Journeys No. 13: Masai Mara, Kenya
Safari guide role models worthy of International Women’s Day
Women in the Wild
Even those who’ve never seen an elephant in its natural habitat, never stepped foot on the African continent, can envision the stereotypical safari guide: head-to-toe khaki, wide-brimmed hat, maybe a five o’clock shadow. Probably South African, with a charming accent and build that exudes rugged, protective vibes. Right? Wrong.
Though that actually does describe my first-ever safari guide to a T, it’s not what I’ve come to expect in 2020 from a part of the world changing rapidly. Sunday, March 8, is International Women’s Day, and I thought it a good time to reminisce about a trip last year that flipped the script, so to speak, on my associations with adventures in the bush.
It was January when I landed amid wildebeest on a dirt airstrip by the Masai Mara National Reserve, and was greeted by a cherub-faced young woman with close-cropped hair wearing a red plaid dress and yellow lace cape, rainbow-beaded choker and gold studs—including one quite Western piercing, in her cartilage. She grinned, introduced herself as Nash and, after loading our bags, hopped in the driver’s seat of an army green 4x4 safari truck headed for the Mara Naboisho Conservancy. I was thrilled.
Agnes Nashipae, this vibrant, twentysomething Maasai woman, was my safari guide that week—and an excellent one at that—as I drooled over sightings of massively maned lions, giant-tusked elephants and fuzzy baby zebra, and snapped some of my favorite photographs to date. Nash had a quiet demeanor and a quick smile. She was full of knowledge, happy—and prepared—to answer any question thrown at her by a truckload of inquisitive journalists.
At night I bedded down in a spacious safari tent at Leopard Hill that was the perfect blend of rustic, minimal and cozy. A remote opened a mosquito-netted skylight over the bed for stargazing after dark or birdwatching by day, and I showered outside, with water heated by solar panels. This is the newest camp inside a conservancy formed in 2010 when Basecamp Explorer founder Svein Wilhelmsen banded together with Maasai elders to encourage hundreds of local landowners to combine their properties via lease to become a 50,000-acre private wildlife reserve, mutually benefiting the community, animals and tourists. Its name represents that, too: Naboisho is the Maasai word for “coming together.” Around 5,000 individuals’ lives are better for this holistic relationship between the community and wildlife, which has resulted in a major return of lions, cheetahs and leopards.
As I soon discovered, Nash is not the only female Maasai guide at Basecamp Explorer, the collection of sustainable safari camps I experienced—she’s one of a proud handful. Each of them traveled quite unique paths to achieve their hard-won positions, since guide schools are not exactly full of women. As is true most everywhere, they had to work many times harder than any man to prove themselves capable. But, here they are, traversing tricky terrain, spotting elusive species and, like their male colleagues, wearing the traditional dress of their Nilotic tribe, juicy, saturated reds being the most dominant, followed by blue and green. Called shuka or leso, you might confuse these ubiquitous checkered fabrics with tartan plaids, except the African version is somehow more exuberant.
Without these female guides bringing their perspectives to the conversation, I would not have discovered nearly as much as I did about tribal life in Kenya. Young girls, I learned, are taught by their mothers to make mud huts for their future husbands out of sticks and wood they collect. Apparently, if the hut leaks during a rain, it’s the woman’s job to climb up on top and fix it, while the “big man” directs her from inside where it needs patching. Polygamy is still the tradition, but it’s no longer the only option; likewise with female circumcision. “Elders are complaining about the change eroding our culture, but for us girls we really love it,” Nash told me of what she felt was a major shift caused by Christian missionaries bringing greater education opportunities. Now, she said, “When they try to do it to you, you report it to the government. The change has really benefited us.”
The youngest of 20 siblings, Nash persisted in completing her education despite being asked by her parents to stop so she could look after their sheep and goats. That is a feat for a young girl, I realize—persevering with zero community support. To her, education is everything. An independent thinker, she also rejects polygamy, while raising a nine-year-old son on her own. “If I can’t find a man without another woman, it’s better to stay single and be happy with my life,” Nash said jubilantly.
