• Safaris

Redefining the Luxury Safari Lodge

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Sarah Gold

A Kenyan luxury safari lodge has forever changed the traditional relationship with its Masai landowners—and the experience for its visitors.

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Game scouting with Issa at the wheel feels a little like riding with a brand-new stick-shift driver: there are a lot of abrupt lurches and shuddering stops. It takes a while before I figure out that Issa, who is piloting the car forward but craning his heavily beaded neck out the side window, is tracking. When he sees something—the cloven hoofprint of a giraffe, a kudu-shaped depression in the dirt, a freshly laid turd—the jeep bucks to a halt. Once he’s assessed the situation, off we go again in herky-jerky pursuit.

I’ve grown fond of Issa over the past couple days. Yesterday, he’d taken a group of guests to visit a local Masai village, which included a look into the homes of Shompole’s part owners. I had ducked through the baked-mud doorway of a hut and into thick, smoky darkness, lit only by embers of the hut’s fire pit. Encouraged to sit on the occupants’ bed (a straw pallet covered in cowhides), I had listened as Issa pointed out where everyone—including the goats—slept.

Earlier this morning, he’d accompanied another group of us on a bush walk, along a dry riverbed shaded by fig trees. On the way, he’d imparted traditional bush medicine tips—how certain brewed plants could treat dysentery; how the pulverized bark from a particular tree drew poison from a snakebite. But he’d also talked at length about his own personal life: about his one wife and two girlfriends (Masai men are polygamous); about what men in his village bartered in order to marry (cows, blankets, and, in his own case, a jug of home-brewed liquor). Most unsettlingly, he’d spoken about how Masai women (or “mamas”) are customarily treated as beasts of burden.

“Our women, they have no rights,” Issa had said, a little sheepishly. “They build our houses, raise our children, fetch wood and water. But they make no decisions. That is for the men.

“This is changing,” he’d said. “But it will take a long time, because it is in our culture.”

Redefining the Luxury Safari Lodge

Game scouting with Issa at the wheel feels a little like riding with a brand-new stick-shift driver: there are a lot of abrupt lurches and shuddering stops. It takes a while before I figure out that Issa, who is piloting the car forward but craning his heavily beaded neck out the side window, is tracking. When he sees something—the cloven hoofprint of a giraffe, a kudu-shaped depression in the dirt, a freshly laid turd—the jeep bucks to a halt. Once he’s assessed the situation, off we go again in herky-jerky pursuit.

I’ve grown fond of Issa over the past couple days. Yesterday, he’d taken a group of guests to visit a local Masai village, which included a look into the homes of Shompole’s part owners. I had ducked through the baked-mud doorway of a hut and into thick, smoky darkness, lit only by embers of the hut’s fire pit. Encouraged to sit on the occupants’ bed (a straw pallet covered in cowhides), I had listened as Issa pointed out where everyone—including the goats—slept.

Earlier this morning, he’d accompanied another group of us on a bush walk, along a dry riverbed shaded by fig trees. On the way, he’d imparted traditional bush medicine tips—how certain brewed plants could treat dysentery; how the pulverized bark from a particular tree drew poison from a snakebite. But he’d also talked at length about his own personal life: about his one wife and two girlfriends (Masai men are polygamous); about what men in his village bartered in order to marry (cows, blankets, and, in his own case, a jug of home-brewed liquor). Most unsettlingly, he’d spoken about how Masai women (or “mamas”) are customarily treated as beasts of burden.

“Our women, they have no rights,” Issa had said, a little sheepishly. “They build our houses, raise our children, fetch wood and water. But they make no decisions. That is for the men.

“This is changing,” he’d said. “But it will take a long time, because it is in our culture.”

Sarah Gold
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