Amboseli Spring 2016

Jambo! Ellory, Julia H, Meg and Sophie here! Following our trip to Kisumu, the KSP squad ventured in safari vehicles south to Amboseli National Park.  Interacting with another Kenyan culture, the Maasai, we were again able to broaden our understanding of the diversity within Kenya.  Guided by our Fearless Leader, Sinnary, we embarked on a weeklong exploration of issues surrounding Tourism, Maasai culture, and the environment.

This trip included tourist activities such as the accommodations at Kibo Safari Camp, the game drive in Amboseli National Park and the cultural manyatta visit. Unlike most of our other trips the Amboseli component felt more like a vacation than a field trip.  While it was nice to feel like a tourist for a week our group did not fail to look critically at issues within the Amboseli region.  Through interviews with various local communities we were able to get a better understanding of tourism and its affects on the region. Our week at Amboseli allowed us all to feel some negative and positive aspects of the tourism industry.

When we first arrived at Kibo Safari Camp we were blown away by the luxurious accommodations at the “camp”.  We had been told we would be camping in tents for a week and expected a trip similar to Tanzania.  What we found was a beautiful resort situated at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro complete with a pool, bar, dining room, and luxury canvas-walled villas.  If there ever was a time the word “glamping” was appropriate, this was it.

The design and decorations of the resort screamed “tourist”.  The walls were covered with Maasai artifacts and African paintings of tribal women and animals.  There were hides and skins as carpets and gravel paths disguised as trails to connect the rooms.  The “tents” had bathrooms, showers, electricity, beds with mosquito net canopies and a built in vanities.  The resort was beautiful but also clearly trying to portray a “rustic” experience while sparing no modern amenity.IMG_5909 (1)

During our stay in Amboseli, we were lucky enough to go on a game drive in the National Park. As we all packed into the safari vehicles at 7am the KSP crew was excited and overwhelmed with pure joy to finally see wildlife. You could say there is a fair amount of “elephant enthusiasts” in the group and each one almost passed out when we saw the first heard of the majestic creatures. Rolling through the roads of the park, passing other tourists in safari vehicles with giant zoom cameras, we had become the epitome of the African tourist. As it was amazing to see: hippos, elephants, lions (very rare sight, but we saw three), a cheetah, wildebeest, zebras, hyenas, impalas, water buffalo, water bucks, baboons, and many exotic birds, it was a little disheartening to be invasive in the daily life of the wildlife. To us these animals are in their natural state, however it’s critical to acknowledge the fact that these animals are dangerous and destructive to the surrounding communities. Being students it was very easy to analyze this concept, but unfortunately to the common tourist this part of the safari is left out and the appeal of seeing wildlife is the main focus. After completing the two game drives, everyone was on such a high from the beautiful landscapes and views of wildlife, but at the end of the day it was difficult to accept that the tourism in the Amboseli region can negatively affect the wildlife and local communities.

Looking at tourism on a community based level, attractions such as the cultural manyatta appealed to just the tourist groups coming to learn about the traditional Maasai culture. These manyattas are made up of individuals who have left their family compounds in search of additional income through providing tourists with an “authentic” experience. When we first arrived we were greeted with a traditional dance and song, which included a jumping contest for the men. As we continued on into the manyatta we were surrounded with men and women dressed in traditional Maasai attire and enclosed in a ring of houses made of cow dung. Following our arrival, we were briefed on the traditional medicine used for sickness and ailments. Later we were brought into a house that included two rooms and a small kitchen area. Wrapping up the experience we were given the opportunity to interview young women and men, as well as elder women and men, about their life in the manyatta. Due to the language barrier and their perception of us as tourists, the answers given seemed to present an idolized representation of their life in the cultural manyatta. The cultural manyatta presented Maasai culture in its “traditional” form, while ignoring any steps towards development or modernity. From our view as informed students, it was hard to see the Maasai culture being exploited like this for tourist entertainment and money. Despite the obvious misrepresentation, the cultural manyatta provided an opportunity to see a tourist attraction in action.

Back at Kibo in our interviews with community members, we were able to gauge their opinions in the Amboseli region. Surprisingly, their responses were overwhelmingly positive. Every group cited that the income generated from tourist attractions such as the cultural manyatta, contributed to the communities well being.  All groups that we spoke to saw cultural attractions as a way of preserving traditional dances and lifestyles and did not view them as a corruption of culture as we had expected. Additionally, it was surprising to hear that establishments such as Kibo Safari Camp provided the Maasai community with jobs and land compensation. Talking with these community members gave us a fresh perspective on tourism and a new way of conceptualizing the possible benefits to the community.

Meg’s perspective:

To further our understanding of the Maasai people in a changing world, we had the opportunity to spend twenty-four hours in the home of a Maasai family. The traditional manyatta was a drastic contrast to the cultural manyatta and the “tourist” activities that we had been doing. We had been briefed two weeks prior to our stay, causing a lot of anxiety among the group members due to hearing about the potential hardships we would face. We were imagining being covered in bed bugs, fleas, and lice, sleeping in a small, enclosed space with livestock on a cowhide with our Maasai siblings. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the experience and from the sounds of everyone’s individual homestays, this feeling seemed to be universal.

Lilly, Annie, and I were together with the second wife of our family’s manyatta. She was 28 and her five kids were running around all afternoon with the other kids of the manyatta. When we first arrived, we walked through the cow pen, made with acacia tree branches to keep the animals in and predators out. We entered the house and walked through a small front room into the back room where we found a single, cowhide bed. After settling in, we walked around the neighbor’s farms and watched one farmer irrigate his fields. The sun was hot and the cow dung house was a sauna on the inside so we helped our mom fetch water from a well near by. It was about a seven-minute walk to a very nice and established water pump. We filled our containers and carried them home on our backs with a kanga wrapped around our heads for support. Our mom made it look very easy!

