“Culture is the widening of the mind and of the spirit”. – Jawaharlal Nehru
When I arrived at the Mkuru Training Center, I was introduced to the lovely staff and lead into a beautiful open-air dining and living room for a cup of hot tea and lunch. I needed it after the long, rainy drive. I was thankful that the weather had cleared up for my afternoon adventure. Jacobo, the Camp Manager, would be taking me on a four-hour walking tour to see the Maasai community that live around the camp. It was going to certainly be a fascinating, eye-opening experience.
The Mkuru Training Camp was built in 2003 around 50 acres of property by the Isituto Oikos, an Italian NGO that works to promote environmental conservation as a tool of socio-economic development. For the past 12 years, they have been working with the Maasai people at the Mkuru Training Camp to assist in conserving their culture and their land, providing education, resources and economic empowerment. The camp is used as both a research center and a tourist facility where people can come and integrate with the Maasai in a unique way without imposing on their lives. It is really a fantastic concept.
The tourist and research facilities are relatively secluded and a distance away from the nearest home giving privacy to the Maasai community around it. The camp hosts an office for the on site staff, a meeting area for the researchers, a large living room and dining area, a kitchen, a dormitory, outdoor bathrooms with showers, and 8 tents. The space can accommodate up to 56 people. I was the only guest that day at the camp and had the entire place and staff to myself. It was a pretty amazing.
After a delightful lunch of traditional Tanzanian and Indian food (there is a strong Indian influence in Tanzanian cuisine), Jacobo gave me a brief tour of the camp before heading out on our four-hour foot tour. It felt a little strange to be the only guest there.
I was staying in my own tent for the night. Each tent is made of thick canvas and is built above ground on stilts. Although the windows open, I slept with them zipped shut as it was so windy and dark out in the bush that night that it was a bit intimidating to be all alone. I also was a little afraid of the snakes. Jacobo told me to be very careful for snakes as there are cobras that like to come into the open-air bathrooms and wind themselves around the toilet. Once he told me that advice, I refused to go out in the pitch black darkness of the night and use the toilet. It would have to wait.
I dropped my backpack off inside my tent and prepared for the tour. Meanwhile, Jacobo filled up my water tank with hot water for the shower. This was a big luxury since water is extremely scare in the camp. Just recently the camp built a well for the local community so they could fetch water nearby. Before installing the well, it was a two-hour walk daily to fetch water. Now it is only a few minutes yet the well is only runs for a two-hour window each day.
Living in such an arid climate means the Maasai have to be creative when it comes to every day chores. None of the bomas (traditional mud huts that the Maasai live in) have electricity or running water. Water is extremely scarce meaning bathing is rare and cleaning the dishes is tricky. The solution? Jacobo demonstrates how the use of dried cow dung can work to clean out a dirty kerosene lantern with no water. He told me that during the dry season it can go 10 days without rain, thus you must improvise to survive. For example, to wash dishes, it only takes 1/2 liter of water mixed with dried dung and you can clean 20 dishes. Pretty amazing.
I have never been anywhere so desolate and barren except for the dry desert of New Mexico. Although I can’t quite compare the bush to New Mexico, it still has a lonely, desolate feeling to it. The climate that surrounds Mkuru has a wet season and a dry season. When the wet season comes, the dried riverbeds fill and the crops grow beautifully. However, once the dry season begins the rivers dry up, the ground is brittle and brown and all that remains are the leafless Acacia trees and shrubs that are common in the bush. It is a fight for survival and malnutrition runs high.
I wasn’t sure what to expect on my overland tour with Jacobo. I have quite frankly never done anything quite like it before. I wondered what the bush would be like and how the Maasai people would receive me. Would I be an intruder on their lives or would they be mildly curious about me. All these thoughts rolled through my head as we began our walk into the bush while I was feeling extremely queasy after something bad I must have eaten on the mountain a few days before. My knees and quads also were rather stiff after the long descent down Kilimanjaro two days ago. But I was determined to visit the Maasai regardless of how physically bad I felt. For when would I ever get this kind of opportunity again?
Slowly I limped along after Jacobo wondering about what I was about to find.
Stay tuned….part 2 coming up next!
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.
I’m struck by the last photo: the broken ground does not look like it would easy to negotiate without footwear. Jacobo does have basic footwear. Did all the Masai you saw also have at least basic sandals or shoes?
Excellent comment! Some do some don’t. When I was in Ethiopia I was stunned that 90% of the people outside of the city do not wear shoes but walk barefoot. The soles of their feet harden enough so they become tough and are used to it. I expect the same happens with the Maasai. Great question.
Fascinating story. I loved seeing the pictures of the different structures. I hope to be going into tribal communities soon. Here is Australia it’s difficult to find Traditional Culture.
Thanks for sharing! I bet it would be really great to see traditional culture in Australia if you can find it. I feel the same way about traditional Native American culture here. There culture has been really sacrificed by our governmental policies. It is sad.
Layer upon layer you continue to add other worlds to your own…
So beautifully said and so poetic! You are so beautiful with your words!
I’m humbled. Thank you.
You are a beautiful writer Sally. So poetic and deep thinking. I think you should write a book.
You’ve touched my heartstrings, and I am grateful for your response to my work.
I feel touched too! 🙂
Looking forward to the next instalment 🙂
Thanks! I just posted the next one yesterday! Check it out! 🙂
It’s now on my bucket list!
I still think it would be great to compare Alison to what it was like in 1980 versus now. I think there are some positive changes. The women are now getting more empowered with their bead work and NGOs are helping the Maasai with environmental conservation and education and overall well-being. It would be fascinating to compare.
I was travelling through in 1980. I did a 4 month overland trip from Cape Town to London. We camped every night in the wilderness. It was safer than camping in or near towns. We met Massai in Tanzania, but did not really get a chance to interact with them. They were all in traditional dress, and were not lining up for tourists, but just living their ordinary lives. Sometimes we would see groups of them off in the distance with their cattle. We had a closer encounter with the local tribe in southern Sudan I think it was – one night a local man came to our camp and ate with us, then came back the next morning with members of his tribe, both men and women. From their dress and their artefacts it was obvious they were still living as they had done for hundreds of years.
Wow Alison! That sounds so amazing! My friend did a similar overland tour of Africa in the early 1990s and said it was the best experience of her life. I can only imagine. Wow.
what a great experience, thanks. I don’t like, however, the snakes in the toilet possibility…
It was amazing but yes the snakes are a bit scary. My parents live in Tucson and I’m used to all kinds of scary things there like scorpions, rattlesnakes and dangerous spiders but at least a hospital is near by whereas in the bush you are hours!
Right! Hospitals. Last thing you want is to need one when there isn’t one. I used to live in Tucson, still have friends in Green Valley.
I love Tucson. It is really pretty and I love all the hiking opportunities!
I always thought Tucson was just OK. Nothing bad about it (discounting snakes and scorpions and rabid coyotes), but nothing really good about it either. I did like all the hikes, too!
What an interesting trek, Nicole. Snakes in the bathrooms! 😯
Thanks Sylvia! Yes the snakes were a bit scary but they are also all over Arizona and I’ve seen dangerous rattlesnakes on the trails I’ve hiked.
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I don’t get it. How does dry cow dung mixed with a little water get anything clean? I can’t imagine walking 2 hours to get water. Thank goodness for their new well. Cobras in the toilet area? Whoa. What an adventure.
It does seem hard to believe but basically the inside of the glass lantern was covered in black soot. Jacobo took the dried dung and used it like a scrubbing agent to get the black soot off and then dumped it out. Next he added a small amount of water, swished it around and it was clean. Amazing huh. Yes snakes in the toilet were very scary. I had to go to the toilet during the night but was so afraid that I peed in a small bowl and threw it out the tent! Seriously!
Wow, what a cliff-hanger! I can’t wait to see what life was like in the village. It must have been pretty cool to be the only person on camp, although I would definitely have shared your concerns about the snakes!
Thanks Emily! I just published the second post yesterday which I think is even better. It was such a crazy experience. I will admit I was a bit freaked out at night in the pitch blackness of my tent all alone. It was a little scary.
I so enjoy this adventure.