Written by Max McGrath
Last year after finishing high school, I spent about a year living, working, and traveling around East Africa. Through Elevate Destinations, I discovered the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust (MWCT). The trust is located in the Chyulu Hills of southeastern Kenya and primarily functions as an NGO built to protect that ecosystem while working with the Maasai, making them active stewards of their land.
In 2000, Luca Belpietro and Antonella Bonomi created this community-rooted non-profit organization to focus on conservation, give educational support to 26 schools, and employ the only doctor in the area – all to support the Maasai people. Luca took his very first safari at age 11 where he and his family visited this village. Later in life, he returned to live, work, and engage with the Maasai community before starting the organization.
The program has many initiatives; while I was there, the topics of birth control, overgrazing, and human-wildlife conflict were particularly prominent. No two days were the same for me.
Each morning I would make my way to the mess tent, attempting to avoid the semi-tame Kudu that had a fondness for head butting hapless interns. After breakfast, it was time to visit remote communities as part of a health outreach, investigate claims of livestock predation, or complete office work.
During my stay at MWCT, a highlight was going on outreaches to tiny hamlets, bumping over red roads to reach churches hushed and baking inside, the sun like an anvil on the tin roofs. Muterian and I would set up our projector, screen, and computer, then wait as groups of Maasai wandered through the doorway to then take a seat in the pews, their shukas stirring up the golden dust on the ground. By the time I reached MWCT, my Swahili had become fluent. Each time I introduced myself, it was to the surprise and amusement of the crowd. A mzungu speaking Swahili!
We presented on health and birth control, family planning, and advertised an opportunity to run in the New York Marathon as part of a yearly fundraiser. We urged the young warriors, the Morans, not to retaliate and kill lions that ate their cattle by explaining the importance of the area’s wildlife.
I felt that people were receptive to these ideas, however emphasizing the importance of family planning was a little more of a challenge as having many children is traditional. The concept that the population in Kenya and the rest of the world is progressively growing is a difficult abstraction to grasp. Change is promising; many of the Maasai my age have up to eleven siblings, though would prefer only to have two or three children themselves. Money is a leading motivator for this mindset. Those with smaller families spend less and save money, while others with larger broods seem to be perennially broke.
After the presentation, there was always time to mill around and talk. I would leave having made at least five new friends who would curiously ask similar questions about my life and the United States. How is life there? Are you very rich? What are you doing in Kenya? Where is your wife?
Then on the long drives back to camp, I admired the fading sun which disappeared behind the Chyulu Hills, illuminating Kilimanjaro’s dwindling snows.
My experience at MWCT was fascinating. I left with a heightened appreciation of how delicate and interconnected an ecosystem can be, and how humans are a part of that with a responsibility to care for their varied and disparate environments. I was impressed by how MWCT manages to act as an intermediary between the best of globalization, its medicine, and ideas about conservation. The Maasai have a treasure trove of knowledge about their home and the best ways to protect it.
In a continent increasingly fraught by violence, cultural clashes, ecological destruction, and the existential threat of climate change, it gives one hope to see such discernible progress being made by an NGO. Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust provides a model of sustainability that is applicable to the rest of Africa.
Have a read of more traveler stories here.