Maasai village stay: At home on the range

A side of Kenya that’s a world away from luxury safari camps

We arrived in the Maasai Mara in a storm, a product of the October “short rains” that assault Kenya, on a battered dirt road rapidly turning to muddy glue. “We might as well be in Pitlochry,” wailed my friend, as we swerved through the murk in our rattly van, past abandoned 4x4s.

Finding non-luxury accommodation in the Maasai Mara is a struggle – many high-end camps charge half the average annual Kenyan salary per night for a fantasy camping experience. The Maasai, traditional inhabitants of the game-rich land, see little or nothing of the proceeds of high-end tourism. Which made Semadep (Sekenani Maasai Development Project), a tented camp and village stay owned and operated by Maasai people, all the more intriguing.

We churned up a streaming track to the camp, located 2km outside one of the national reserve main gates, just as dark descended. Lit by a paraffin lamp was a thatched shelter and a group of tall Maasai men, wrapped in red shuka blankets, coming out to greet us. There was just enough light to see a camp fire smoking in the rain, a ring of sturdy thatched tents and the darkening plain below. James Ole Lesaloi, a local Maasai villager and the founder of Semadep, introduced us to his cohort of six warriors, who handed us warming chai and showed us our snug tent.

Then we sat down for dinner – goat stew, rice, greens and bananas. James explained his rationale for founding Semadep in 2006: the community had been hard hit by drought and cholera. “I asked myself,” he said, “what I could do to help my people.” The answer was to engage with tourism in way which would be sustainable for the community and would help to showcase their culture to visitors. You can choose to stay only in the camp or combine this with the rare opportunity to stay in a Maasai village.

The next day, two of the young men – Shinka, his mobile phone tucked into the folds of his shuka, and Taiyio – took us on a walk up the hill behind the camp, from where we could see cattle and the elongated red figures of herders moving across the plain. We heard the chattering sounds of a honeybird, which calls the Maasai to beehives. Then we wandered back down the hill past skittish zebra and sat around the camp, hearing eye-watering stories of the men’s circumcision ceremonies, performed without anaesthetic.

Hanging out with a group of Maasai warriors you learn about nature, kinship, pain and hunting, and you also learn about fashion. While the women pile on jewellery in a dazzling display of Maasai bling, the male approach to ornamentation is no less impressive. John Tubula, James’s young brother, appeared one day wearing scarlet cloths with a bright turquoise cape and turquoise beaded bracelet, a fabulous colour combination.

We met Kaitikei from the camp out herding cattle, swathed in cloths and wearing a red belt emblazoned with the words “Last of the Great Hunters” in English. Not everything is for show, though: tucked into their beaded belts, Maasai men carry an olive-wood club and a dagger in a sheath, a vital defence against wild animals.

Big game is what brings most tourists to the Maasai Mara, but although James offered to organise a day-long safari, we decided instead on a walk with Shinka to see the projects part-funded by the Semadep camp. The first is a water pump, where a woman was scooshing clear water into a plastic barrel. Meandering on, we heard the little brick-built school almost before we saw it. “ ONE-TWO-THREEEE” was being chanted in high-volume unison. The children greeted us with an irresistible glee and we joined in the counting. Beyond this is Semadep’s health clinic, which James founded with some Dutch doctors: he has imminent plans to introduce life-saving telemedicine, which allows remote diagnosis via video technology. And next door is a computer centre, an important communication hub in an area with little electricity, where a local game warden was checking his emails.

That evening we left the camp and were taken in a 4x4 for the short journey down the hill to Ewangan village for a two-night stay. It was dark when we got to the thick thorn fence that protects the settlement from lions. A gap was made and we stepped inside the protective circle. James, Shinka and the other men from the camp were there, with a group of children who lowered their heads so we could stroke them, a traditional greeting for kids. Women shook our hands softly, the metal panels of their jewellery chinking, then took us to our mud and thatch manyatta (hut). We stooped to enter and went down a corridor, emerging at a tiny central hearth with two beds on wicker platforms, lit with the glow of a paraffin lamp. Then we lay awake, listening to insects, the clank of cow bells and the unearthly laugh of hyenas outside the thorn circle.

The next day was a boy-scout adventure, from the dawn milking of the cows, sheep and goats to learning to use bows and arrows and lighting a fire with sticks, elephant dung and grass. The women gathered to sing and sway in unison and then the young men performed a jumping dance, propelling their tall bodies high into the air in good-natured competition.

I never saw the wildebeest migration or elephants or lions in the Maasai Mara. But I came to understand it far better than if I’d been in the luxury of an upmarket safari camp, and I left having made new friends too.

Travel Essentials

Getting there

The writer travelled to Nairobi with Kenya Airlines (020-8283 1800; kenya-airways.com). It flies from Heathrow, as does British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com). She hired a driver to get to Semadep, 2km from the Maasai Mara Reserve’s Sekanani gate. A good local company is Adventure Upgrade Safaris, which charges $100 (£63) a day for a tour van with driver (00 254 20 228725; adventureupgradesafaris.co.ke).

Staying there

Semadep is recommended by Responsible Travel (01273 600030; responsibletravel.com). Stays cost US$70 (£44) per person, per night, full board. Book direct through James Ole Lesaloi (jplsemadep@gmail.com; 00 254 7 2181 7757; www.semadepcamp.com).

Red tape

British passport-holders require a visa to visit Kenya, available at Nairobi airport (£30). Kenya Tourism: magicalkenya.com

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
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?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Trainer / PT - OTE £32,000 Uncapped

    £22000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor - OTE £10,000 Uncapped - Part Time

    £7500 - £10000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness chai...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Executive / Digital Marketing Executive

    COMPETITIVE: Guru Careers: A Marketing / Digital Marketing Executive (CRM, Eve...

    Recruitment Genius: Receptionist / Sales / Customer Service Assistant

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: The role is likely to be 4on 4 off, days and ...

    Day In a Page

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea