Walking With Maison – A Longevity Exclusive
Walking The Earth is a literary expedition that shines a light on people worth helping, and places worth saving. This story comes to us from Kenya where James Cannon Boyce walked with his Maasai friend, Maison through the Naboisho Conservancy. The first six pages of the story is here – and then, if you wish, you can purchase the rest of the story at the end with the proceeds benefitting The Maa Trust.
Walking With Maison
In Africa, I never need an alarm to wake me and I never pull the sheets over my head to stop the day from coming. When the crescendo of the birds in the bush jumps from the chatter of the night to the growing roar in the moments just before the sun, I know what is coming and I want to see it all.
I want to see the sky off to the east get lighter and lighter. I want to see the animals straggle home from a night of hunting, or watch as they wander down to the plain that runs below the camp, towards the reserve. Just yesterday I walked this plain alone and saw the two old buffalo. I was a hundred yards away from them and I had the wind in my favour – and besides, there was a large ditch between me and them. I felt safe, even though they saw me.
Francis, the name they gave him in school (not when he was born in the manyatta at Aitong) – and whom I met when he was dropped off at the corner of the two roads at the top of the plains (so he could walk the 10 miles home from there because the car was going the other way, south to Talek) – was worried about me and the buffalos, until he, too, realised that there was a ditch.
The ditch would have saved me if they had charged, but I was more worried that they would have broken a leg or two. Their grunts and squeals of agony would have brought even the sleepiest of lion out of his afternoon stupor to come and feast. Th e lions would have come down from my right, from Naboisho, and so I would have been between the buffalo and the lion.
Francis agreed, when I shared with him that this was more of a problem than the buffalo. The buffalo would never be able to clear the ditch, but were more than capable of running into it full-speed and injuring themselves.
Francis and I were happy to see the buffalo didn’t move much past raising their heads and watching us. The buffalo never got near the ditch and we had no problem with them, or with lions. The Maasai fear the buffalo more than I, but then again, to be fair, they have known many more people who have been killed by buffalo than I have, or ever will.
Francis and I walked back up the hill to the camp. He borrowed a computer to check Facebook, until the last of the beading ladies was done with their work and he could hang onto the back of the car, catching a ride, and not have to walk home. That was yesterday. Now it is morning again.
Every camp wakes up the same on the plains in Africa. It is just that, in the high-end luxury tents, you don’t hear them pump the water into the five-gallon buckets that have lost their handles. You don’t hear the machete chop the food for the fire under the old black stove that turns the water hot for your shower.
The rattle of the metal pans on the old black stove as the water heats is far too unseemly for guests paying $1 000 a night to hear, so it happens away from your tent. Th e sounds of the pans and the boiling of water happen in the back, by the staff quarters, and near the rooms where everything from spare toilet paper to bottles of wine is locked up after carefully being counted.
In five-star camps, you don’t hear the grunts of the guys who work in the camp as they lift the buckets over their heads and carefully pour the water into the large black tank behind your tent, all so you can have a hot shower. You don’t hear any of that down in the valley, where Encounter Mara or Naboisho Camp lie, or farther to the west, where Branson has his camp.
There, dawn is a more subtle affair, where your house boy gently calls your name before waking you around 5:00am for your game drive: “Your coffee is here, Mr Boyce. We are meeting at the lounge tent in 10 minutes. Dickson will wait for you there.”
Where I am staying now, coffee comes hot and bad, and from Soit, the cook boiling the water in the kitchen. I make it myself in the plunger that I borrowed from Niels, the Danish lion researcher boyfriend of Crystal, who runs The Maa Trust (the best community development project I, and everyone I know, have ever come across).
Here on this hill, on the 150 acres the Trust shares with the Mara Lion project where Niels works, the Mara Cheetah project (whose sole employee is a white woman from Botswana, named Femke, even though her name suggests otherwise), and where the conservancy manager Richard and his girlfriend Lorna (who came and took photos of the beadwork for the website yesterday) live.
Here on this hill, the buzzwords of western development groups turn real. Women’s economic empowerment means that 300 women take turns sitting on the stone porch of the new community outreach centre that is three-quarters built, but one-quarter paid for. Here the idea of a livelihood programme means Crystal carting 800 glass jars from Nairobi that will house the honey from the first bee hives (that the women now own and have placed in the conservatories), in the back of the Land Cruiser she and I drove up in.
