Tea with the Maasai

Kenya! The Masai Mara where seasons are slotted around the “short rains” and “long rains” and “the migration.”  We gazed down at a raft of hippo as the Cessna banked across the Mara River and an elephant herd moved out of the forest as we levelled off for the  Kichwa Tembo landing strip and our visit to andBeyond’s Bateleur Camp. A Masaai guard of  honour, in full warrior regalia, lined up as a reception committee, spears raised and red shukas in stark contrast to the endless green. The engine cut and the Masaai stomped their feet and their voices rose into the cloudless blue sky and a journey of fifteen giraffe watched this all beneath ridiculously long eyelashes. How fitting that the Masaai should meet us in the middle of no-where in the Mara.



One day we were invited to have tea with the Masaai. (When referring to the people the spelling is double a.)  Tea is a misnomer. We wound up the escarpment which sweeps along the southern aspect of the mighty Masai Mara forming a natural boundary for this world renown wildlife preserve,  home to staggeringly large herds of buffalo, pride of lion that number in excess of twenty and hyena clans that top the hundred. During the great migration this Kenyan landscape is eclipsed by wildebeest in their thousands as they move across from the Serengeti, following the sweet green grass in a primal spectacle that attracts thousands of tourists annually



Our guide, Joseph Ole (son of) Kima, aka Kima named so as not to confuse him with any of the other 40 or so Josephs who work at that extraordinary lodge,  was taking us to meet both his mother-in-law, who spoke only Maa, and his eldest daughter, who was attending the nearby school. A progressive step indeed as most villagers prized caring for cattle far above education.

We were greeted by the eldest member of this tribe and a youngster, who spoke some English. They were robed in traditional shukas wrapped around their lean frames, and carried walking sticks and peace sticks, which look like short beaded knobkerries, and smell strongly of wood fire. We were ushered into the village through a very low opening in the thorn barrier (leleshua) which enclosed the semi-permanent settlement or enkang.

“You have to bend ” the young man said with no trace of amusement as my husband almost crawled through the low opening, “to show respect to the elders. Everyone who enters has to.”

The old man moved away and proceeded to make fire using a stick and another piece of wood on the ground. Before I could comment on this expertise we were shepherded into a nearby hut. The door was even lower and we exchanged glances as we crouched into pitch darkness.

“Our home. You are in the first room, where we bring the baby goats at night. Otherwise the leopards eat them.There is a sitting room”. He pointed to another equally small space but led us through a doorway to our left. This was the bedroom, illuminated only by a tiny open window space, and the roof so low that I forever wonder how those tall Masaai manage to move around their homes without concussing themselves. The bed was a wooden structure with cross bars of ntingos over which a cowhide was thrown.

“Please sit.” we perched on the bed, there was nowhere else. “We all sleep in here, the children and wife on one side, the husband on the other. This is also the kitchen.” Indeed there was space to make a fire at the end of the bed but the room was tiny.

Finally we emerged back into bright sunshine and were shown around the entire compound.



In the middle, surrounded by all the huts was a thorn barricade, the ground flattened by countless hooves. “The Masai bank” the young man smiled for the first time as we exchanged blank looks. “Our cattle sleep here. They are our wealth. God originally gave the Masaai all the eland in the world. Then one day the eland went out and were not looked after properly by the herd boys. They went missing and for days the two mothers of the herd boys blamed each other. It was your son’s turn to care of the eland! No, it was yours! And on and on the fighting went. So God took the eland away from the Masaai but because they originally belonged to us we can still hunt them and eat their meat. That is the only wild animal we may kill for food.”

“Then God gave us all the cows in the world.” he nodded earnestly and frowned, “Do you have cows in South Africa?”

“Yes, we do,” we answered.

His eyes positively lit up. “Then I must tell our elders, they shall come and collect them from you. They do not belong to you. They are all ours.” He was absolutely serious.

I kept a straight face as I visualised a tribe of Masaai warriors sweeping across the borders and demanding herds of Nguni cattle from the Zulus.

“The ladies wish to spend some time with you. This is a special day. ” He pointed to me and I was taken across to the edge of the village where the women, led by Kima’s mother-in-law, shyly came to meet me, their children peering wide-eyed from behind their knees.

Beyond their smiles of greeting I saw what was possibly the finest view of the Mara imaginable. This village had the most unbelievable location.



