Mad for Masai

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Near Amboseli, Kenya – My mask does nothing to filter out the tiny dust particles. Tarmac doesn't exist in this remote part of southern Kenya where the main highways are pairs of ruts made by tires in the dirt.

The barren southern landscape shows the dramatic effects of recent droughts: dried-out rivers, scarce vegetation. But people still continue to live here: this is Masai territory.

We leave our comfortable, air-conditioned safari hotel rooms at Amboseli National Park early in the morning to visit an "authentic" Masai village. Our guide at the hotel tells us it's a kind of Masai Disneyland. Against the backdrop of Mount Kilimanjaro, a collection of huts were made to look like a village, and the admission charge is $20 U.S. per person.

We're surprised by the extravagant fee, but our guide says the money collected goes to the community and helps pay for the children's education.

The Masai, an indigenous semi-nomadic tribe in Kenya and northern Tanzania, choose to remain independent from other tribes, as well as from the government.

According to the Masai Association, contrary to myth, the Masai don't mind having their picture taken. Good news for me; I paid the entrance fee so I could shoot some pictures. But they do resent having their images used commercially and their villages invaded by photographers without their consent.

You can spot a Masai a mile away. Tall and lean, they like to drape bright red tartan cloths around their torsos and favour colourful beaded and wooden jewellery.

The Masai, like other African tribes, have achieved legendary status, yet very few of us understand their current plight and issues. Outside cultures are eroding their traditions, and yearly droughts threaten their nomadic way of life.

As we arrive at their village in our vans, we hear singing. A line of 20 or so women welcome us, singing and clapping. After their serenade, they take turns jumping up and down, seeing who can jump the highest and insisting one of us jump with them.

The village is made up of round huts in a circle, surrounded by a wall of thorn branches. In the centre, livestock are protected by another thorn fence. Our Masai guide, Isaac, invites me inside one of the huts. The walls, made of mud and dung, are as hard as cement and shelter the inhabitants from the harsh elements.

Inside, a woman sits in her eating area with a bag of beads and jewellery. After agreeing to my request for her picture, she asks me to buy something, but I decline. On my way out of the village, all of the women who greeted us are ready to barter.

I cannot afford their beautiful products, but they are insistent. Even Isaac tries to sell me some of the jewellery he wears when I admire it. Our group leave the village exhausted and a bit annoyed.

But whether the village is authentic or not, we cannot entirely blame these people for their behaviour. We were given the privilege of a glimpse into their community, which is otherwise private.

Despite their preference for independence, the Masai contribute significantly to the country's tourism industry, working in hotels and posing for pictures. They realize that their colourful image can help them despite the cultural cost they have to pay.

Balancing integration into the modern world with their efforts to sustain their fragile culture by selling their products and image, the Masai are adept at surviving in both worlds – our hectic, materialistic one and the arid landscape of their corner of Africa. the end