“A lot of projects started by putting the hives in the villages, but the men and kids destroyed them,” Crystal had told me, as we bumped along on the almost nine-hour journey from the capital, north, west and then north again to the Mara.
Jonathan interrupts me as I am thinking about the hives and before my coffee water is hot. “Water ready.” He points to the tent and goes to pump water, chop wood, start the fire, heat the water and then lift it with another grunt for the next tent. I remember more of what Crystal had said. “So what we did is we took the hives and put them in the conservancies by the ranger stations, and the women take care of them.”
The honey is not only organic, but from inside the conservancies, the large chunks of protected land north of the Maasai Mara National Reserve that I am here to help as I can, to visit, and to walk through with my Maasai friend Maison, who is a guide, former ranger and tracker.
Kenya is an importer of honey somehow, in a crazy, screwed up, deliciously African sort of way. A place with more than enough land and more than enough flowers and bees and people needing work, and the perfect climate for honey, buys crappy, diluted honey in plastic bottles from I don’t even know where.
China probably sends it by the ton. 74 hives sit in the conservancies, waiting for their first harvest. Crystal now has 795 jars. Five broke when one of the boxes opened as Jonathan was moving it. Crystal was still pleased that so many had made the trip unscathed.
The road had been terrible, and we went slower than usual, due to the six large sheets of wood that we had bought in Narok. We bought the wood at the hardware store that was opened up on Sunday just for us. The sheets of wood had been tied to our roof by a crew of six Maasai men, with cords, old plastic straps and anything else they could find in the store. They worked on it for what seemed liked 30 minutes, as Crystal and I stood amused.
They tied it on well and Crystal gave them a few shillings for their troubles. It was tied well, but we still went slowly, and it was my job to watch and make sure that shifting of the sheets didn’t go from the acceptable to the problematic. The wood is to make furniture for the community centre, and desks for sewing. This is not for chairs for the Maasai women to sit on while they bead, because the women will sit on the floor, or, better yet, when it’s not too hot or too wet, on the grass outside.
“Your water is quite hot now,” the other camp boy tells me, anxious for me to have hot water. More anxious, perhaps, not to have to pump the pump again or chop more wood, just because the muzungu guest of Crystal (whose Maasai name is Nalang’u) is taking too long with his coffee, staring at the hills and not thinking about how hot his water is now, but won’t be soon.
Crystal’s name in Maa is female, so it starts with Na, then lang, which means one who crossed the water. So, she is the woman who crossed the water, and the ’u means towards us, towards the Maasai. It’s been a year since she crossed water that is wider than even the Talek River when it flows in the rainy season. Wider even than the lake in the north of Kenya that some of the Maasai have heard about. I have never met a Maasai who has seen the ocean, though some have, of course. They can only wonder what an ocean looks like.
I am wondering about the lion. I am not quite ready for my shower, but I go. Back home I would linger and look at the sea where I live, and shower when I wanted to. Here I shower when the water is hot, and I don’t want Jonathan to have to chop up another tree and boil another pot of water for me.
The lion started last night in the field off to the right of my tent, three maybe four hundred yards away. He roared, and a lion’s roar is not what Simba does in the Lion King, but more of a loud growl that sputters out slowly. A lion will roar to his friends and the roar sputters out, and that takes so much out of him that, literally, he will collapse and rest as his roar first echoes around. Until his roar is then answered by another lion, down the valley or up the hill, or across the plain, who also roars, and then collapses and waits for the next lion to take his turn.
Sometimes, when I have been down at Encounter Mara in Naboisho, four, five or even six lions will roar down the valley, and the roar then comes right back up to where it came from. The lion outside my tent roared and roared, but not so close that anyone would worry. It was not like a few months ago, when the lions killed the wildebeest right by my tent and everyone had to stay inside for a day or two, because the lions and the hyenas took their time feasting.
