KENYA SPECIAL

Mokogodo: "Baboons stole the fruit-scented soap from my bathroom"

Paul Bloomfield enjoys the hospitality of the Mokogodo people

The Mokogodo Escarpment is not a good place for poorly vegetarians. "This species of sanseviera is used to treat STDs," explained Simon LeNantiri, fingering a broad-leafed plant sprouting alongside the track. "Chop the roots finely, slaughter a plump sheep and boil the slices in the fat. Cool and sieve, then drink the soup."

Of course, it could be gorier. Get just a blob of euphorbia sap in your eyes (you'd be collecting some to make cough medicine, naturally) and you'll need to douse your peepers with goat's blood. It would seem that, in these parts, traditional medicine isn't so healthy for the local livestock.

But if my vegetarian stance was under threat, my curiosity about the local people and their unique culture was being fed tasty morsels. This pre-breakfast stroll in the hills behind Tassia Lodge, a community-owned venture north of Mount Kenya, was billed as a botanical walk, though a glance at our gun-toting scout and the leopard pug marks across the path reminded me that it could quickly become a more animal-oriented encounter. In the meantime, Simon was opening a window onto an extraordinary social metamorphosis: the tribe that reinvented itself.

Some 80 years ago a hunter-gatherer group called the Yaaku decided, quite abruptly, that actually they'd much rather be cow-herding Masai, thanks very much. In effect, they changed their ethnicity almost overnight. Leaving their cave dwellings, they shed eating habits, language and almost all aspects of their culture; within a few years these people, who had till then lived by spearing hyrax and harvesting honey, began speaking Maa, built manyattas (hedged compounds) and even changed their name. The Yaaku, previously labelled by their Masai neighbours as il-torrobo – a derogatory appellation scorning their lack of livestock – renamed themselves Mokogodo. And that was that.

Well, almost. Scrambling up a forked branch, which acted as a makeshift ladder, Simon – a Mokogodo Masai himself – pointed out remnants of his ancestors' existence in a cave finally abandoned as recently as a decade ago. A slender pole served as a larder for hanging meat alongside a simple fireplace; at the rear, foliage provided bedding, and sticks leaning in a niche showed where hunting gear was stored. With fine views over a tempting-looking pool to the game-rich plain, the contrast between this fashionably open-plan living space and the dark, smoky huts I'd previously visited in the Nyongoni Manyatta was stark. So, why the change?

"The Yaaku were bottom of the ladder," explained Simon. "They were often raided, and without livestock the young men found it hard to get wives." Looking at Simon – and my girlfriend was doing just that in an alarmingly admiring fashion – it was hard to believe his fellow moran (young warriors) would have problems attracting female company. Tall, charismatic and eyecatching with his red robe and spear, he is typical of the men we met at Tassia. And like the other Mokogodo, he has a justifiable pride in his people.

"Although our lifestyles have changed, we really took the best from both cultures," Simon mused on our stroll back to breakfast, pointing out a barrel-shaped cylinder hanging from a nearby tree. "This beehive is one of scores we maintain – a Yaaku tradition. And, unlike many other Masai, we have never practised female mutilation; some elements we chose not to assimilate."

Engineered tribal encounters can seem uncomfortably choreographed or voyeuristic; in contrast, a stay at Tassia affords the chance to get to know these unique people in an unforced setting and on their own terms, not exhibited in a showcase village. Owned by the Mokogodo community, Tassia was relaunched two years ago by Martin Wheeler and Antonia Hall as a high-end safari lodge. Martin, who grew up on the flagship wildlife conservancy of Lewa, just to the south, is a font of birding and animal lore, while Antonia bestows culinary flair and attention to detail – Yemeni lanterns light the bar, home-cooked falafel, cheese puffs and pesto balls accompany sundowners (no need for trepidation here, veggies).

Although the lodge is their business, for both Martin and Antonia the focus is on ensuring that Tassia delivers what's promised to the Mokogodo community, not just an ecotourism checkbox to be ticked. Bed-night fees fund school bursaries, healthcare improvements and conservation initiatives; in addition, the lodge and the conservation team employs more than 30 staff from the area's villages.

The lodge itself sits pretty astride its own escarpment, the final wrinkle in the Laikipia Plateau's skin before it drops off onto a vast plain stretching off to the ridges of the Matthews Range, hazy on the horizon to the north. And I mean pretty: the six open-sided bandas, constructed in a beautified approximation of Masai style using thatch, mud and fallen cedar logs – no trees were felled to build the lodge – are as spectacular as the vista. The 10-pace lope from our four-poster to the en-suite – lit by solar power, with hot water from a fuel-efficient wood-burning stove – invariably took no less than five minutes, slowed by stops to admire small lizards, woodpeckers and the stone partridges that trilled our pre-dawn wake-up call at the start of the indolent daily routine.

Breakfast was a languid affair, seasoned with honey from those hanging beehives. The sun-baked hours that followed were spent lolling, binoculars in hand, in the enormous hammocks swinging in the tower atop our banda and watching the wildlife. As a cooling breeze whispered through the thatch, I tried to think of a negative aspect to leaven all the idealism. It isn't perfect here. Baboons stole the fruit-scented soap from my bathroom, for one thing, but as I awoke to watch sunrise pinken the eastern sky on my final morning, the quibbles just evaporated.

Tassia excels because the joy of the experience far exceeds the worthiness of the intentions – here, backing conservation and learning about Kenya's tribal peoples means being pampered. Just don't get sick, vegans.

Traveller's guide

A stay at Tassia (www.tassiasafaris.com) costs from £193 per person, plus £15 conservation fee. This rate includes all meals, game drives and botanical walks, and spear-throwing and archery competitions with the Masai. A visit to the nearby Nyongoni Manyatta costs from $20 (£11.50) per person. SafariLink (00254 20 600777, www.safarilink-kenya.com) scheduled flights from Nairobi serve Lewa Downs airstrip daily from $246 (£140) return plus taxes; the return two-hour transfer to Tassia – really a superb game drive – costs $200 (£115) per vehicle.

****

People of Kenya

Kenya is the Clapham Junction of Africa; its population is dazzlingly diverse – recognised tribes number from 42 to over 70, depending on how you define them, and that's before considering sizable tranches with Asian, Arab and European ancestry. In the past tribes were identified with lifestyles – Kikuyu farmed, El-Molo fished, Masai herded – but today distinctions are less clear.

Kenya's tribes divide into three linguistic groups: Nilotes, hailing from Sudan and further north; Cushites, including Somalis, from the north-east; and Bantu, the largest group, who arrived from West Africa a couple of thousand years ago.

Masai
Where? Mostly the west and south
Distinguishing features: Masai wear red "shukas" (blankets); broad bead necklaces; leaping dance of the "moran" (young warriors)

Turkana
Where? Arid north-west
Distinguishing features: Hair caked with blue-painted mud (men); wooden plug in lower lip; tattoos

Samburu
Where? Hills and plains north of Mount Kenya
Distinguishing features: Warriors use caked mud in hair fringe and dreadlocks to create a sun visor

Pokot
Where: West side of Rift Valley towards Uganda
Distinguishing features: Metal nose ornaments and painted clay headdresses (men); brass bracelets, lip plugs (women)

Suggested Topics
Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Sport
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Voices
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
A poster by Durham Constabulary
news
Sport
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
Emily McDowell Card that reads:
artCancer survivor Emily McDowell kicks back at the clichés
Arts and Entertainment
Twin Peaks stars Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean, Kyle Maclachlan and Piper Laurie
tvBadalamenti on board for third series
Life and Style
tech
Sport
Standing room only: the terraces at Villa Park in 1935
football
Sport
Ben Stokes celebrates with his team mates after bowling Brendon McCullum
sportEngland vs New Zealand report
News
Amal Clooney has joined the legal team defending 'The Hooden Men'
people
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: Events Coordinator / Junior Events Planner

    £24K + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an Events Coordinator ...

    Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: Chief Executive Officer

    Salary 42,000: Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: The CEO is responsible ...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

    Day In a Page

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine