Ask About Local Connections
The best tour operators have locals on their staffs. Yule estimates that his ground operation is “99 percent” Tanzanian. It matters both because boosting the local economy helps everyone – most of all the wildlife that doesn’t end up on empty plates – and because locals are quite simply more knowledgeable than all but the most experienced naturalists. Fortunately, East Africans are generally friendly and eager to speak with Americans even if it means answering some silly questions.
Africa is not just a landscape. It’s the people as well and any tour group that only offers access to animals and lookouts is bilking their customers. Check with your tour operator to make sure most of its staff is local. If it isn’t, assume you’re dealing with a load of hospitality industry mercenaries and move on.
Most serious outfitters will also offer trips into the Maasai villages that dot the plains. It’s hard to miss the Maasai, who are generally tall and employed as guards, and missing a visit to their village would be a mistake. Their way of life – deeply foreign to westerners – provides a look at what an intimate relationship with this landscape actually requires.
Dennis Ngedenye Lukumai, a senior warrior who works with General Tours, talked us through some of the tenants of his culture: Mothers shave the heads of their sons; boys train for two years to become warriors and are circumcised at 18; the eldest wife chooses the other wives; the number of wives a warrior has depends on the number of cows he owns; men wear sandals made from discarded tires. Don’t expect to walk away with a profound ethnographic understanding, but say, “yes,” if you’re offered a sip of cow’s blood. It’s not bad.
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