The Masai tribe — with their distinct red clothing and great herds of cows that they depend on — have become emblematic of Kenya. Touring their manyattas, simple circular villages made of mud huts and surrounded by thorny acacia branches, is often part of visiting the region. Over the course, we visited a few of these, comparing ones that are heavily geared toward tourists (like the one we went to today), and others that we had a rare opportunity to visit through a family member where we could witness the Masai simply going about their daily lives.

We visited the manyatta outside of the growing town of Talek in the Mara and began to think about important questions regarding authenticity. The students are invited to dance with the tribe (men compete to see how high they can jump, and then later, the women stand in a long line singing). We are given a look inside one of their small homes. We watch as they start a fire with sticks. We are offered a wide of array of beaded handicrafts for sale. Throughout we investigate whether they are imparting their cultural heritage or whether we have fallen into nothing more than a tourist trap.The truth probably lies somewhere in between.

Masai warriors singing. / Meera Subramanian

Masai dance / Meera Subramanian

Chris joins in the jumping. / Munir Virani

Arian in the long line of women. / Meera Subramanian

Maria joins in on the fun. / Munir Virani

We also visited Basecamp Masai Mara, a local eco-lodge, for a tour. In addition to high-end yet low-impact lodging, the camp is also connected to the Koiyaki Guiding School, which trains local Masai to be naturalist guides, and a women’s collective, where they can make traditional handicrafts for sale in which they receive a much larger percentage of the profits than the conventional sale through a middleman or distribution company. There are no flush toilets, and they collect their rainwater, plant trees and limit their electricity use. Here’s how they heat their water:

Solar hot water heater / Meera Subramanian

In the evening, after settling into Ilkeliani tented camp, Meera taught another environmental journalism class by candlelight before we sat down for dinner, fighting over the Tabasco!