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; It flies from Heathrow, as does British Airways (0844 493 0787; 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;

Staying there

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

Red tape

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

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
Dejan Lovren celebrates scoring for Southampton although the goal was later credited to Adam Lallana
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
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
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
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

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Day In a Page

    Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

    The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

    What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

    Inside a church for Born Again Christians

    As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
    Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
    Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

    Incredible survival story of David Tovey

    Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little