The lion outside my tent roared and then moved down the hill, like the buffalo had yesterday. Then he moved down the hill a little more. As he roared through the night, I occasionally sat up and got a bearing, so this morning, when Maison and I go for our walk, I will tell him where I think the lion has ended up. We will still perhaps walk that way, but I want him to know, so when we do, we walk a bit slowly. We know where the wind is, and we will watch the impala in the plains near where I think the lion ended up, to see if they all turn and look towards a certain bush, or tree, or ridge of hill, which might tell us where the lion ended up.
When you are first on safari, you think lions will be hard to see, and they can be hard to spot, their colouring blending into the tall grass and the bushes so well. My daughter and son and I often spot what we call “bush lions” – a bush that just has to be a lion. But when the safari guide stops and turns off the Land Cruiser, and pulls up his binoculars, it is not a lion, but a bush. You always stop, even when you are not sure. Otherwise you drive on without saying a word and you wonder if that was a lion, or a leopard, or, even rarer, a cheetah.
And now you have missed it, because you didn’t want to say a word, and maybe that cheetah was going to hunt, even though it is the middle of the day, and hot. So, you always say something. We stop at rock elephants and tree leopards just as easily as we do at bush lions.
“Did you hear the lion?” Soit asks me, as he boils my water. “Yes. Ended up down the hill, don’t you think, in the end?” He nods yes and rolls his small black hand to show he thinks down and into the plain a bit. “Ecko simba,” I say, smiling, using what little Swahili I know. “There is a lion.” “Ecko simba,” Soit smiles and answers, and then pours the boiling water for me into the borrowed French plunger.
I have also borrowed a towel from Niels. The camp of 20 didn’t have a spare one. I assured them I was happy to use a t-shirt, which I honestly was. I didn’t want them to feel bad, or worry, or wash me one, even if they could find one, which they wouldn’t – they would just take one from someone and pretend it was spare. I wasn’t sure who did the washing, but it was probably the “scholarship” girl, who was maybe 13 years old.
She had been married at 10 or 11, after she had been circumcised. Her husband, who was over 50 years old, beat her. She ran to her parents’ house, but they gave her back to him, because she didn’t belong to them anymore. The next time she ran away at dawn, while he was sleeping. This time she ran to Crystal’s house, where she and Niels live, about 20 miles from the Trust property.
She just wanted to go to school, so Crystal took her in, and now, during the day, while the honey jars get counted and the beads get strung together, she sits in the middle of all of us, working on her schoolwork. There’s no way in hell I am having her do my laundry, or wash a towel for me.
“Ashe sole.” I thank Soit for my water, not in Swahili, but Maa, and this makes him happier. I take the milk out of the fridge – it comes in a plastic bag, which I carefully opened yesterday (my first morning here). I take the sugar, which is kept in a large plastic container and shared by all. I sit down and see if I can see the animals in the plain, and I wait for Maison to show up for our walk. I wonder which way we will head today.
But I need to remember to…..
the rest of the story is available below.
About The Maa Trust
For this story, I stayed with The Maa Trust, in the Olare Motorogi Conservancy in the Mara region of Kenya.
I have also worked with the neighbouring Naboisho Conservancy. Maison is a friend of mine who was a ranger with the Kenya Wildlife Service, and now is an armed safari guide who works with Encounter Mara. He lives in Aitong.
I hope that, if you liked this story, you will consider asking your friends to purchase the rest of it by clicking on the button above. You can also learn more about The Maa Trust here and see everything they are doing (including creating some amazing beadwork – I personally love the belts).
Eco-tourism models like the conservancies only work, of course, if there are tourists. I would encourage you, if you have always had the dream of visiting Africa, to visit Africa and to visit a camp in one of the conservancies. You will have a better safari experience, I promise, and a higher percentage of your money will stay on the ground in Kenya.
You could, of course, share this story and not have another person pay. I, and the women who work at The Maa Trust, will never know. But Crystal and everyone there, some of whom work for $7 a day, well, they deserve our support, so I hope you won’t. Email me with any questions at james@walkingthe. earth.
I’d be happy to make sure, if you want to visit the Mara, that you have a wonderful trip. If you want to stay at Encounter Mara, I can even see if Maison can go for a walk with you. It depends on how busy the camp is, how tall the grass is and which way the lions roamed the previous night.