Kenya’s most famous people are its Masai tribe–an ancient tribe of warriors. Traditional tribal life all throughout the world is disappearing. Encountering the Masai en route to and around Kenya’s Masai Mara wildlife refuge (named for the Masai people of the region, and the Mara River), I expected to encounter degraded tribal existence, a la America’s Indian Reservations.
I was surprised and delighted to find something better than expectations. The Masai still ply their existence by herding goats and cattle upon the savannah, walking on foot from place to place. They wear their colorful traditional dress, and the women still shave their heads. Schools have proliferated, but Christianity has failed to gain converts (the Masai have no religion whatsoever). They live simply, but are not impoverished. Some households may own and herd upwards of 200 cattle, worth some 30,000 Kenyan Shillings (~$300 USD) each at the nearby market. Yet, despite this apparent wealth, the Masai still live much as they ever did. I took an early morning run through the area outside the wildlife preserver, and observed the Masai in the area to be living in mud houses with sod roofs, with few material possessions. Their villages were remarkably clean, without the usual proliferation of trash and litter that one expects of poor rural villages. They were friendly, and the children a bit curious at the strange white man running along their roads. Which isn’t to say that all Masai have rejected everything modern. Some live in cinder-block houses with (limited) electricity, and a few have motorbikes, or Western style jackets. Nevertheless, the overwhelming impression is that the Masai see no need of any culture other than their own, which is alive and well.
That said, one facet of Masai culture is changing: their communal grazing lands having been grazed down to nothing, the Masai are building fences.
Judgement is swift and punishment severe in Kenya. Once nick-named Nairobery, Nairobi is becoming a safer city. Wanjau, our safari guide, remarks that “now, we are able to count our money, use our mobiles in in the street.” How has this transformation been accomplished? President Uhuru Kenyetta (who has been tried in the Hague court for murders after the disputed 2007 election) has ordered Kenya’s police to shoot armed robbers on sight. (Shoot first, ask questions later.)
Kenya takes the protection of its wildlife quite seriously. We observed this lesson first hand when denied entry to the Masai Mara for our sunrise game drive. Poachers had come over the border from Tanzania overnight, and the Kenyan Wildlife Service was conducting a military operation to capture the poachers. As the morning progressed, our guide received news over his local frequency CB radio (used by safari guides to help coordinate when certain wildlife–lions, say, are discovered) that two of the poachers had been shot dead, and seven more were in custody. The goal seems to be to send a strong message, and it appears this tactic is succeeding.
The savannah is a striking and wonderful landscape. For me, it was love at first sight. The Masai Mara extends seemingly to the ends of the eawrth in its gently rolling grasslands. It consists of great plains of tall savannah grasses. At the end of the rainy season, before the arrival of the wildebeest, the gently waving grasses stand as tall as a man. These rolling hills are punctuated here and there by trees–the iconic acacia and boabab trees–each tree with an acre of land by itself.
I love the desert for the fact that each thing in it has space, allowing for the appreciation of its individual constituents. On the savannah, the space between things is so great that the eye is immediately drawn to each individual, exulted thing in it. These are often acacia, boabab, or cadamia trees. But perhaps almost as often, the object that draws the eye is a family of elephants, grazing upon the plain, or a pair of giraffes, silhouetted against the skyline. These immense creatures fit perfectly in the savannah, and neither would make sense without the other.
Seeing the savannah makes me long to have seen North America’s great plains when grazed by herds of millions of migrating buffalo (North America’s version of the wildebeest).
If you go on safari and have a good driver cum guide, you’ll have a good safari. If you do not have a good driver, its unlikely you’ll have a good safari. I was lucky to have an excellent driver (Wanjau). (If you yourself go on safari, I have Wanjau’s contact information, and would highly recommend any safari he drives.)
I was also lucky to have wonderful companions. Together for the game drives, and sharing our meals together, having great companions allowed for having a better experience by virtue of it being shared, experienced together, rehashed and experienced from others perspectives over our evening meals. Jessica and Sunshine, from southern California, are wonderful, interesting people. It was also a treat to get to share the safari experience with other Americans, who share a common experience of America’s national parks, of our American mountains and wildernesses. Sarang and Avinash are Indian soldiers, on leave from their UN post in South Sudan. The cross-cultural dialog was insightful and fun. It was sobering to hear their stories of their peacekeeping mission in South Sudan, of the thousands of Sudanese murdered along ethnic lines (and of the peacekeeping force’s failure to act, constrained by bureaucracy as an atrocity unfolded). (We were also joined for part of the safari by a Greek man and his Kenyan escort from Nairobi. Although she was lively and very pleasant, the situation was a bit odd and unsettling for me.)
I must comment in closing on the remarkable extend and effectiveness of conservation efforts in Kenya. The Masai Mara is well conserved, and much of the western corner of the country is held by private conservancies. The animal populations seems very healthy and abundant, the Mara was unspoilt with development. It makes me very glad that such places still exist in the world, and will continue to exist.