Some of the earliest evidence of our human ancestors has been found in Kenya’s arid Great Rift Valley, giving this fascinating equatorial country the nickname “The Cradle of Humanity.” From these early beginnings stem the rich culture and fortitude of the Kenyan people, who in 1963 ended their long and bitter struggle for uhuru (“freedom”) and gained their independence from British colonial rule. Today, Kenya has the most powerful economy in East Africa and a wealth of ethnic groups, including the Maasai, united in their strong sense of national pride.
From the sweeping grasslands of the savannah to the permanently snow-capped peaks of Mount Kenya, this East African country is a rich tapestry of dramatic natural beauty and diverse wildlife. Kenya is home to some of the world’s best game parks, where lions stalk their prey and giraffes graze peacefully among the tall grass. Lucky visitors may be treated to nature’s finest act: the annual wildebeest migration between the endless plains of Tanzania and the crocodile-infested waters of Kenya's Masai Mara.
Most Popular Films
Films featuring Kenya from international, independent filmmakers
In Kibera: A Girl's Life
Venture to Kibera, Kenya's largest slum, where young girls are working hard to turn their dreams into realities.Produced by Josh Hayward
Travelogue: East Africa 1952
Looking behind the mask: discover the traditional grooming practices of Maasai tribesmen.Produced by David Conover & Paul Villanova
Fire and Ice: Dramatizing the Disappearance of Mount Kenya's Glaciers
Learn how a team of photographers used fire to track Kenya’s melting Lewis Glacier over 70 years.
Produced by Antonio Olmos and Ekaterina Ochagavia
©2014 THE NEW YORK TIMES
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Immerse yourself in Kenya with this selection of articles, recipes, and more
This ancient group carries traditions with them, but faces the struggle of adapting to modernity.
Discover the hardships the Maasai women endure in their communities and the steps being taken to better their lives.
These awkward but lovable giraffe is a biological marvel. Discover how its body works and how this creature evolved.
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Small Group Adventure
Days in Kenya
Small Group Adventure
4 NIGHTS FROM $1,795
PRE-TRIP EXTENSIONKenya's Masai Mara Game Reserve
DAYS IN KENYA
- Catch sweeping views of Masai Mara on an optional hot-air balloon ride
- Enjoy up to 5 game-viewing drives
Kenya's Masai Mara Game Reserve
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Meeting the Maasai
The people and culture of East Africa's well-known tribe
The more cattle a Maasai man has, the richer he is, the better fed his family, and the more respect he commands.
Even if you haven’t met a Maasai warrior, you’ve probably seen one. Called moran, the tall, handsome figure in his distinctive red and blue robe, standing on one foot, gazing across the savannah at his cattle, is one of the most iconic images of tribal Africa—though today, you might just as easily see this elegant figure standing in the plains with a cell phone in hand. It’s that dichotomy—an ancient semi-nomadic lifestyle butting up against encroaching modernity—that 21st century Maasai society must resolve.
Their semi-nomadic lifestyle makes it difficult to obtain an accurate census, but recent estimates suggest that there are about 900,000 Maasai people living today across Kenya and Tanzania. The Maasai originated in the lower Nile valley near Lake Turkana, and began migrating south during the 15th century.
Their society was based entirely on cattle herding—a role that the Maasai believe was bestowed on them by a single god, whom they call Engai (or Ngai). The more cattle a man has, the richer he is, the better fed his family, and the more respect he commands. Until recently, the Maasai were notorious cattle rustlers, frequently raiding neighboring tribes to poach the precious livestock. The ensuing fights added to the Maasai’s reputation as fierce warriors, though the Maasai themselves did not view this as thievery, since they believe they are merely reclaiming their rightful legacy.
A Maasai’s coming-of-age
Of course, cattle need to graze, so the Maasai became semi-nomadic people, moving with the herds as they sought greener pastures. Families traditionally live in kraals or manyattas, which are clusters of circular huts surrounded by stockade fences, with corrals for livestock. Women build the dwellings, fetch water and firewood, feed livestock, milk cows, and cook, while the men tend to the cattle. By the age of four, a young Maasai boy may be in charge of calves or goats; by twelve he will be taking them far afield to new pastures.
It’s also about this time when the young Maasai boys begin preparation for the most important rite of passage: becoming a warrior. They will spend months at a time in the bush, living together with members of their age-set (the central social unit) in special manyatta where they undergo many trials to help overcome pride, selfishness, and egotism. They must learn to share their cattle, and make periodic visits back to the village where they are expected to provide cattle for celebrations and sacrifices. For Maasai children the endurance of pain is meant as preparation for adulthood—removal of canine teeth, ear and body piercing, tattooing, ritual body burns, and even beatings. The process culminates with emorata, or ritual circumcision, which boys must undergo without anesthesia.
