“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths”. – Walt Disney
Two days after climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, I had one of the most stunning travel experiences of my life. I visited a Maasai village and stayed overnight. It was not the typical tourist trap where you pay a ton of money to see the Maasai but instead a true Maasai village where the Maasai continue to practice their traditional culture that has remained relatively unchanged for centuries.
I had done a fair amount of research to find the right Maasai village to visit because I didn’t want to go to a place that was culturally insensitive and filled with tourists. Instead, I wanted a real, authentic experience and cultural immersion. Thankfully I 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 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.
The 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 select 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.
I was picked up early Sunday morning at my hotel in Moshi by Camilla, an Italian volunteer staying at the camp and Jacobo, the camp manager who is Maasai and was born and raised in the community. I limped over to get in the car, happy that I was finished hiking and could finally just sit for a few hours. Both Camilla and Jacobo were exceptionally warm and friendly, and we had a wonderful time chatting during our three-hour bumpy ride to the camp.
The Mkuru Training Camp lies within the Mount Meru ecosystem which consists of two main wards, The Ngarenanyuki Ward which comprises five villages and the Oldonyosambu Ward which has four villages. I learned that three main ethnic groups populate the area: The Wameru, Warusha, and the Maasai. The Wameru are the dominant ethnic group who arrived around 300 years ago and live in the slopes of Mount Meru. They speak Bantu, are small-scale farmers and are the most affluent of the group living in cement brick homes. The Warusha arrived in 1830 and live in the higher slopes of Mount Meru, and engage in agriculture and raising livestock for their income. The Maasai people came to the area around 70 years ago as nomadic pastoralists. They originated in Sudan, moving to Ethiopia, Kenya and finally Tanzania in search of land to graze their livestock. Sadly, their nomadic lifestyle ended once the government banned it and forced the Maasai to stay put significantly impacting their way of life. Yet somehow they have managed to maintain their unique culture even against the threat of modernization.
As we drove to the camp, I was astounded how much the landscape changed in such a short amount of time. The first two hours of the drive to the Mkuru Training Camp is on paved roads and the landscape is tropical and lush, but once you enter the Arumeru District the landscape suddenly changes as does the people and why of life.
Outside of the car window, I watched all the school children heading off to school in their freshly pressed uniforms and smiles. Education in Tanzania still remains an important developmental issue. Despite huge strides in attendance to primary school (When primary school fees were dropped in 2005, the number of pupils who have enrolled since has doubled, to what the government says is now 97.3% of the primary-school-aged population*), getting more remote children into the classroom and keeping girls in school remains a huge issue. The Maasai people have also hesitated to send their children to school since boys become in charge of their own herd of livestock as young as five years old and the girls are needed to help out at home.
As we near the Arumeru District and the camp, the pavement ends and the landscape dramatically changes from lush tropical green to dry savannah and bushland. It is startling, and I could easily understand why malnutrition is one of the leading problems faced by the Maasai people. During dry season, the land becomes brittle and barren with little food for the grazing cattle or the people. Once full riverbeds dry up too and water becomes scarce. Thankfully the camp was able to dig a well, meaning the Maasai could save two hours a day walking to fetch water. Yet water still remains a luxury.
The change in roads also means that it is much further and more difficult to reach the nearest town for services such as hospitals, doctors, markets and schools. In the dry season, you can take a motorbike or car (which few people have) to reach town but once the rains start, these roads become nearly impassable except for on Land Rovers.
The further we drove, the more nauseated and carsick I became as the roads become quite bumpy and treacherous. I can only imagine what it must be like to drive on these roads during rainy season. I am sure there are days when it is impossible.
As we near the camp, I must admit that I grew a little bit nervous. I had never been to a Maasai village before and I knew that I was going to be the only guest. I had no idea what to expect and how I’d be received as a tall foreign “yellow-haired” white woman.
But as soon as I stepped foot outside of the car and breathed in the dry, fragrant smell of the bushland I knew I’d be in for an adventure of my life. Coming up after lunch, I had a four-hour guided tour on foot with Jacobo, followed by dinner and sleeping out in the bush. It was going to be an experience I would never forget.
Author’s note: This post is one of a series on my visit to the Mkuru Maasai Training Camp. To read all posts in the series, click here.