Under a Tented Roof, an Unknown World Beckons
Susan Glairon for The New York Times
Published: November 30, 2008
I WALK carefully in the cool night air, focusing a kerosene lantern on the stone-paved path. Suddenly a figure approaches, one arm outstretched, his checkered red blanket gently flapping in the wind.
“Soap,” he says as he stretches his arm toward me.
The sudden appearance of the Masai man almost startles me, and it takes a moment to realize what he’s offering. I take the two hotel-bathroom-sized bars, and he immediately retreats into the darkness. I continue walking to the toilet and open the door to find another lantern conveniently hanging above it, illuminating the surroundings. The toilet is clean, has a seat — a somewhat rare commodity in Kenya, in my experience — and flushes. Afterward I place the soap next to the outdoor sink on a shelf made from twisted branches, then tilt my head and stare at the endless stars as cool water trickles down my fingers.
Such moments of quiet fascination are common during my two-night stay at Oldarpoi Maasai Safari Camp, a permanent furnished tented camp just outside Masai Mara National Reserve. It is on the edge of one of the world’s greatest wildlife safari parks, yet is largely unknown by most travelers to this part of Africa. (A Kenyan friend recommended our guide, and he recommended the camp.) The 40-acre camp, which opened in December 2006 and is solely owned and operated by the local Masai community, is built with all the comforts of home, including hot showers, beds with pillows, sheets, blankets and mosquito nets, and porches with armchairs. A station by a generator that supplies lights and refrigeration for the dining area allows cellphones and digital cameras to be recharged.
The camp’s modern accommodations sharply contrast with the Masai villages just a short drive down the road. There the Masai people live in enkajis, cow-dung huts shared with calves, and Masai children walk barefoot through the dung-strewn village. Here poverty exacerbated by droughts have greatly reduced the Masai’s livestock, and of the more than 45,000 Masai people living in the area, 78 percent earn less than $1 per day, according to research conducted by the I See Maasai Development Initiative (www.iseemaasai.org). The mission of the organization is to empower the Masai people economically by advocating for education and by leading a campaign to eradicate such practices as female genital mutilation.
Nelson Ole Reiyia, a well-traveled, college-educated Masai man whose life teeters between the Masai world of his childhood and an urban life in Nairobi, hopes the camp will address some of the tribe’s poverty issues in a self-sustainable way, instead of relying on donations from abroad. Mr. Reiyia, one of the camp’s founders, says that camping and meal fees go toward educating impoverished Masai children and creating a rescue center for girls escaping from female genital mutilation, a practice, he says, that forces girls as young as 9 into marriage and prevents them from receiving an education.
The lack of education, Mr. Reiyia says, has made it difficult for the Masai to compete with other educated Kenyan tribes like the Kikuyu or Kalenjin. In addition, the Masai traditionally rely on their cattle and other livestock for survival, and as traditional grazing land is reduced through wildlife conservation and agricultural practices, the Masai’s ability to sustain themselves has also been greatly reduced. With illiteracy and limited skills , the Masai cannot find gainful employment, he says. “The Masai would have to rely on other people to work in their district as teachers, nurses, etc., and this importation of skilled labor does not have to be the case if the Masai fully embrace education,” Mr. Reiyia says.
Each morning the Masai staff prepares tea, along with a breakfast of eggs, sausage and toast. They make our beds, put a padlock on the zipper that closes our tents and watch over the camp while we visit the park, oohing and aahing as we watch gigantic herds of zebras and wildebeest run by. At night they cook our dinner and while we eat, staff members light our lanterns and build a campfire. They sit with us at the fire circle, eager to share information about their lives.
During our second day, we are offered an opportunity to visit the enkang, the homestead where staff members grew up. It’s another way for the Masai people to earn money by charging an entry fee, and I’m not sure I want to watch a show created for tourists. But the people are so joyful and so eager to share information about their lives that I am suddenly glad to be in the midst of an indigenous culture that has not given way to modern times.
First the men perform a welcome dance for us outside the village, in which they jump as high as they can, and my teenage son, Eliot, joins in the fun. Next the women emerge singing, grabbing our hands and leading us into the village. Our host, Samuel Ngotiek, an educated Masai man in his 20s, informs us we can take any photos and ask any questions. He takes us into the enkaji, and as our eyes adjust to the darkness, he shows us where the calves sleep inside with the owners.
As we leave the hut and squint into the sunlight, I can’t help but notice the “store” that the Masai have arranged for our family of four, a long line of blankets filled with a variety of Masai jewelry, key chains and knives. I can feel their hope and anticipation as we watch a group of men make a fire from a wooden stick rotated on a board. As soon as they light the fire and give us a chance to try, we are suddenly engulfed by their desperate attempts to sell us something, even the stick and board that started the fire. Even though I only purchase one item, a beaded Masai wedding necklace, they are immediately gracious and thank us for coming.
Although Mr. Reiyia has spent his adult years in Nairobi, he wears traditional Masai clothing when returning to the camp. He says it’s comforting to sleep in the tiny huts he remembers so well as a child.
“I feel completely at home whenever I return to the manyatta,” Mr. Reiyia says, referring to the homestead. “All the good memories of my childhood are rekindled every time I sit next to the wood fire in the center of my mum’s enkaji. I am a warrior of two worlds, the modern cyber and the traditional natural lifestyle of the Masai.”
IF YOU GO
The cost at the camp is $70 a person per night, including three meals and lodging in a furnished tent ($10 a person to pitch your own tent, without meals, or $35 with meals). Safari tours offered by Pure Destinations and Mr. Kirimi are $150 a person per day, including transport from Nairobi in a safari van with a pop-up roof, meals, furnished tent camping at Oldarpoi Maasai Safari Camp, park entrance fees, payment to drivers and guide and taxes. Visits to Masai villages not included.