home for centuries, herding their cattle and existing in balance with wild animals. It’s a lesson in harmonious living.
It was a highlight of my trip to Kenya: the chance to engage with locals in their own environment during a Maasai cultural experience. We approached the enclosure on foot. It was surrounded by a fence fashioned from thorny acacia branches to keep predators at bay. Even from a distance, we could clearly make out the figures awaiting us, dressed in their signature red shuka blankets, adorned with beads and carrying long spears. We were warmly greeted by the headman, bearing his a o-rinka – a wooden club.
The Maasai have been custodians of this land for centuries. They have kept the environment intact, living in harmony with their cattle and the incredible wildlife of the Masai Mara. Meeting them on their terms, on their own land, was a dream come true for me.
The Maasai live in semi-permanent huts, which the wives make, in a compound called a manyatta. The headman and some of his family showed us around. The huts were mostly circular with a structural framework of poles interwoven with smaller branches, plastered over with a mixture of mud, grass, cow dung and ash. I took a peek into a darkened interior. In this small space, the family cooked, ate, slept, socialised and stored food, fuel and possessions.
Then we were asked to sit in a semicircle in front of the headman’s hut and he addressed us: ‘We are so proud of our heritage. Yes, we do find some of these new Western things useful, like motorbikes and cellphones. Sankei over there even takes his iPhone when he goes herding the cattle. But mostly we prefer living in the traditional way.’
The headman went on to tell us about his culture and their seminomadic ways. He told us, too, about the challenge of maintaining a balance between preserving ancient ways and embracing the modern world.
‘We have always lived in harmony with wild animals,’ he said. ‘Our people never liked eating game and birds. Cattle, for us, are everything. That is why our lands have remained so rich in wildlife.’
I learnt how the measure of a man’s wealth was his cattle. Traditionally, almost all Maasai food requirements were met by cattle. They ate the meat, drank the milk and, occasionally, the blood.
At the end of our Maasai cultural experience, we had the opportunity to buy handicrafts, especially the beautiful, beaded jewellery made by the wives. Bargaining was expected and the give-and-take banter relished by all.
Back at our lodge, I realised that many of the staff were Maasai, and I could now engage with them knowing a bit more about their home life. My guide, as well as the lodge chef and even the manager, were all Maasai. The whole dynamic of my stay had changed. There was so much fascinating stuff to talk about and learn.
Our lodge, like many others in the Masai Mara area, was on Maasai land. The best Kenyan safari lodges work closely with communities to maintain the ecological balance. The land was being leased from the locals, ensuring a steady flow of income for the pastoralists. The Maasai continued to graze their cattle in the game areas under a management strategy that safeguarded the habitat. Working together, the lodges, camps and Maasai had implemented sound land-management policies, including controlled grazing, low-volume and low-impact tourism and community land-use plans. It seemed like a win-win situation.
At sunset on our last evening, Maasai warriors performed in the lodge boma. It was an emotional experience. The olaranyani, or song leader, initiated the melody, then the chorus joined in with intricate harmonies. The singing and dancing continued into the dusk until the sky filled up with stars. Finally, the voices of the singers trailed off into the darkness as they made their way back to the manyatta.