Of Kenya’s 42 tribes the image of the Maasai is the most iconic as one of the only tribes in the country who still retain their traditional way of life – making them one of Kenya’s most famous tourist “attractions”. This has sparked debate in recent years on the negative influence to their culture versus the much-needed money that tourism brings to the poorer communities.
I spent 2 weeks living and volunteering at Maji Moto Cultural Camp; a small tourist camp within the community of Maji Moto set up by Salaton Ole Ntutu – warrior, chief and spiritual leader. Money from tourists goes straight back into Salaton's community projects like the primary school, widow’s village, health clinic and Medungi Conservation for the protection of land and wildlife.
1. Experience real life
Salaton's camp is in the middle of a real living community and on arrival I was greeted with songs and the iconic jumping ceremony of the warriors. From then on, to my surprise, it wasn’t all song-and-dance every day; at first I even found myself a little disappointed when I wasn't being constantly “entertained”. But I soon realised that wasn't the purpose of my stay – I was there to live the life of the people, a very peaceful life, and I was quickly welcomed into the community as one of the family.
I milked goats, carried water, made jewellery, taught English, shopped at the lively local market, sang with the warriors, relaxed with the locals and walked to school with the kids.
2. Meet real people
The great thing about staying a while and blending into the community is having the time to get to know people and build lasting friendships.
Being the only white person, or “muzungu” around for miles I was quite noticeable as a stranger in a community of around 600 people, but I was always greeted with warm hearts and big smiles. The children in particular were fascinated by me and always curious, full of energy and eager to learn my English songs!
Many adults spoke no English but we were able to connect in other ways – singing, dancing, jumping, throwing spears, sharing chores and learning from each other.
3. Enjoy the Masai Mara on your doorstep
The Masai Mara is a 580 sq. mile stretch of the Serengeti – once roamed on freely by the Masai people but now a protected game reserve hosting over 95 species of mammals. Anyone visiting Kenya should experience an overnight safari – seeing the Big 5 roam and hunt in their natural habitat, standing in an open-top van while driving across the vast expanse of grasslands, sleeping in a tent beside a watering hole and waking up with the animals.
Even if you can’t manage a safari drive you will experience the sights and sounds of the wild all around you. Walking across the Loita Plains I saw wild giraffes, antelope and even a zebra carcass being eaten by vultures. I watched the sun set over the Masai Mara from the top of the Loita Hills, slept among a colony of fruit bats and woke up to a family of baboons at my door.
4. Learn to be a warrior
Traditionally Maasai men go through 3 stages of life – childhood, warriorhood and adulthood. Once circumcised at around age 13 a Maasai boy will usually leave his community to live in the bush for 7 years – he will sleep in a cave and learn to defend himself, live off the land and learn the earth and sky from the elders who have gone before him.
On my many walks with the warriors I was shown the ceremonial and medicinal uses of the plants and which to eat when living in the wild. I also learnt the behaviour of the animals, made fire and practised my spear-throwing!
For the final part of my training I was handed a cow-skin shield and sent into a field of warriors. With no prior warning they started hurling sticks at me – fast and hard! Myself and 2 Maasai girls did lots of screaming while hiding behind shields before we went in for an attack! After 10 minutes of war we called peace and danced around to warrior songs.
As a westerner accustomed to fast-paced life, stressful work and a constant stream of available entertainment it can be a struggle to get used to a lifestyle born out of pure outdoor living. But once you embrace the peace of your surroundings, laid-back ways of the locals, lack of media and love of nature you can find a new sense of relaxation.
The sleep I had at Maji Moto was the best I’ve had in years – you spend your entire day outside among the trees, your nights by the fire looking up at billions of bright stars, no TV or iPhone keeping you up until the early hours of the morning, the stress that normally floats around your head all night lifts away and you can just drift off in the pitch-black dark of night to the sound of birds, insects and the occasional hyena.
I was told that the Masai have no recorded history of stress-related illness and most of the people I met across Kenya really did live by “hakuna matata” – no worries.