The Maasai Mara is the Africa we were dreaming about when we booked our flights to Kenya. Savannah rolling out to the horizon, the endless grasslands dotted with the occasional horizontal-canopied acacia tree. Seemingly empty, and yet when we started exploring, revealing vast herds of extraordinary animals. Lions, giraffes, zebras, impalas, waterbucks, hippos, buffaloes and the wildebeest who migrate through in millions – we saw them all in our two days on the Mara.
The Maasai people roam between the Mara in Kenya and the Serengeti in Tanzania – different areas of the same wilderness under a different name – without needing passports, and carrying long knives that would fail a border control regime anywhere else.
Their traditional red robes, adorned with elaborate beadwork and jangling bells, seemed far more elegant and appropriate for the landscape than our Western clothing. We soon grew used to the sight of Maasai warriors striding through the Mara in their leather sandals, wrapped in traditional checked blankets that bore a resemblance to the tartans of my own Scottish ancestors, all carrying a length of wood for walking and self-defence.
We were lucky enough to have a Maasai warrior as our driver. Ben was one of the most coolly nonchalant guys I’ve ever met, and expertly piloted our 4WD through streams, foliage and even down the side of a mountain as we took a possibly ill-advised short cut. He was happy to answer any questions we had about Maasai life – and yes, he said, of course he had killed a lion, although he was now encouraging other Maasai to discourage the practice.
On our way home, he offered to take us to visit a Maasai village. This led to considerable debate among our group. We had talked extensively about Maasai culture as we’d travelled through their homeland. Who wouldn’t want to see how these fascinating people lived?
Many of the villages are apparently constructed just for tourists.
But we had seen many warnings about visiting Maasai villages. Several guidebooks warn against it, and our tour provider, Intrepid, had this to say in its notes to another trip:
You will notice some Maasai villages in the region of the Ngorongoro crater offering a cultural experience. Intrepid recommends avoiding these villages, as they can impact negatively on the Maasai culture and travellers' perceptions of it by selling an artificial experience.
Many of the villages are apparently constructed just for tourists. I’m not sure what I think about this. It may not deliver that precious ‘authenticity’, but if Maasai people are entrepreneurial, then why not? It’s their culture, after all, to market as they see fit.
In the end, we decided to go for it. We were welcomed by a group of male elders who made it repeatedly clear that the $20 per head we were paying would go to the village and its school. They welcomed us with a dance followed by a jumping competition (in both of which, the men in our group were somewhat embarrassed but increasingly enthusiastic participants), and gave us a tour of their houses. Which they said were recently constructed, meaning either that they had moved around, or that yes, we were in one of those villages constructed specifically for tourists.
But just getting to look into those huts, made of mud, sticks, grass and dung, was worth the price of admission and the embrace of potential moral ambiguity. There was a smoky fire and shelves made of rammed mud. Sticks held up the thatched roof of the hut, and a small porthole allowed natural light in. Stainless steel pots and bowls and a plastic dish drainer gave a hint of mass-production, but otherwise it was easy to imagine that little had changed in the Maasai domestic sphere for centuries.
On emerging, the women of the village sang and danced for us, accompanied by a little child in gumboots. Most of the kids were kept away from us, perhaps because as we later realised that they were all wearing Western clothes.
After that, our tour was over, and we were ushered over to an area just outside the ring of huts. On a dozen large tables, permanently arranged in a huge ring, the women of the village had unpacked a vast quantity of souvenirs for us to purchase. It was an extraordinary collection, with hundreds of items, like traditional wedding necklaces, beaded bracelets, carved wooden animals, and even clothes and blankets. We bought a few things, but most of the faces looked disappointed as we headed back into the 4WD.
It may not deliver that precious ‘authenticity’, but if Maasai people are entrepreneurial, then why not?
In our conversations over a few days, Ben, our driver, had been keen to clarify that many Maasai attend university, as he did. He told us that they’re starting businesses and increasingly taking over the tourism industry in their region – he himself owned his own fleet of 4WDs. Ben seemed somewhat unimpressed by the village, although he joined in the dances and pretty much won the jumping competition. Meeting him showed us how many Maasai can move effortlessly between their traditional village culture and wider Kenyan society, jangling with the beads attached to his red shuka robe as he tapped out messages on his smartphone.
I don’t know whether our visit to the Maasai village helped those kids get educated, as we were promised, or perpetrated a sham version of a precious, special culture. I do know that the village visit was fascinating, the dancing was delightful, and that I’ll remember my visit to the Maasai Mara for the rest of my life.
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