Maji Moto Cultural Camp, Kenya


Traditional beaded jewelry adorned a tree outside our hut

Traditional beaded jewelry adorned a tree outside our hut

“Sopa!” (traditional greeting in the Maasai language) This may be one of the most difficult posts to write, because our two days at this Maasai cultural camp were so incredible it is hard to put it all into words. Apologies in advance for the ridiculous length of this post. We just couldn’t help ourselves.

Maji Moto Cultural Camp, located near the town of Narok in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley, is an authentic and meaningful example of “cultural tourism” that we first learned about from a small article in an August issue of the New York Times.  Run by a Maasai warrior Chief named Salaton Ole Ntutu, the camp offers visitors a unique and intimate window into the world of the Maasai people.  We spent our days walking the hills with  Maasai warriors, learning about village life, making beaded jewelry with Maasai women, visiting a local primary school for vulnerable Maasai children, and practicing our skills during “warrior training” (major highlight).  Our nights were spent singing Maasai songs around the campfire, hearing the warriors’ stories about wrestling leopards and lions to protect their cows, bathing in the nearby hot springs (“Maji Moto” literally translates as “hot water”), and sleeping in traditional mud huts or “manyattas” (with a few Western perks such as beds with mosquito nets and mattresses made from something other than the cowhide strips that the local Maasai sleep on).  Here is the website for anyone who is interested in learning more: www.majimotomaasaicamp.com

Our journey to Maji Moto was a bumpy, 4-hour adventure, with a breathtaking drop down into the Great Rift Valley which runs from north to south throughout Kenya and is lined with volcanoes, lakes, and generally fabulous landscape.

View of the Great Rift Valley below us

View of the Great Rift Valley below us

Upon arrival at the camp, we were greeted by Salaton whose warm smile and effusiveness were the perfect welcome after a long morning in the car.

Salaton Ole Ntutu

Salaton Ole Ntutu

We then met the additional staff at Maji Moto, who became our family for the duration of our stay (and treated us as such). We were the only clients at the camp, and they catered to our every need throughout the days and nights. They were truly incredible! 

With our Maasai hosts

With our Maasai hosts

Each one of us was promptly wrapped in a traditional Maasai “shuka” which is like a lightweight blanket that serves many purposes for these people.  It warms you in the cool evenings and mornings, protects you from the elements during the day, makes for a great picnic blanket or ground cover, and is used to carry things (firewood, water jugs, babies, etc.).

Salaton helps Thayer with her Shuka

Salaton helps Thayer with her Shuka

Then we watched the Maasai warriors practice their high jumping.  Men who jump the highest get the most girlfriends.  This made us laugh!  All you boys at home, start practicing!

Maasai traditional jumping, to get the ladies

Maasai traditional jumping, to get the ladies

Here is a video of the welcome we received…. 

Then we were shown around the camp, which is a small cluster of three manyattas and an open-air hut serving as the kitchen. 

Thayer outside our hut

Thayer outside our manyatta

Inside the manyatta

Inside the manyatta

Dining room table

Dining room table

Hand washing station

Hand washing station

With no running water, the girls had to adjust to an outhouse and while there was a shower (a tank in a tree filled by local Maasai women with water lugged from the hot spring upon request), the girls decided to skip out on bathing altogether.  Here is what Schuyler wrote in her journal about the toilet (note the flair for drama, please… Blair found it quite comfortable actually): 

“The only bathroom in the camp reeks like you have never smelled before. To make matters worse, flies swarm the bathroom in the hot afternoons and they fly up into your butt while you go to the bathroom! It all has a very uncomfortable feeling to it.”

Really, it wasn’t that bad (yes, the part about the flies is sort of accurate). 

Thayer: I didn’t like the smell of the toilet. It was really stinky and there were a lot of flies but then I got used to it. It became an adventure!

Enkare Lepa School

Our first activity was to visit the new Enkare Lepa school, which grants scholarships to the most vulnerable Maasai youth in the region, and also serves as a boarding school for girls who have fled early marriages (ages 12 and up) and/or the harmful yet still common practice of female circumcision.  Started by Salaton and a Maasai woman named Helen Nkuraiya, this is the only school in Kenya where students are allowed to dress in their traditional Maasai clothing three days a week, and wear the government uniforms on the other two days.  The school’s goal is to combine formal education (very unusual for Maasai people) with a focus on retaining and continuing tribal culture.  We were all so impressed with the joyful students and teachers.  Students regaled us with performances (singing, poetry, games) and we also received a tour of the dormitory for the students who board. The afternoon visit was without question a major highlight of our entire trip so far.