When we got home, we played with the kids for what seemed to be hours. At first they were very interested in us, but were extremely shy. Little by little we pushed through those boundaries by chasing them around and playing games with them. We showed them how to play hopscotch and hand games we had learned in elementary school. They loved high five’s and I spun them around making sure to add the appropriate “whooshing” sound affects. Everyone was laughing and smiling from ear to ear. They sang us an English alphabet song with a dance to accompany it. It is amazing how communication can manifest itself in so many ways.

That evening, we met our father and watched our mom milk the cows. I tried but it was a lot harder than it looks. I completely missed the container! After milking the cows, we started to make dinner. We took turns cutting the cabbage and watched her make ugali. Kids were in and out all night long but at dinner we finally met all five of our siblings. After dinner, everyone headed to bed. The three of us played cards on our bed before trying to sleep. We did not quite fit in the bed, but we tried. Though we did not sleep a wink, the night was an experience in itself. The next morning we walked away with no bugs, no sleep, and some great selfies!

We woke up and did some of the same activities as the day before such as fetching water and milking the cows. We ate some porridge, drank tea, and spent the morning sitting under a tree beading with our mom. It was nice to know we had a shower to go back to and a meal without ugali. However, it was an invaluable experience that allowed us a realistic view of how the Maasai live today.

For a little background on the Maasai, they are an ethnic group of roughly 1.6 million people, split between Tanzania and Kenya. Historically, they are solely pastoralist. However, due to loss of land and a globalizing world, many Maasai have recently begun to engage in agriculture. Under colonial rule, they were pushed south giving way for the white settlers who took the best land. Since then, large plots of their land have been conserved for national parks and reserves or sold to other ethnic groups. With little land, the pastoralist lifestyle is extremely difficult. Thus, the shift resulted in a change in their way of life. Historically, they practice polygamy and both male and female circumcision. With the shift of their lifestyles, their cultural practices have also begun to change exemplified by their shift away from female circumcision. Additionally, due to the missionary’s stereotype of the Maasai as intimidating warriors coupled with their nomadic lifestyle, development struggle to reach Maasailand until recent years.


In addition to focusing on and discussing themes such as tourism and culture, we examined the role of our surrounding environment in the context of conservation efforts, local land usage, and relationship between the land and surrounding communities that interact with it on a daily basis. There is no denying that the most exciting component of this focus for many of us was the game drive within Amboseli National Park on the second day, where we encountered the Big 5 and other characters from the Lion King. The 22 of us were divided into four safari vehicles, all of which encountered lion, hippo, elephant, wildebeest, zebra, baboons, impala, gazelle, and various birds. Some of us were even lucky enough to have ‘spotted’ the elusive cheetah (lol get it?) and other rare animals such as an albino wildebeest that even our safari guides had never seen in their extensive careers working within the park.

After our exciting day living the stereotypical life of most tourists that visit East Africa, we hunkered down and talked specifics about the park regarding its role in conservation efforts and within the larger community. Amboseli National Park was initially established as a game reserve under British Colonialism in 1948, later becoming an official national park in 1974 under Kenya’s independent government. The park now stretches across a vast area of about 150 square miles and is one of the nation’s most popular tourist attractions, due in part by its close proximity to the impressive Mt. Kilimanjaro and the near-guarantee of seeing elephants in almost every corner of the park.

While exciting to tourists, such as ourselves, the overwhelming population of elephants (around 1200 in total) within the park exceeds almost three times its carrying capacity, becoming an increasing cause for environmental concern. Considering the sheer immensity of elephants and their strictly herbivorous diets, they become a threat to other animals within the already semi-arid ecosystem by depleting vegetation and therefore resources essential to the survival of many neighboring animals with the same eating habits.

Throughout the rest of the trip we continued our discussion regarding the role of environment by interviewing local community members that have an extensive history of living in the area. We had conversations with local farmers and members of group ranches, asking questions regarding their experiences living so close to the park and the environmental changes they have observed throughout their time in the area. Most farmers did not share the same enthusiasm we had for the inhabitation of many neighboring animals in the area due to the threat they pose to land cultivation. Although the perimeter of Amboseli National Park is lined with electrical fencing to protect humans and animals from each other, elephants are still more than capable of plowing through this protective measure, and crossing the fences with the help of both opposable thumbs and big toes by way of climbing and jumping through trees is child’s play to the agile baboons of the national park. Many of the farmers we spoke to consistently expressed concern and frustration regarding the destruction of cultivation because of the lack of viable solutions to combat the park-dwelling animals storming through their property or eating their crops. When asked what existing solutions they had to the issue they faced on a regular basis, some said they are able to receive help from local game wardens in and around the national park, while others rely on innovative scare tactics such as slingshotting or throwing rocks and torches at the encroaching animals.

Accessibility to water is another environmental concern that many local farmers and pastoralists regularly struggle with, especially during the dry season. Most farmers live upstream along the local river and use unsustainable methods of flood irrigation to water their crops while most pastoralists live downstream and experience insufficient access to water because of the wasteful farming practices upstream. In addition, many in the area are beginning to notice the river becoming increasingly dry because of implemented irrigation systems and the competition for water between the neighboring groups, subsequently causing conflicts between the two.

As much as we enjoyed our time within the scenic and surreal landscape of the Amboseli, it is important to recognize the interactions between the local communities and their surrounding environments, and the ways in which these issues can disrupt the social fabric and livelihoods of the people within the area.

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