In East Africa, native tour guides have formed an organization that is transforming the future of African wildlife and Kenyan safari travel. Maasailand is the heart of a billion-dollar tourism industry on which the Kenyan government relies and which directly employs over 100,000 people a year. The Maasai Mara Game Reserve alone hosts one-fifth of all tourist visits to the country. The Maasai people are the keepers of this wildlife-rich land, where elephants graze and the annual wildebeest migration covers the landscape. Maasai know this land through centuries of coexistence and protection of wildlife. They know where to find a napping lion and her cubs or to avoid disturbing birds nesting in the tall grass.
Maasai people want jobs in tourism that enable them to earn school fees for their children. Yet Maasai people hold only a small percentage of jobs as hotel maids, waiters and groundskeepers. There are thousands of tour guides and drivers in Kenya serving nearly 1 million tourists annually, yet less than 100 are Maasai. One reason is the lack of general education in Maasailand, where over 90 percent of the rural population is illiterate. Access to training and certification is also a problem, as most opportunities are expensive and located far away in central Kenya.
But things are changing. The 100 Maasai tour guides have organized to promote their vision of economic self-sufficiency for Maasai communities, cultural survival and wildlife conservation by expanding their presence in tourism. They promise to show tourists what it’s like to travel with the locals.
Their organization, the Mara Guides Association (MGA), is a project of an international NGO, MERC (Institute for Maasai Education, Research and Conservation). MGA members are proud to be Maasai — you can find them guiding in traditional robes and beads. They are advocates of cultural survival and the rich Maasai way of life that promotes equality between humans and animals. MERC offers an annual training and certification program for guides free of charge, enabling some of the most traditional people in the community to find their place in tourism.
But the MGA isn’t just about bringing economic empowerment to disadvantaged communities and cultural survival; the MGA’s membership also acts as the protectors of the Maasai Mara. After all, the Mara is their homeland. MGA guides have taken a stance against poaching, off-road driving and the degradation of wildlife habitat there. They call themselves the custodians of a global heritage and are using conservation, community-based tourism models and their vibrant culture to share a more authentic safari experience with clients from around the world.
Women’s economic enterprises and beading co-operatives as well as cultural villages will also benefit from local guides who want to share opportunity amongst vulnerable populations in their community. Since the MGA launch in July 2016, socially responsible tour companies and lodges working in the Mara have been excited to receive an MGA stamp of approval, which recognizes their support of Maasai cultural survival.
Should you travel to Kenya, consider a visit to the world-renowned Maasai Mara and the Maasai community with the people who know it best. You would also be helping to promote their cultural survival and the conservation of African wildlife.
More information about safaris can be found at maraguides.org.
John Hoffmire is director of the Impact Bond Fund at Saïd Business School at Oxford University and directs the Center on Business and Poverty at UW-Madison. He runs Progress Through Business, a nonprofit group promoting economic development. Craig Wilson, Hoffmire’s colleague at Progress Through Business, did the research for this article.