Schuyler:  The school was definatly one of the greatest things we did while we were in Maji moto. The children were so friendly! They shook our hands, listened to our watches tick as if they were some alien creation, played with our hair, sang songs, and danced for us. Occasionly Zoe, Thayer, and I joined in on their performances. We even sang an English song called “Five Little Muffins” that Thayer learned in school. It was such an amazing experience. We were like celebrities! I met a girl named Seleya and we became really good friends. I even went to visit her in her village!

Thayer: At first I was a little overwhelmed at the school because the children were circling all around me and it was a little bit uncomfortable until I got used to it. They sang songs and we sang songs back! They were SO nice. They played with my hair a lot and I understood why.  They had never met a five year old girl who is white like me before. 

Greeting each other

Greeting each other

Thayer and her new friends

Thayer and her new friends

We taught the students some songs of our own!

We taught the students some songs of our own!

Zoe feels an ostrich egg

Zoe feels an ostrich egg

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Schuyler with some curious new friends

Jeff goofing around in school (surprise)

Jeff goofing around in school (surprise)

Zoe is ready to enroll!

Zoe is ready to enroll!

Zoe:  When I first walked through the gates of the school I was surprised to see all the children eagerly waiting for us outside their classroom, laughing and shrieking with excitement.  I soon learned that they had never had such young “mizungu” or white children visit before.  They all wanted to touch us and shake our hands, and especially feel our hair!  I thought they would be more shy, but they were so outgoing and kind. It felt amazing to be there!

Here is a brief video clip as well 

Toward the end of our time at the school, we explored the dorm for young girls who have been rescued from early marriage and other difficult situations and who are now in school.  They each have a bed and a small trunk for all of their belongings. 

Girls' dormitory room

Girls’ dormitory room

Thayer explores the grounds of the school

Thayer explores the grounds of the school

We should note that the motto for this school is: “Don’t exchange girls for cows. Give them Education.” In Maasai culture, cows are currency.  A person is wealthy when he/she has a lot of cows.  When a girl is married, her father receives cows from the husband’s family in exchange for his daughter.  Therefore, daughters equal a source of income for families and are often married off at very young ages for this reason. Salaton and Helen are trying, through this school and educating their community, to put an end to this practice and allow girls to go to get an education and marry later. Their mission is both inspirational and progressive for this very embedded cultural norm.  

School Motto

School Motto

When it was time to say goodbye, all of the students gathered outside to sing us a farewell song and say a community prayer.  It was a very special moment. 

School prayer

School prayer

Thayer joins in the farewell song

Thayer joins in the farewell song

Then it was time to go home, and we all walked together out the school gates. The children travel on foot each way to school from their villages, which are really just small clusters of manyattas spread throughout the region.  

Zoe:  As we walked with the kids it felt like a big Maasai carpool!  The children would sort of peel off from the group as they approached a turn in the dirt path that would lead them home.  We walked all the way back to our camp this way, chatting and giggling with our very excited new friends. We had to cross the hot springs which were so HOT for our sensitive feet! On the way back we sang songs and taught some of the kids how to skip. Everybody wanted to hold my hand and sometimes it was hard to manage all of their excitement! 

Zoe manages all of her new friends

Zoe manages all of her new friends

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Maasai carpool

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Salaton, Thayer, and her new pals

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Crossing the hot springs – ouch!

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Hitching a ride

Thayer and her friend spot monkeys!

Thayer and her friend spot monkeys!

Going in for a closer look at the monkeys

Going in for a closer look at the monkeys

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Schuyler and friends wave goodbye

The Widow’s Village

Another project that this cultural camp supports is a “Widow’s Village” just up the path from our manyattas. Salaton was encouraged by his mother to create a communal home for the many widows in the area.  Maasai men traditionally have multiple wives, and the women commonly outlive the men, a combination that results in a high number of widows among the tribes. Widows, even those as young as 13 or  14, are forbidden to marry again, and have to do all the work of both the husband and wife for the rest of their lives.  The widow’s village provides protection, support, and community for these women and their livestock. It’s an amazing concept actually, and Salaton (along with Helen) is forming another similar village due to the great success of this one.  