Until recently most Maasai girls also underwent female circumcision, or more accurately, excision, in which the clitoris and labia were cut. For girls the ritual is longer and more painful, with more debilitating aftereffects. Still, it was considered essential preparation for marriage and childbirth, ensuring that the girl would fetch a handsome brideprice (which warriors must pay for the privilege of marrying). If a girl became pregnant prior to circumcision, she was banished for life. The practice is highly controversial, and though it is now illegal in Kenya and Tanzania, it persists in many enclaves. Recently, activists have had some success introducing a new “cutting with words” ceremony that replaces the physical mutilation with singing and dancing—while still conferring marriageable status upon the girl.
Marriage is a hugely important institution, though a far different one from here in the west. Since wealth is measured not just in cattle but in children, Maasai men were traditionally encouraged to take several wives—a practical adaptation to high infant and warrior mortality rates. By the same token, men must share their wives with any visiting member of their age-set and accept any resulting child as their own. (Women do have a say as to whose bed they will share, and their ability to produce many children is a badge of honor.)
Surviving in the modern world
To everything there is a season, and now, the Maasai must turn from their pastoral culture to new ways of living. From its peak in the mid-19th century, Maasai territories have been reduced to a fraction of their size. British and German colonialists forced them into smaller settlements; later, the governments of Kenya and Tanzania began taking more and more Maasai land for game parks, private farms and ranches, and hunting concessions. The problem of dwindling pasture land has been compounded by conservation efforts, which make it illegal for Maasai (or anyone) to kill lions and other predators that frequently attack their cattle.
It’s not the first time the Maasai have faced privation. The tribe was nearly decimated between 1887 and 1903, a period called the “Maasai Emutai,” when epidemics of rinderpest and bovine pneumonia killed off eighty percent of their herds, causing widespread famine. This was followed by a smallpox epidemic and drought. Nearly two thirds of the Maasai perished during this scourge. Ironically, the Maasai’s ability to herd and farm in desert and scrubland has recently prompted many global experts to view it as a model for adapting to climate change.
Will the Maasai prevail? Today, many have turned to farming or selling traditional medicines, crafts, and dairy products. More and more children are seeking formal education, and gravitating towards urban areas to work as security guards, store clerks, or other wage earners—occupations once scorned as undignified. Still even the most assimilated of this generation routinely visit their old villages, don Maasai robes, and celebrate the traditions of their youth. That goes for the privileged few who receive educations abroad, too. As the old Maasai proverb says, “A zebra takes its stripes wherever it goes.”
Women of the Maasai Tribe
Trials and tradition in the modern age
by Rachel Fox, from Dispatches
The women of the pastoral, semi-nomadic Maasai tribe of southern Kenya and northern Tanzania are recognized by their hand-beaded collars, jewelry, and vibrantly colored robes, called shuka. They’re also recognized as care-givers, taking on traditional roles to support the well-being of their family and community. These responsibilities include building the family’s boma (a hut made from mud, grass, sticks, and cow dung), tending to cattle, collecting water and firewood, taking care of their children, and cooking for the family. The women of the tribe are also tasked with warmly greeting visitors to their village with traditional dance, song, and tea ceremonies.
What is omitted from many guidebooks—but is nonetheless a fact of life—is the social and familial subordination Maasai women face throughout their lives. As early as age 11, a Maasai girl can be entered into an arranged polygamist marriage by her parents in exchange for cattle and a small dowry. Before this occurs, the girl first typically undergoes female genital mutilation (FGM), or circumcision, which is seen as a rite of passage into adulthood within the tribe. Though many in western cultures view FGM as a human rights violation, the procedure is often the only way a Maasai man will accept a wife. While some Maasai are changing their stance on the necessity of female circumcision, the majority view the refusal of this practice as an act of cowardice, and a disgrace to both the girl and her family.
Lack of education is seen as a major contributing factor to the Maasai tribe’s health and economic standing as a whole. Women and girls, in particular, are often denied the right to attend school in favor of marriage—or due to their family’s belief that the cost of obtaining an education outweighs the benefits. Though primary school is free, the required uniforms are often unaffordable for families, and walking to schools usually takes several hours each way. In addition, rural day schools in the region can have a student-teacher ratio of about 100 to 1, and are inadequate to prepare students for national standardized tests—factors that result in a very small percentage of girls graduating to secondary school, and hinder their pursuit of educational and economic empowerment.