I was endowed with gifts, necklaces and bowls and treasures that were lovingly and beautifully made and then the ladies surrounded me and started singing and dancing, tentatively reaching out to touch me, encouraging me to join in the dance.



“You are very welcome here. Kima speaks highly of you.” Kima’s mother -in-law said in Maa after the celebration was over. and I was led back to where my husband was waiting “Would you join us in something to drink?” the young man translated.

I recall Kima saying a great delicacy was milk enriched with the freshly drawn blood of a cow. There was an art in that too, spearing the animal in the jugular, removing just a small amount of blood, sealing the wound with dung and then allowing the cow to continue it’s daily pursuit of food without ill effect. I wondered how we could decline witho0ut offending but before I could say anything Kima joined us and with apologies announced that we were late for our visit to the school. Apparently all the children were all assembled and waiting for us, so regretfully we would have to leave. We bade our farewells with hugs but without any refreshment or blood letting.



That evening during sundowners on the escarpment, overlooking the endless spotted plains, and Mara means spotted, a dozen Masaai warriors burst out of the darkness, scaring half the guests witless with their warrior headdresses,  heavily adorned faces and strident voices rising in unison, drowning out the distant roar of the lion. We watched stunned as they performed their acrobatic leaps, soaring into the sky, silhouetted by the crackling fire. It was not a dance so much as a contest, each young warrior in earnest competition with his peers, for traditionally the one who jumps the highest will win the girl! These warriors are now forbidden by law to prove their bravery to the elders by hunting and killing a lion using only their skill, spear or knife, but their traditions are still strongly entrenched and the cross over to modern society, schooling and western ways is slow in coming.



On our final morning as we drifted over the Mara in a hot air balloon I reflected there would be much I would remember of this special place not least of all the Masaai with their  fierce belief that all cows belong to them. I shall be sure to warn my  Zulu friends that their cows are in imminent danger of being claimed.
















I adore Kenya. It is a really magnificent country and nudging the outskirts of the metropolis  is Nairobi National Park where you will find in the forest fringes The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, home to rescued elephants.


Our landing was aborted at the last minute as a “strong”cross wind had sprung up, the result of a flash storm sweeping across Nairobi and reducing visibility to zero. When we eventually clambered into the Land Rover our driver cheerfully assured us that even though the notorious Langata Road was virtually a river and traffic reduced  to a standstill he knew ways and we should make The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Elephant Orphanage by dusk. I hoped so, Daphne Sheldrick was expecting us and our grand children were meeting their foster elephants for the first time.

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We turned  onto the gravel road and parked at the orphanage just as a few excited foster parents were driving in, cameras ready, for the sunset hour is reserved for  private viewing by foster parents only, and your visit has to be pre-booked.  One lady told us she visits every evening when she is in Nairobi.  Spend a few minutes here and it is very easy to see why this is considered a happy place for so many.

Keepers and little elephants were just coming back from their bush time, the babies running ahead  in excitement as it was time for an evening bottle and elephants adore their milk feed. Maxwell, the blind black rhino who was found in Nairobi National Park wandering helplessly around in circles all on his own, and adopted by the DSWT orphanage was tearing happily around his enclosure relishing the mud after the rain and snorting in sheer delight. Not only has DSWT rescued elephants and rhino they have also over time brought to safety a baby giraffe, Kiko and Pea and Pod, a pair of baby ostriches as well as numerous antelope and even a hippo.

But first it was time spent with a living legend. The Matriarch, Dr Dame Daphne Sheldrick still lives in the home she and and her husband, David built in 1976, a year before his untimely death. It overlooks the mud bath where her orphans play and entertain visitors from around the globe each morning. Daphne’s  daughter, Angela Sheldrick and her husband Robert Carr-Hartley, today run the DSWT. It is so much more than the most successful orphan-elephant rescue and rehabilitation haven in the world. DSWT also supports field veterinary units, works in collaboration with KWS,  is behind the  removal of snares, is involved in community outreach projects and strategic borehole drilling,  dam enlargements, anti-poaching units and a host more. Dr Dame Daphne Sheldrick has been honoured across the globe for her incredible contribution to the wildlife of Kenya, in fact to the wildlife of the world. She is a charismatic, elegant and outspoken about the atrocities of poaching and the greed and corruption of mankind, passionate about restoring respect to all things living and unrelenting in her belief that all ivory should be globally banned. She is an example to all. Iconic comes to mind, she certainly is a forerunner in conservation.


