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

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
travel
News
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014
peopleTim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
News
people
Life and Style
techApp to start sending headlines, TV clips and ads to your phone
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift crawls through the legs of twerking dancers in her 'Shake It Off' music video
musicEarl Sweatshirt thinks so
Life and Style
tech
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan in What If
filmReview: Actor swaps Harry Potter for Cary Grant in What If
News
Our resilience to stress is to a large extent determined by our genes
science
Travel
travel
Sport
sportBesiktas 0 Arsenal 0: Champions League qualifying first-leg match ends in stalemate in Istanbul
News
Pornography is more accessible - and harder to avoid - than ever
news... but they still admit watching it
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
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Recruitment Consultant (Graduate Trainee), Finchley Central

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    Day In a Page

    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
    Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

    But could his predictions of war do the same?
    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

    Young at hort

    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

    Beyond a joke

    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

    A wild night out

    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

    It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
    Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

    Besiktas vs Arsenal

    Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

    The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

    Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment