“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.