I had been in Kenya for three days, on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to write about The Travel Foundation’s work with the Maasai. During 2007, Maasai village elders had come together with The Foundation to put a stop to the exploitation which had been going on for decades, whereby money was being charged to tourists to visit their villages, but the driver guides who drove the visitors there, passed none of it on to the villagers themselves. The only money the Maasai made was from selling a few bits of beadwork here and there.
One year after The Travel Foundation started to help the Maasai gain confidence to take on the driver guides, and the many tourist lodges which had been turning a blind eye to the unethical practice, tourism was starting to become an important source of income for the Maasai at last. I was honoured to be invited to their ‘AGM’, with five villages, men women and children, gathered together under an acacia tree in the middle of the bush, to celebrate what they had achieved.
The total amounted to $43,000 from tours alone, an 800 per cent increase in just a year. The applause and cheers must have been heard all the way to the Serengeti. The men held hands and smiled proudly and the women translated to their excited children. Already, Enkereri village had extended its school, paying two teachers’ salaries.
That evening I returned to my lodge, Olonana, which had been very proactive in supporting the new change in practice. Some of the visitors were less on the ball, however. I was joined at the bar by an elderly English couple.
They, like most guests, gathered round to compare notes on the day’s game sightings. “See anything good today then?” was the man’s opening gambit. When I explained that I had spent the day with the Maasai, I could see that I wasn’t going to get very far, as he interrupted quickly, “Uggh, we tried that last year, didn’t we dear?” he directed at his silent wife. “Aren’t their lives disgusting? And such greedy people. One of them lent my wife a blanket to keep warm when we did ‘the tour’. They’ll try anything to get your money.”
I begged to differ, but he wouldn’t hear of it. He waved his hand dismissing any further discussion, walking away with a smile, shouting: “All I can say is, it is God’s blessing to be born an Englishman.”
Choose your battles, I thought, as I went out for air and a much needed nicotine fix. Looking up the hill, I could just about see the lights from the nearby Maasai village fires. The people who lived just up that hill had travelled such great distances and have such dignified wisdom, I thought. And yet, so many of their visitors have a much longer way to go until they gain even half of their knowledge and civility.
For more information on the work of The Travel Foundation, still ongoing in Kenya, see www.thetravelfoundation.org.uk