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View of the village from above

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Outside the widow’s huts

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We are greeted by some of the widows

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Joining in a traditional welcome dance

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The women make jewelry and sell it to sustain themselves

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Zoe gets help making a bracelet

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Schuyler working with a young widow

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Everyone had fun with the beads

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Zoe bought some of this widow’s handiwork for her classroom back home

Schuyler enjoying the company of the widows

Schuyler enjoying the company of the widows

We also got to play with the children living in the widow’s village.  The girls enjoyed their time with the kids so much, they went back two more times before we left and spent time in the village. It was incredible to see how children will bond and play with each other regardless of vast cultural differences and the language barrier.  There is some universal language of youth that shines through, and Jeff and I were in awe of how quickly the girls integrated themselves into the Maasai culture.

Schuyler: My new friend with whom I walked home lived in this village and I was so exited to see her! Thayer’s friend also lived with Seleya and we played jump rope with the rope we made in Bergen, Holland. Since the children dont have a lot of toys, they pass their time making fairy manyattas! We brought some coloring books and marker to the village and introduced the children to coloring, which amazed everyone.  We were glad to leave the markers and books behind, and the kids were thrilled.  My friend Seleya is the one jumping in the photo below —  isn’t she good?

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Jumping rope after school

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Zoe makes a very young friend

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Thayer finds a makeshift balance beam and shows off her skills

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And her friend takes a turn as well!

Thayer:  I had so much fun on the balance beam! I considered staying in the village because I loved the balance beam so much. But I was too tempted to go to the hot springs for a moonlight bath, so I left with my sisters. 

Walking the hills

Another activity we did at Maji Moto was to walk in the Loita Hills with the warriors.  We learned a lot about local plants used for medicine or as poison, and we practiced throwing mini spears that the warriors made for us out of wood (while the warriors threw their real spears).  It was a hot day but we had so much fun roaming and climbing with our guides, we barely noticed. 

Thayer follows warrior Quela through the bush

Thayer follows warrior Quela through the bush

Examining an underground nest for a bird

Examining an underground nest for a bird

Salaton sharpening his machete. Can you see the "fairy manyattas" underneath, made by the children?

Salaton sharpening his machete

Jeff getting a lesson on spear throwing

Jeff getting a lesson on spear throwing

And there he goes!

And there he goes!

On top of the world!

On top of the world!

Quela being silly

Quela being silly

Zoe being silly!

Zoe being silly!

Schuyler using the traditional Maasai toothbrush (a twig)

Schuyler using the traditional Maasai toothbrush (a twig)

Warriors chanting together

Warriors chanting together

Little climbers

Little climbers

A video clip of warrior singing and grunting (grunting, shrieking, and snorting seem to be very important for Maasai warriors)

Warrior Training

Blair:  Ok, well this was yet another highlight of our stay.  Clearly, this activity is normally for adults (our three girls were the the youngest clients the camp had seen).  Whereas I thought we would be getting instruction from the warriors about proper fighting tactics and spear throwing technique, it turns out that “warrior training” is actually a Maasai version of wild and crazy dodgeball, using sticks made from some kind of green plant that everyone whips at each other as hard as possible.  Within 30 seconds of watching this unfold, I realized that I was witnessing something that would never be allowed to take place in the States, which made it refreshingly hilarious (and gave me heart palpitations while I hid behind my camera shouting helpful phrases like “WATCH OUT!” and “DON’T HIT THE 5 YR. OLD!” and “DUCK!”). The girls were shrieking with excitement and adrenaline while dodging sticks being hurled at them full force by their opponents.  It was interesting for me to notice that it took them all of 30 seconds to forget 10 years worth of my lecturing about how throwing sticks at other people is dangerous, inappropriate, and altogether unacceptable behavior.  It took Jeff all of 5 seconds to get into the game, and as his competitive streak shone through, he let go of any and all potential concern for the safety of his children and let the sticks fly. The Maasai warriors were all in hysterics as the game played out. I will reluctantly admit  (now that my kids came through it unscathed) that it was just about the most thrilling 5 minutes of our trip so far. 