Fortunately, the women of the Maasai tribe are not standing alone in their struggles. Though a metamorphosis such as this takes time and matures slowly, there are several organizations dedicated to advocate on their behalf. The Maasai Girls Education Fund (MGEF) is a non-profit organization working to educate Maasai women and their community on the issues of health (HIV/AIDS and FGM), economic wellbeing, and literacy. Through donor support, MGEF provides scholarships, workshops, and supplies needed to facilitate knowledge and independence throughout the tribe. The Maasai Women Development Organization (MWEDO) started as a grassroots non-governmental group that now consists of over 5,000 women members from the Arusha and Manyara regions of Tanzania. MWEDO currently provides support to more than 400 Maasai girls through literacy programs, boarding, transportation, and medical coverage—and they opened up their own secondary school in 2011.
In addition to finding educational support, Maasai women have taken steps to put their entrepreneurial spirit and crafting talents to good use. Organizations like the Ethical Fashion Program—along with Spanish shoe company, Pikolinos—have partnered with Maasai women to employ bead workers and artisans to make elaborate shoes, clothing, and jewelry. These fair-trade products directly benefit the Maasai community and contribute to the economic independence of its women.
With all of the inequalities and hardships Maasai women seem to face, the fact remains that they are strong, integral parts of their communities. Though outside non-profit organizations can make great strides in their advancement, change amongst these deeply traditional and noble people must come from within the tribe.
Trials and tradition in the modern age
The unique evolution of the giraffe
by Laura Chavanne, from Dispatches
When the ancient Romans first encountered the giraffe, they interpreted it as a composite creature—a fantastical hybrid between a camel and a leopard. An early description reads, “… a creature combining, though with infinitely more grace, yet some of the height and even the proportions of a camel, with the spotted skin of the pard.” Until the 19th century, the giraffe was known as camelopard—which survives today as its species name, camelopardalis.
In reality, the earliest known ancestors of the giraffe lived during the Miocene and Pliocene eras. Those deer- and horse-like creatures probably looked no more like their modern descendant than the giraffe’s only living relative does today: the okapi, which rather resembles a zebra, and reaches nowhere near a giraffe’s 16 to 20 feet in height.
Indeed, to call the giraffe singular would be an understatement. On the African savanna, no animal creates such a striking silhouette as a group of them—collectively called a “tower”—craning their necks toward the acacia treetops that no other herbivore can reach. But while the neck of a giraffe was once commonly believed to have evolved out of competition for food, naturalists now believe that it may be more about sexual selection: In competition between males, which involves the rather brutal swinging and battering of necks, the longer and stronger competitor prevails.
Regardless of the driving evolutionary force behind this one-of-a-kind feature, numerous other physiological traits have evolved to accommodate it. Giraffes have twice the blood pressure of a human and a heart rate of about 170 beats per minute, both of which are necessary to get blood to the brain. As a result, the hard-working heart of a giraffe can weigh more than 25 pounds and reach two feet in length. A series of one-way valves in the neck facilitate blood flow even further.
With so much blood being rapidly propelled upwards at all times, what happens if suddenly the giraffe drops its head below its heart—like when it bends down to drink? While they don’t need to drink often, preferring instead to obtain most of their water from vegetation, giraffes will do so when given the opportunity—despite the fact that by all appearances, they really weren’t designed for it. A giraffe’s grace abandons it once it bends to reach the water, splaying its forelegs awkwardly to the side. In this case, the neck isn’t quite long enough to get the job done.
Awkwardness aside, the giraffe happens to be perfectly equipped to counteract sudden rushes of blood to the head, which would otherwise cause it to lose consciousness. A mechanism called the rete mirabile—a complex network of veins and arteries that also regulates heat in birds and oxygen in fish—regulates pressure on the brain by restricting excess blood flow.
Conversely, the giraffe also runs the risk of blood pooling in the lower legs due to enormous pressure from above. To counteract this, its skin is extremely thick and tight—maintaining extravascular pressure much like a pilot’s anti-gravity suit inflates at high altitudes to direct blood to the heart and brain. In fact, NASA has looked to giraffe skin while researching ways to help astronauts’ circulatory systems readjust to gravity upon returning to Earth.
It’s little wonder that the ancient Romans believed the giraffe was a fantastical creature, given its unique appearance—but the science behind its complex inner workings is even more amazing. So the next time you’re lucky enough to see a “tower” of giraffe traversing the savanna, think about what makes them tick … and remember that the 25-pound heart is just the beginning.