I have always dreamed of one day visiting a Maasai tribe, and with careful planning I was able to make my very own visit to a Maasai village after climbing Kilimanjaro this past July. I had read a lot about the Maasai and how their nomadic lifestyle and culture have been endangered and threatened over the years. I also know that there are a lot of touristy, unethical scams out there and I wanted to be absolutely sure I was going to a culturally sensitive, real life Maasai village. I did some research and found the perfect place for my visit, The Mkuru Training Camp in Uwiro Village, about a three-hour drive away from Moshi. The Mkuru Training Camp is a tented camp located at the foothills of Mount Meru, just outside Arusha National Park, within one of the most important biodiversity areas of Tanzania: the Maasai Steppe.
I had learned about The Mkuru Training Camp from some of my friends at the International Reporting Project (IRP) who had done a reporting project to Tanzania and had visited the camp. They said it was a beautiful place and my friend Melody of the IRP described her visit as one of the best travel experiences she has ever had in her life. It sounded like the perfect place for me to be introduced to the Maasai.
The Mkuru Training Camp is run by Isituto Oikos, an Italian NGO (non-governmental organization) founded in 1996 that works in Europe and in developing countries to promote environmental conservation as a tool of socio-economic development. They have been working with the Maasai people at the Mkuru Training Camp to assist in conserving their culture and way of life. For a small fee, they offer tourists and journalists the ability to spend a night or two at the camp and immerse themselves in the local Maasai culture. I would be the only guest for the night.
The Maasai are among the best known African ethnic groups due to their distinctive customs and dress. As nomadic pastoralists, they traditionally herded their cattle on seasonal rotations across the open savanna of Kenya and Tanzania yet new laws instituted by the Kenyan and Tanzanian governments ended their traditions and forced many into camps where they have suffered poverty, malnutrition, lack of education and economic opportunities to survive. It is an all too common story with native cultures across the world and today many governments and NGOs are doing their best to preserve and protect these tribes from disappearing off the face of the earth.
The Mkuru Training Camp is a non-obtrusive resource center that lies within the heart of nine different Maasai villages covering a huge landmass that takes days to cover on foot. They offer resources on water and soil conservation, management of natural resources, land use planning, climate changes and energy, education and training, food security, and women’s empowerment. As a guest, I was able to pick from a list of several cultural activities to learn about the Maasai and their way of life. Besides the four-hour land tour of the Bomas (traditional Maasai mud huts) and the neighboring community, my next favorite activity was learning how to bead.
The Maasai women are known for their extraordinary beadwork that for centuries has been a mark of beauty and prosperity among the Maasai tribes of Eastern Africa. Through the creation of the Project Women program, Maasai women now have the opportunity to establish a business that reflects and celebrates their rich cultural heritage while improving their livelihood and protecting the environment. The program is an informal network of Maasai women’s groups that get together to make their gorgeous beaded jewelry and then sell it at local markets nearby. It has transformed these women’s lives as well as their children and family.
I had the opportunity to sit down and get a one-on-one training by a local Maasai “mama” named Mary. I realized that making Maasai jewelry requires a steady, careful hand and is not as easy as it seems. Here are some photos from my lesson.
I met Mary with warmth and smiles. She is the mother of Jacobo, a local Maasai and my tour guide for the next two days. Unfortunately we could not communicate as I don’t speak Mary’s native tongue nor does she speak English. So all her demonstration and time with me was spent with gestures and smiles.
Like most Maasai women, Mary was beautifully adorned in her handicraft and art. She wore brilliantly colored necklaces, bracelets and anklets all beaded by hand. She also wore long, heavy earnings in her overly stretched ears. I learned that it is a traditional sign of beauty among the Maasai women. They begin creating a small hole in their ear when they are very young and continually place larger sticks in the hole to enlarge it. Over years, the ears will finally be stretched out and to keep them in place, the women must continually wear heavy earnings.
I was surprised how long it took to make just a simple bracelet with my inexperienced hands. Mary’s nimble fingers would have finished this in twenty minutes flat but it took me over an hour!
After making my bracelet, the real fun began….shopping! Mary took out all her beautiful jewelry and laid it on the table. I could hardly wait to buy some treasures for gifts and of course myself.
I thoroughly enjoyed my hour spent with Mary learning about the beautiful beadwork she creates and how it is not as easy to make as it looks. I felt good about my purchases knowing that the money Mary made from the sale would go back towards providing her family with the much needed income to survive. Although we didn’t speak the same language, her warm smile said it all.
Thank you Mary for sharing your beautiful culture with me. What a gift.
I will be writing at length on my visit to the Mkuru Training Camp in the next few weeks. Stay tuned.