Her autobiography, which I rate as an all time favorite, the beautifully penned Love Life and Elephants, An African Love Story, is about her amazing life in Kenya, her years at Tsavo East National Park with the love of her life,  the renowned naturalist and founder warden of the park, David Sheldrick MBE and how the Elephant Orphanage, named in his honour, came to be.  It has been translated into many languages, Chinese included, and that may, in some way, educate those that don’t first consider that an elephant has to lose its life, it’s family destroyed and a baby elephant orphaned all for a dangling ivory trinket.


Each orphan spends 24 hours a day with the keepers, who alternate among them so the elephants do not become too attached to one individual and then have to suffer separation anxiety when the keeper goes on leave. They even sleep together in their individual sleeping quarters, a mattress for the baby and a bed for the keeper. If the elephants shared sleeping arrangements it would resemble a dormitory of raucous children and no-one would get a good night’s rest. It is these 23 men who become substitute mothers for the baby elephants, feeding them their formula 3 hourly, showing them how to play and sand bath and touching and nurturing them as their requirements almost mirror those of a human baby. They smother their tender ears in lotion to prevent sunburn and wrap them in snug blankets to keep them warm. And the immense role that the other orphans play cannot be minimized, for they are a family unit and each little elephant desperately needs the family structure. It is through the rumble and hugs of the other orphans that a new wild baby can feel less bewildered. They will shepherd him around and love him and communicate and ease his fears and just by watching them he can learn how to take his bottle, where to go and how to play. They become his family.

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But the success of this elephant orphanage did not happen overnight. Dr Dame Daphne Sheldrick has been taking in abandoned and injured wildlife since her marriage to David Sheldrick in 1955, and she recalls that her favorite “soul animal” must have been Bunty, the impala, who bestowed the greatest honour on her human mother by choosing Daphne as her birthing companion when giving birth to all six of her babies. However success with orphaned elephants did not come as easily. Like rhino they are milk dependent for the first three years of their life and it took Daphne 28 years to perfect a formula that was compatible and life saving, as elephants are intolerant of cow’s milk. She too has spent a lifetime mastering the husbandry required to take a traumatized, heartbroken little orphan and successfully one day  re-integrate it back into the wild.

When they reach the age of three, or thereabouts the elephants are moved from the orphanage to one of the 3 re-integration units run by DSWT.  Voi and Ithumba  in Tsavo and Umani Springs in Kibwezi Forest. They may well remain keeper dependent for several more years and it is here that other DSWT elephants will “telepathically learn” of their arrival and gather in great excitement to greet the newcomers. The matriarchs will jostle to take them under their wing and eventually the orphans will  join up with wild herds or previous orphan herds.  But it is almost certain some will return, either when injured, or to show off their offspring, or just for a feed in dry months or to say hello to their human family before slipping back either into the 13500sq kilometers that make up Tsavo East or the 16000 acre Kibwezi Forest which borders Chyulu Hills National Park. The objective of DSWT is to ultimately release all the elephants in the nursery into the wild.

Should foster donors be so inclined they can make a booking to stay at Ithumba Safari Camp or Ithumba Hill Camp or alternately book Umani Springs self catering house, all are DSWT properties.

The story behind each orphan is heart rending. One little elephant was found next to her  dead mother, who along with two of her daughters, had been poached for her beautiful ivory tusks, her face hacked away as her baby watched.  Another was swept a kilometer downstream after trying to follow his mother across a swollen river and was found sitting in a boma with a herd of Maasai cattle. A third fell in a well and was rescued. Another little fellow was found protecting his dying mother and another survived, ,with only a bullet hole to his leg, a hail of gunfire which killed his mother.

This  is a heart place. It will gladden your soul as very little else can. It is living proof that one woman’s dream can make a huge and beautiful impact. Public viewing takes place between 11 and 12 daily.   Visitors can learn about the rescues, meet the babies and watch them interact with each other and their keepers, watch them play soccer, take mud baths and even socialize. Afterwards it is time to shop, to chat with the staff and most exciting of all chose your own elephant or rhino to foster! For a mere $50 per year you become part of the future of one little orphan, with monthly updates, pictures, field reports, uand a copy of an Angela Sheldrick water colour. If you are unable to spend that magical hour in Nairobi  then go on line (DSWT) and foster your own elephant, or give one to a friend, or tuck a baby elephant into your child’s Christmas stocking or give one as a birthday gift. You will save more than a life, you will go some way to assuring the future of elephants. And you will feel oh so good doing it. We have.