Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

The Face of the Maasai

Last July, I spent two days with a Maasai community at 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.

My visit still remains one of the most spectacular cultural experiences of my life. I was literally the only guest there and had the thrill of doing a four-hour tour on foot with one of the Maasai warriors and a taking a one-on-one beading class with his mother. Despite modernization and the threat to their way of life, the Maasai still continue to live the way they have for centuries. Their beautiful dress and faces are unforgettable.

Here are a few of my favorites.

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

Jacobo’s mother

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Solar Sister: Providing Light and Hope in Sub-Saharan Africa

Deciding to climb Africa’s highest mountain is no minor decision and it was a goal of mine for over 15 years. I had wanted to climb Kilimanjaro ever since my father scaled it in 2000, months before my wedding. Every time I thought of planning a climb, the timing just didn’t seem to work out and I kept pushing my dream further back on my “to do” list. Deep down inside, I was also a bit concerned about the altitude. I had been to almost 19,000 feet in Nepal and it was grueling. How would I feel even higher? 

All my doubts disappeared when I climbed two peaks in a row in Bolivia without any issues and realized my body was ready. Kilimanjaro was back on the list yet I needed to find someone willing to go.

A few months later, I received a call from a good friend of mine in Rhode Island who shared the exciting news. A small non-profit organization called Solar Sister was putting together a multi-generational, international team to climb Kilimanjaro in honor of bringing light to Africa. It felt like fate.

Without knowing a soul at Solar Sister, I joined their team of climbers and signed up to raise $4,000 to train 8 new Solar Sister Entrepreneurs and to celebrate Solar Sister’s five-year anniversary since its founding. It was one of the best decisions I had ever made, and I had an incredible trip. Perhaps what was even more inspiring than climbing Kilimanjaro itself was the group of people who have dedicated their lives to bringing solar electricity to Africa. The team at Solar Sister.

During our climb, I had the pleasure of learning about the inspiration behind Solar Sister and why their model of social entrepreneurship is thriving. I found their story so inspiring that I wanted to share it and introduce you to Solar Sister. Here is their story.

Karanga Camp Machame Route Kilimanjaro

Group shot of the Solar Sister climbers.

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Kilimanjaro

Transition through the eyes of a climber

There are few mountains in the world that have such an amazing ecosystem and transition of landscape as Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Rising up to 19,341 feet above sea level, the transition from cultivated crops, to lush forest, to heather, moorland, and alpine desert is astounding. I have hiked many mountains but have never experienced any with such a fascinating landscape as Kilimanjaro.

Machame Gate Kilimanjaro Tanzania

Welcome to the long journey up!

Although I’ve already written at length about my trip and am about to put it all to rest, I thought it would be fun to go through the pictures as if you are climbing the mountain for yourself so you can see exactly what I mean. These are brief descriptions of each day, however, if you want to read more detailed posts on my trip, click here. Pay attention to how dramatically the landscape and vegetation change. It truly is spectacular.

Day 1: Climb to Machame Camp

The hike to Machame Camp meanders up about 7.5 miles (12 km) from a starting altitude of 4,890 feet (1490 m) to 9,780 feet (2980 m) and almost the entire hike is through thick rainforest common at the lower altitudes of Kilimanjaro. It is the only part of the hike that is shaded yet the temperature can be quite hot.

Machame Route Kilimanjaro Tanzania

Day 2: Climb to Shira Camp

The second day climb transitions from 9,780 feet (2,980 m) to Shira Camp at 12,600 feet (3,840 m) passing through rainforest glades, the vast open moorlands and up to the Shira Plateau where the treeline ends and the vegetation becomes sparse. In total, the climb is roughly 4 miles (7 km) taking anywhere between four to six hours depending upon speed.

Shira Camp, Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

Kilimanjaro Tanzania

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Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

My last day with the Maasai

“Call it a clan, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you all it, whoever you are, you need one”. – Jane Howard

Sleeping all alone in the bush is not for the faint at heart. I was exhausted by the end of the day at the Mkuru Maasai Training Camp after all the travel to get there yet as soon as I said goodnight to Camilla, the camp volunteer, and unzipped the canvas door of my tent I felt utterly alone. It was pitch black in the bush and eerily quiet. As I crawled into my bed and pulled up the covers, all I could hear was the whispering of the wind.

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

View outside my tent that night

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Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

My Day with the Maasai

“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.

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp, Tanzania

Open-air dining hall and living room at the Mkuru Training Center

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.

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Sunset on Mount Kilimanjaro

What Victory Means to Me

“You won’t win until you learn how to lose” – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Following and fulfilling your dreams is not easy. Oftentimes the obstacles and hurdles that lie ahead seem so insurmountable that they hold you back from even trying. Whether it is the fear of failure or anxiety of the unknown we all have our reasons.

I’ve realized over the years that if I do not take risks or step out of my comfort zone than I am miserable. I don’t grow as a person nor do I feel fulfilled or happy. The more I challenge myself both mentally, intellectually and physically, the more peaceful I feel in my own skin.

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My drive to the Bush: Meeting the Maasai at the Mkuru Training Center

“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.

Jacobo gives me a beaming smile as he greets me at the hotel.

Jacobo gives me a beaming smile as he greets me at the hotel.

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Mkuru Training Camp Maasai Tanzania

Learning the Art of Making Maasai Jewelry in Tanzania

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.

Mkuru Training Camp Maasai Tanzania

The grounds of the Mkuru Training Camp Maasai in Tanzania

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.

Maker Training Camp

Me and Mary

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Descending Kilimanjaro

Kilimanjaro: The Long Walk Down Continues

Author’s note: This post is part of a series on my recent trip and climb of Mount Kilimanjaro, to read all posts click here

“I prefer physical exhaustion over mental fatigue any day”. – Clotilde Hesme

After a three-hour sleep, it was time to get up, eat and continue down to the final base camp of the trip. The last thing I felt like doing was walking more yet I wanted to get down to a warmer place and closer to the end. My left leg were quite swollen which would eventually make my left knee throb the entire four hours down and for days after the hike.  But I was determined to go. The thought of getting back to our hotel with a hot shower, a normal bed and alas a glass or two of wine kept me moving.

Descending Kilimanjaro

We had been incredibly fortunate to have had amazing weather the entire seven days on the hike. We never faced rain, the sky was clear affording us spectacular views of the peak and the valley below, and most important of all, it wasn’t too cold on our ascent to the summit. The only cloudy weather we had occurred during our descent down. It was gray and overcast but really it wasn’t bad at all compared to what it could be.

Descending Kilimanjaro

Descending Kilimanjaro

Descending Kilimanjaro

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Descending Kilimanjaro

Kilimanjaro: The Long Walk Down

Author’s note: This post is part of a series on my recent trip and climb of Mount Kilimanjaro, to read all posts click here

There is one fact that is sometimes forgotten when climbing a mountain: What goes up, must come down. After the euphoric elation of reaching the summit at a little past seven o’clock, the reminder of the long, difficult hike back down hit me like truck. I was exhausted, famished and at an emotional high that would soon dwindle as I began my descent down to our base camp for some much-needed rest.

Our group of nine had split up into different pace groups, and I was alone with another climber from our group named David. Despite being as fit as can be (David just completed a marathon in Africa a few days before setting out on our climb), being in shape does not always guarantee your body will acclimatize properly. There are a number of reasons why you can get altitude sickness but it is never certain what exactly sets it off. Poor David reached the top of Kilimanjaro and promptly vomited behind the trail. He needed to get back down and fast.

Descending Kilimanjaro

Once the sun fully rose and I was able to take a quick breather, I took this shot of the rugged, steep trail back down.

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Karanga Camp Machame Route Kilimanjaro

Kilimanjaro: Lunch at Barafu Camp

Author’s note: This post is part of a series on my recent trip and climb of Mount Kilimanjaro, to read all posts click here

The morning light rose above the mountain and slowly warmed my tent. I had slept relatively well knowing that the next 36 hours were going to be grueling. We would have a short three hour hike to Barafu Camp at 14,930 feet (4,550 feet)  – the normal setting off point for the summit attempt – and continue on to a higher, lesser known camp called Kosovo where we would sleep before a midnight rise to climb to the top.

Carnage Camp Machame Route Kilimanjaro

Morning 5 on Kilimanjaro.

Karanga Camp Machame Route Kilimanjaro

Group shot before we leave Karanaga Camp.

It was another gorgeous day and the views of the summit were spectacular. After five days and nights on the mountain, it was hard to believe that the summit attempt was already so near. We were incredibly fortunate to have been blessed with such spectacular weather and were hoping that our climb up would be equally nice. The thought of climbing unprotected for hours in the dark scared me more than the actual climb. I knew that on some cases it could be bone-numbing cold with winds well below zero. Six or seven hours in that sounded painful.

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Hike to Karanga Camp Machame Route Kilimanjaro

Kilimanjaro: Day 4 Climb to Karanga Camp

Author’s note: This post is part of a series on my recent trip and climb of Mount Kilimanjaro, to read all posts click here

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I was relieved and rewarded by finally getting a good night of sleep. I couldn’t believe how good it felt! It was my first real solid sleep in over a week. I am sure that my body had finally given in due to mere exhaustion after a week of travel, jet lag and sleepless cold nights on the mountain.

I woke up feeling invigorated to start the day’s climb, a relatively strenuous yet short hike up and over the Barranco Wall to Karanga Camp at 13,780 feet (4,000 m). Our group set off early trying to beat the long lines of people climbing up the narrow path. The first hour of the hike was a bit frustrating. If someone in front of you stopped to rest, the entire long queue of hikers below would have to also stop and one thing is for certain when I hike, I don’t like to stop unless I absolutely have to.

Hike to Karanga Camp Machame Route Kilimanjaro

Trail marker showing us the way.

Hike to Karanga Camp Machame Route Kilimanjaro

Pretty wildflowers

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