The Maasai Mara National Reserve, known to locals simply as The Mara, is a large game reserve in Narok County, Kenya. The Mara ecosystem extends from Kenya into Tanzania through the Serengeti National Park in Mara Region, Tanzania.
The park is named in honour of the Maasai people, the indigenous inhabitants of the area and their description of the area when looked at from afar: “Mara,” which means “spotted”. An apt description for the sparse circles of umbrella-shaped acacia trees, scrub, savanna, and the brilliant blue sky dotted with white cotton candy cloud shadow.
The Mara is on every wildlife photographer’s wishlist. Famous for its Maasai lions, African leopards and Kenyan cheetahs, antelope; its annual migration of zebra, Thomson’s gazelle, and wildebeest to and from the Serengeti every year from July to October, known as the Great Migration, is the subject of many a documentary and TV special.
However, there is much more to this protected habitat than just the wild animals that call it home. A trip to The Mara is incomplete without a visit with the Maasai, the indigenous inhabitants of this spectacular landscape. Many tribes welcome visits to their villages to experience their culture, traditions, and lifestyle for a fee and I jumped at the opportunity.
Before I go into detail about my village tour, I have to tell you about a couple of other people I encountered that made a big impression. The first, Dixon, is a staff member at the camp I was staying at. A happy, friendly guy he willingly posed for a selfie while brandishing a wooden club. The Maasai wear a large knife, and a wooden club fastened to their waist, cleverly concealed by the traditional “Shuka” that they drape around themselves.
Dixon explained that the bright colours of the “Shuka” help distract predators in the wild. The club is to make a point at village meetings and the knife to defend against predators. Dixon also told me a fascinating toe-curling story of a 5-year old scuffle with a lion where he managed to kill the lion just to protect his cattle.
The second was this lady who stalked me every single day at the entrance of the National Park. She wanted me to buy something from her. So we parlayed and made a deal. She would model for me in exchange for a hundred shillings. And she did.
At the Oltepesi village, we were welcomed by the village chieftain’s son, Salau. Salau is tall, dark and handsome. He laid out the ground rules for our visit in impeccable English as he posed for a photograph draped in the traditional “Shuka”. Maasai society is strongly patriarchal, with elder men, sometimes joined by retired elders, deciding most major matters for each Maasai group.
The tour commenced with the Maasai performing their traditional warrior dance. One of them wore headgear made from a lion’s mane. When the dance was done, I made a beeline for the fellow, eager to try on his splendid hat, but discovered to my dismay and that it needed a neck much stronger and bigger than mine and a body much fitter than mine. I was a complete misfit amongst these gentle yet lean and tough people.
The dance done, we were escorted into the village and greeted by the womenfolk. Maasai houses are all small and built from mud and cow dung. Traditionally built by women, the houses take about two months to construct and last about nine years which is about the same time the nomadic, pastoralist Maasai move to another location. In recent times, however, the Maasai of Oltepesi as Salau explained, do not venture too far when they make their nine-year move; their children go a school nearby. Salau reminisced wryly that he had no such perks when he was younger – he walked 8 miles every day to attend school.
Next, we were shown how the Maasai have been making fire, the same way they have been for centuries. They hold a thin stick made from soft wood between the palms of their hands and rub it against and on a plate of hardwood. If you’ve ever churned buttermilk, you’ll know exactly what I mean. After a few seconds, the tip of the rod gets hot and emits sparks that start the fire.
This softwood stick is also used to tattoo children. Tattoos in Maasai culture train children to endure pain, an essential in Maasai culture as children are circumcised at puberty.
Salau welcomed me to his house. It struck me that his house was no different from other houses in shape and size. As you enter, you find a small cubicle reserved for the calf.
Cows are an important part of their culture and often a barometer of how wealthy a Maasai is. Traditional Maasai lifestyle centres around their cattle which constitute their primary source of food. A man’s wealth is measured in cattle and children. A herd of 50 cattle is respectable, and the more children, the better. Even their diet consists primarily of meat and milk, and cow blood is consumed on special occasions. A Maasai male can marry a girl from another village only if he owns a cow. If he does not own one, his only option is to gift his sister to the village where his bride-to-be resides.
The left side of the hut is the sleeping area or the children and on the right is where the adults rest. The central area is the kitchen and the hearth. Salau told me about his guest room with private access from the rear and invited me to stay with him and his family during my next visit.
We also had the opportunity to see the village market, consisting primarily of curios for the tourist trade. The Maasai are known for their intricate jewellery, and sell these items to visiting tourists. I bought a necklace made of beads and a lion’s tooth, handcrafted by Salau himself and a copper bracelet.
I spent a wonderful two hours with the Maasai of Oltepesi. They are amazing people, and I would have loved to get to know them better. Who knows, I just might take Salau up on his offer.
My Maasai Mara experience would not have been possible without Chandrashekar Kalyanasundaram of Travel Unbounded. Nine strangers went on a trip guided by one saint. Except for our connection with Chandru, none of us knew each other before the trip; not that this stopped us from having a blast. BFFs 4 LYF.