In a valley in the communal Masai land on the north side of the Masai Mara, Saigilu Ole "Jackson" Looseyia gets a whiff of familiar territory and heads up the hillside. It's not long before he finds what he's looking for, a ledge under an overhang where rocks have been arranged in a campfire circle. "This is where my father brought me seventeen years ago on a four-month hunting trip," he announces. He turns over a flat stone to show the underside, stained from crushing seeds for poisonous arrowheads. Then he looks down the valley. "Fantastic—you can see the animals you're hunting," he says.
During that trip Jackson's father passed on what he'd learned as a member of the Ndorobo, an aboriginal, nomadic tribe that has been virtually assimilated into Masai society over time. Jackson proudly wears the bright orange-and-red tartan shuka of the Masai, but he doesn't share their lean bone structure. He's a tall, somewhat baby-faced man in his mid thirties who has become famous in Kenyan safari circles for his ability to bridge tribal and tourist cultures. "I've had to learn about Western culture," says Jackson, "but I love traditional life."
It's one thing to ride around in a Land Rover with a rifle-toting driver; quite another to set out on foot in buffalo-lion-elephant country accompanied by men armed only with spears, clubs, bows, and arrows. It's one thing to retire after a full-course supper to the comforts of a bed in your own tent; quite another to witness the killing, skinning, gutting, and grilling of a lamb, then spend the night on a cowhide-covered pallet surrounded by livestock in a Masai boma, with predatory hyenas just outside. Jackson can guide you either way.
Jackson's father, a recidivist poacher, was hired as a ranger for the game department in South Masai land and later recruited as a tracker for Ron Beaton, a professional hunter who opened an eco-lodge called Rekero in the mid 1980's. (Rekero consists of four cottages on a water hole in the hills and a mobile tented camp currently located in the Masai Mara Game Reserve.) One day Beaton brought guests to the Looseyia household, and Jackson so impressed them with his stories of local life, delivered in halting English, that Beaton decided to take him on as a game spotter. Jackson's English improved, he learned the Latin and common names of local plants, he studied some anthropology, and in 1995 he was promoted to senior guide. He later became a 20-percent partner in Rekero, which he co-manages with Beaton's 28-year-old son, Gerard.
Jackson is keenly aware that, for the most part, the Masai have suffered from discrimination and lack of opportunity. Five years ago he started a scholarship program for Masai girls and became head guide at Olonana Cultural Center, where tourists can learn about tribal customs. He's also helping the Beatons launch a school to train local guides. "The more guides who are Masai, the better the Mara," says Jackson. All the Rekero guides are members of the tribe.
"Old-school Caucasian guides in Africa ran a good show in the past, but young tourists from the U.S. want insight into the new Africans," says Ron Beaton. "The future of the country is people like Jackson."
WHERE: Rekero, Kenya
YEARS IN THE BUSH: 30-plus
FAVORITE ANIMAL: "Giraffes—and they're also delicious."
MOTTO: "Some people say the Masai shouldn't wear traditional clothes. But what's so good about trousers?"