An African safari is filled with unforgettable moments as rhinos pass within arm’s length and life changing shifts in perspective as you witness a cheetah take down a baby impala in the blink of an eye. Bearing witness to the circle of life dramatically presented before your eyes with amazingly diverse animals interconnected through intricate food chains and strong social structures is in itself overwhelming. But it is the day I spent with the Masai villagers in Amboseli National Park at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro that has stayed with me the most and provoked a major shift in my world view.
The Masai are an incredibly resilient and proud people that are rooted in tradition that predates the Roman exploration of the source of the Nile. Their way of life is simple, but hard, based largely upon livestock and hunting. The men spend their days herding their cattle as they take them to graze on grasses miles away and drink at watering holes dug deep into the baked earth that require hundreds of buckets to fill the temporary mud troughs. The women build and maintain the homes, raise the children, cook the food and mend the fences among other village duties.
The strong sense of family and community has enabled the Masai to survive despite harsh environments, invasive disease and limited natural resources. They live in small villages made of mud huts with straw roofs, surrounded by prickly bushes and sticks to keep lions and other animals of prey away from their cows and goats. Some villages are as small as two families, larger ones contain six to eight, but all of the Masai within fifty miles know each other and come together over the things that matter the most: creating family, educating young, conserving the land they live on and learning to evolve with the world around them.
It is this communal perspective focused intensely on preparing for and investing in the future, and the creative ways they are getting there that is so inspiring. Here are 3 ways that the Masai are doubling down on the future of their communities and transforming their lives in the process:
- Investing in Education
Across Kenya, local tribes and villages still train their sons to be fierce warriors and deadly hunters with spears and bows, but more and more, they recognize the power of education to lead to better lives for both their sons and daughters.
This is the Pre-K school that we visited. It is a large tree centrally located between a number of Masai villages with a circle of rocks and bushes and a shed to store supplies, books, and materials. The students, who are too young to walk the 5 miles to the regular school with walls, meet under this tree for 3 hours Monday through Friday to learn English, counting, animals, and other basics. These kids were so excited to get dressed in their often too big uniforms and perform their Alphabet letters song, days of the week chant, numbers in a line dance (pictured here), and Old McDonald renamed “Mister Migogi had a farm” for us, despite it being a Saturday. They asked us to join their partner dance about respecting the wild animals around them and to compete in a “Vulture Race,” which involved crouching low to the ground and jumping your feet out and back as you make your way to the finish line.
Later in the afternoon, we were challenged by the local Masai warriors to an Olympic competition; spear throwing for accuracy, club chucking for distance, a 40-yard dash, and bowling with elephant dung. They dressed in traditional warrior attire with beaded necklaces, bracelets and hairpieces. However, when it came down to it, the men who had chosen the path of education were little better at the spear and club events than me or my family. They were certainly envious of the warriors who won the prize money for each event, but there was an equal respect for both chosen paths. Within most Masai families, all children are sent to school for early education and those with a proclivity toward learning are encouraged to continue on to upper schooling in hopes that they will leave the village for a better life to be able to send money back home later on. Often the oldest son is encouraged to train to be a warrior, carry on the Masai traditions and care for the family livestock until it eventually becomes theirs.
- Mobile Banking Technology Drives Community Social Entrepreneurship
These women are entrepreneurs who came together as a shared enterprise to make jewelry and goods to supplement their income and give them a foot up in the world. You will notice in this picture that each of them has a mobile phone around their neck. Their economy and socioeconomic position has been transformed by the introduction of mobile technology and mobile banking. While wifi is not yet pervasive throughout the plains of Africa, anyone with a mobile device can get a 3G signal and send money via a text message to another phone. These women use this to send money home, to transfer sums, and to get paid for jobs or contracts via a code that they can exchange at markets and specified locations for cash.
As we left the village, after we had made our purchases of necklaces, coasters, and ceremonial knives, they asked if we could give them a ride back to their villages along the way to our camp. They crowded into our land cruisers with merchandise in tow and babies strapped to their chests. The whole way home they sang to us some of the most powerful, raw chants and melodies that I have ever heard (listen below).
- Communal Stewardship to Build Stronger Communities for Tomorrow
The ecosystem within which the Masai live is complex and harsh. During our visit, the animals and villagers were counting the days until the rains came. Babies were everywhere in expectation of green grasses returning and ample food becoming available.
With global warming however, the dry season is getting longer and the replenishment of lakes, rivers, and lush vegetation is getting shorter and more intense. The migration paths and territories of the wildebeest, zebra, elephants and hippos are changing with the availability of trees and grasses, and with them predators like lions, cheetahs, leopards, and hyena are competing for limited resources as well. Without healthy environments and abundant food sources, animals leave for greener pastures, further compressing territories and intensifying infighting.
Preserving the animals and the lands they survive upon has become paramount for these communities. They have set up conservation trusts and communal governing bodies to oversee the preservation of water sources, regrowth of trees and the protection of animals.
While at times these bodies can get corrupted and specific maintenance projects postponed, the value placed on the life and environment around them has led to the creation of amazing networks that track endangered species and innovative ways to encourage nature to sustain itself despite lack of rains, overeating, and poaching.
In the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, if a specific elephant has not been spotted for more than 3 days, they send out a search party to find it and ensure its safety from poachers and natural causes. The elephants know that the area is a safe zone, and many will come to the preserve when they have been attacked or have escaped from a snare. When possible, the Conservancy will provide medical care and keep a close eye on wounded elephants, rhinos, and Grevy’s zebra to ensure these endangered and critical animals have the best chance at survival.
(This baby elephant was rescued from a snare around its right front leg and a spear in its forehead. While its mother had been killed for her tusks, this 1 year old will make a full recovery in the wild.)
The effective stewardship of the land to ensure population growth and vegetation renewal has become the mission of these councils. They set up electric fences around adolescent tree groves to keep giraffe and elephants from overeating them as they grow. They monitor the health of the endangered species that are cohabitants of the land. They protect the rich biodiversity of their communities and vigilantly pursue poachers that threaten their future and the health of the region. For them, it is an ongoing battle between immediate gain and the long term preservation and success of their communities.
Maintaining the balance between tradition and modern life is difficult for any culture. The Masai of Kenya are finding inventive ways to deal with today’s global challenges with a community based approach and focus on the future. These amazing children, enterprising women, proud warriors and inspiring communities have definitely made an impression on me that is hard to forget.