My stay at the Maji Motto Eco Lodge was the first experience on my Kenya trip (arrival clip). Sankale Ntutu, a Maasai Chief, and respected leader and elder in his community created the lodge and business. Maji Motto is not a retreat for the person who needs modern day comforts 24/7. You are completely disconnected from the world, so to speak. The trade-off for me was being in the African wilderness for two nights and experiencing my first safari with three good friends.
Those who have been on or tried to book a safari know that it’s not cheap at all, and can run a few thousands. Generally speaking, the lodges are situated in or near the game park where the animals are not held in captivity, but rather where they are frequently seen as you are literally staying in their natural habitat. The lodge is built to accommodate the traveler who doesn’t mind spending money on a once in a life time experience of being up close to see the famed animals of Africa. This was a thing of the rich in the past. Like many British royals, Queen Elizabeth was documented in 1952 in Kenya experiencing an elaborate safari during her tour of the Empire. That legacy is the root of the 3 top issues I observed with researching a lodge:
Some lodges don’t benefit local communities or schools, nor do they try to empower the locals outside of employing a few of them.
They’re overpriced and offer the wealthy an opulent voyeurism experience voided of meaningful cultural contact.
Despite appearances, some lodges are not on the natural game reserve and operate with animals born in captivity or nurtured by humans (hence the epic pic of your friend petting a lion).
Even when I found a lodge that benefitted a local community, a native didn’t own it, and thus it stayed in the ownership of someone who came to Kenya and benefitted from creating a business that used the resources of the region and sustained a family abroad. I was specifically clear with my friends that this was not the experience I wanted in going to a lodge. Paying thousands of dollars wouldn’t have worked for me either. Price is another reason why Maji Motto stood out. For a fraction of the cost required by other lodges, Maji Motto offers lodging, amenities and a sustainable safari experience. You get to spend time amongst the Maasai people with the reassurance that your money goes directly to maintaining the community’s school and pharmacy.
The idea of running an eco-lodge came to Sankale in 2012 after he had worked as a tour guide for some years and realized the money that was profited by his employers was not coming back to his community and people. He created Maji Motto with the help of a company called Eyes on Africa and manages it with students he hand-picked from the local school when they graduated.
An example of the hand picking of individuals can be seen in the chef at the camp named Cylas. Sankale invested in his abilities and paid for his formal training as a chef so that he could work at the lodge.
The other young men at the lodge are there because of their interest in maintaining Maasai values and morals and for their respect of nature. According to Sankale, each Maasai is brought up in a traditional role. Some are trained to be herbalist, like Nkurumwa, who took us on our nature walk on the first day we arrived. He knew what each plant in the Maasai Mara was good for and how it could help the sick. He shared that he walked four days from Kenya to Tanzania, crossing at an unguarded part of the border to bring his cows to graze as the pressing drought in Kenya made it necessary to move his livestock. He was, as Sankale explained, keenly interested in nature and the morals of the Maasai so much that he was handpicked to be his successor of running the lodge.
Our first night at the lodge was something out of a novel. We watched an African sunset in Kenya. The lodge is situated on a cliff overlooking the Greater Maasai Mara (A Large Ecosystem) and the dinning room and common area though sheltered with an awning is exposed enough to still see the surrounding area. This made me feel less inside and more outside.
That night we had a welcome dinner; a simple meal of pasta with fresh fruits and juice and grilled goat meat. Before we went to bed we partook in a campfire and talked about life and our journeys with Sankale and the other men.
We showered that night with water from the natural hot springs brought up by the tribesmen at the camp. The night brings in chilled air and with all the bathroom amenities exposed to the elements you have to accept that you are roughing it and you picture every time you complained about something at home that made you feel less comfortable and make a mental note to stop it! The toilet is a pit toilet in an enclosed mud hut with a curtain. The view from the toilet definitely makes up for the discomfort of taking a dump on the side of a mountain.
The next morning we got up at the crack of dawn to go on our safari with our guide and driver Maxwell. He has been giving tours for many years and as an experienced guide and driver we were very comfortable with him. Max kept us in line as to being on time to see the sunrise and it’s worth the trek to Kenya’s wilderness. The safari in itself was an experience I had only dreamt of as a child. Unlike the big five game parks in South Africa, the animals in the Maasai Mara are truly wild. They are not born or nurtured in anyway as they hunt and kill in their natural state. You cannot pet them, or feed them like in zoos back home. You watch them from a distance and you take in the most natural scenes of African wildlife.
We had lunch on the border of Kenya and Tazania. Max arranged it so that the rangers allowed us to pass the crossing to have lunch in “no-mans land.” An area not owned by either country; a place where the Maasai Mara ends and the Serengeti begins, a place where with one jump you are now in another African country. Lunch was simple, Cylas woke before us to prepare our packed lunch and after being on safari since early this morning we had worked up an appetite.
We gave our left over food to the rangers who have to travel a ways to the nearest town to restock supplies and continued our safari. We saw mostly everything you could think you’d want to see on a safari in Africa, but I was most happy to see my first African elephant.
When we finished our safari, we returned home for an evening near the hot springs below the camp and finally saw the community Sankale had assumed leadership over. The men were washing themselves in a pool of water and the women were washing clothes further up near the outlet of where the water comes up from underground. The women’s eyes were on the children bathing near them. The animals had their own spot too, at the outlet where the water drains. The whole seen was harmonious and beautiful. We returned to camp and had our final dinner and campfire and showered and went to bed.
The next morning, the men performed the warrior training and the traditional dancing which I took part in and learnt a few tricks for the battlefield and dance floor. It was a great finale to the perfect two days of retreat and reprieve from the Internet, texting, and phone calls. I truly learned that I need more days of being less connected to the world in that way.
One of the most memorable moments on the trip came towards the end of it. Sankale standing in a grocery store was surrounded by school children gawking at him. He dresses in his traditional attire everyday, with spear in sheath, even when he goes to town to restock on supplies. He never changes into modern clothes, he says, its his birthright to walk as he is. The kids are curious because, “They know I am a chief. You do not see men walking around with spears and not being stopped by the police. I only come to this town to do some shopping and I return to Maji Motto afterwards. I am not interested in all of this,” he says. “I choose the path of the traditional ways because of my father. He begged the Italian Priest not to educate me in their ways,” he shared. That signaled why the intrigue of the children had to be explained by Sankale. He truly did represent a tribal community and that is something truly special.
I left Maji Motto grateful for what I had seen and learned with my friends Kenyatta, Marlynne, and Sonya and we embarked on the other leg of our trip by heading back to Nairobi to grab our flight to Mombasa, Kenya.