Alongside encouraging these progressive changes to Maasai culture, Basecamp Explorer is engaged in preserving it, too. Historically, the abundant beaded jewelry I admired on all the Maasai was made by women using small bits of bone and wood, colored with natural dyes. Nash told me girls start learning around age 10: “You have to know how to make it for your boyfriend.” Now, the tiny seed beads comprising so many accessories—earrings to necklaces, belts to harnesses—come from China. But more than 150 local women employed by the fair-trade Basecamp Maasai Brand also use recycled and repurposed materials—insect repellent spray cans cut into keychains, cow horn as buttons, shreds of food bags twisted into thread—to lovingly craft these eye-catching pieces of art.
They are retaining beloved tradition while massively improving their own lives and those of their offspring. These are women, like one we visited named Nolo Mala Talek, who now own their own sheep and goats—formerly something only men had the privilege of doing. They can afford tanks to harvest rainwater, instead of walking hours each day with a jerry can, and buy solar panels for side businesses charging now-ubiquitous cell phones, not to mention producing safe lighting (replacing smoky paraffin lamps) so their kids can do homework. They earn tuition to send their children to secondary school. And they might even live in a permanent cement home. Ninety-five percent of these ladies, some second, third or even fourth wives—who asked me to take photos and giddily savored the visual of their ornamented selves afterward—have become their families’ sole breadwinners.
There was one moment when gender roles seemed more defined: during a bonfire one evening when two dozen staff came heaving in from the dark, columns of red sheathed in shukas, bouncing with purpose and humming, chanting, yelping, singing, pounding wooden staffs into the earth. “Expressing our happiness,” is how a Maasai named Derek described it to me. There’s a jumping contest, in which only men compete, launching themselves upward into the night sky full of glittering galaxies. It’s a show of vitality, and the ladies spectate, eyeing the best. Apparently the highest jumpers have the most girlfriends.
On a walking safari with a young male guide named Samson, his accessories jingle-jangled as we crossed the plain behind warrior-looking guards with spears. He told me his wife is college-educated, and they have one baby so far. He plans to take a second wife in the next few years and have a total of four children. “Now, education means some girls only want one lover,” he told me, though Samson didn’t seem particularly judgmental. He was more concerned about discussing wildlife. It used to be that a Maasai man earned the prestigious role of chief if he could kill a lion. But, said Samson, “If we kill it, our kids will not know it—they will only see pictures. It is much more important to conserve than kill.”
Yes, there are still Maasai taking multiple wives, circumcising their daughters, and dissuading them from attending school. But there’s progress, too. There are those taking second wives, family planning, and educating their kids. The last Maasai chief, I’m told by veteran guide Big Moses (whose beaded accoutrement include American flags in honor of when he proudly guided the Obama family in 2006), left his cattle and land to his daughter.
In other parts of Africa, too, there are increasing numbers of inspiring female role models. In Uganda, I met Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, an influential and internationally recognized wildlife veterinarian and the founder of Conservation Through Public Health, an NGO whose mission is to create peaceful coexistence between endangered wildlife and humans. (Her Gorilla Conservation Coffee brand benefits primates, too.) In the same country I spent valuable time with pioneering founder Evelyn Habasa at her rousing nonprofit, Ride 4 A Woman, where hundreds of struggling local women have learned empowering skills like sewing and weaving or put microloans to good use. While gorilla trekking in Rwanda recently, I hired a female porter. And luxury safari company Roar Africa, founded by a South African woman, does an annual Women’s Empowerment Trip, patronizing and celebrating establishments with female leaders and staff.
In all of these things, education is at the heart. I felt encouraged by hearing this common refrain in Kenya, since to me, it’s the remedy for much of (if not all) the world’s ailments. Over lunch, under a giant double fig tree, Lorna Serseri, a Basecamp Explorer guide with a kind face and braids, told me her story. That she sought out this career not only because she felt passionate about wildlife, but because she wished to be a role model for her little sisters and the girls in her village. She was the first to break the mold there, opening a door for the future. And Lorna credits one thing: “If someone is educated, she knows her rights.”