Schuyler: Warrior training was soooooo exciting! I guess the part that was fun for me was that we had a lot of freedom to be crazy and wild, as opposed to games in the U.S. where the goal is safety and structure.  The only instructions they gave us were to split into two teams and then try and throw sticks as hard as you can at the other team, aiming to hurt them apparently.  Before we knew what was happening, these Maasai started hurling sticks at us!  Luckily, we had shields and we soon got into the thrill of the game and went wild. 

Warrior training in action, Team Schuyler

Warrior training in action, Team Schuyler

Just try and penetrate this shield... Team Zoe and Thayer (and Rose)

Just try and penetrate this shield… Team Zoe and Thayer (and Rose)

Dynamic duo

Dynamic duo

Direct hit!

Direct hit!

Bravest warrior?

Bravest warrior?

When peace was declared, we did a group celebratory dance

When peace was declared, we did a group celebratory dance

Thayer:  I had SO much fun during warrior training. Although Zoe left me without protection one time because I was hiding behind her shield from the sticks and she ran away.  I felt a little nervous when I was alone.  Then I found her again and it was more fun. 

Zoe: I really really really loved warrior training. It was just my speed.  Wild and crazy!  We were cracking up.  I hope we go back to Maji Moto so I can do it again!

One last humorous tidbit…

Jeff went for a jog in the hills, and Salaton insisted on sending a warrior with him as a guide (and protector from the wilderness).  The warrior who joined Jeff found all of this quite hilarious, and loped through the hills with Jeff panting behind, suffering a bit from the altitude and wishing he had a Kenyan runner’s body.  

The runners come home

The runners come home

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Two different versions of running shoes

Well, if you made it this far in this post, we are duly impressed.  Ashe O Ling O Ling O Ling O Ling O Ling! (thank you very very very very much!)

We now move from the arid lands of Maji Moto to the lush, green landscape of Lake Naivasha’s Sanctuary Farm for two days of up close and personal wildlife viewing. We’ll get the post up as soon as we can!  

Bye for now! We leave you with a few more pics…

Pickle, Blair, and their good friend, Quela

Pickle, Blair, and their good friend, Quela

Colorful Kenyan insect

Colorful Kenyan insect

Maasai landscape

Maasai landscape

Categories: AFRICA, Maji Moto Cultural Camp, Kenya

10 comments

  1. Oh OMG!!! i just can’t believe this.. I feel like I am looking at National Geographic it is just the most exciting photos.. Love Love it!!!
    Miss you and love you guys.
    JOJO

  2. We do that same “warriors”-training in the Netherlands, but we call it ‘Farmers Training’ and we try to hit the opponents with small a Gouda Cheese and raw eggs ! So sorry we didn’t train when you were in Bergen ! Especially Blair would have loved it. It’s poulair with AZ-hooligans as well…

  3. Reading your blogs bring tears to me eyes. I can’t believe you are experiences so many amazing things. Schuyler, Zoe and Thayer, keep the blogs coming. I love reading what you have to say. It makes me feel like you are near!!!!!! l Love and miss you all.
    auntie Heather

  4. Just so you know, some of us new yorkers grew up with warrior training also – or at least I think that’s what my siblings would call it. Ashe O Ling O Ling O Ling O Ling O Ling! (thank you very very very very much!) for a great vicarious visit to an amazing people and place.

  5. It is so fantastic to read about your adventures. What an education for you all! I love reading the girls’ comments as well.

  6. Once again, a stunning post. I love not only the photos and the actual entries, but the way you have managed to convey in words so much emotion and appreciation for the experience you are all having as a family. This is an incredible piece of work, all of it.
    Love to all,
    Santa

  7. This is incredible to witness! All of it! It is so amazing to see the warmth and connection that you all experienced!

  8. my favorite post so far! I’m on a Demers Blog marathon 🙂

  9. I love traveling with you all!

  10. What an amazing post–it made me cry. I love seeing the joy in the Maasai children and the genuine receptiveness of the Demers girls. The photos and text are pure in color and emotion and truly capture each heartfelt moment. I was so touched by many of the photos– Maasai school prayer, Schuyler and the widow, Zoe with her beaded gifts and new little friend, Thayer exploring the school and spotting the monkeys, and Jeff carrying the little boy. The singing, beading,hiking and warrior training were all fabulous and the videos brought it all to life–thank you, thank you, ashe o ling. How will the girls ever go back into a traditional classroom? You have given them the best–the journey is the reward.

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