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Reaping directly from dances with tourists

By | March 19th 2009

By Kipchumba Kemei

The Maasai community around the Masai Mara Game Reserve has formed a cultural association to end years of exploitation by tour guides and drivers who benefit from tourism.

The Maasai Cultural Village Tourism Association has launched its own initiative to directly receive and guide tourists into their villages and collect money from the visitors.

They plan to use the money to benefit their community, which, despite their conservation efforts, has continued to wallow in poverty.

Lands Assistant Minister Wakoli Bifwoli recently inaugurated the association at Masai Mara’s Sekenani Gate.

It will partner with Africa Conservation Centre, UK Travel Foundation, Kenya Association of Tour Operators (Kato), a Netherlands based non-governmental organisation, SNV, the management of hotels in Mara and Narok County Council.

Mr Bifwoli said the Government supports the project and asked the officials to shun corruption, nepotism and other vices that may undermine the project.

A Maasai moran sets a table at Peponi Conservancy, Masai Mara. It is one of the conservancies locals manage as a tourist attraction. [PHOTOS: JACOB OTIENO/STANDARD]

"This is a good project which should not be allowed to collapse. For it to succeed, transparency and accountability should be the catchword," he said.

The association has printed its cultural manyatta entry receipts and with the help of Kato, lodges and camps, the tourists will pay for the visit, game drives and hot air balloon expeditions.

Tourism activities

The association was mooted with the help of UK Travel Foundation Director Cheryl Mvula, who helped the community in the Mara Triangle in Transmara District set up a similar one, three years ago.

The community in the Triangle has started reaping benefits from the initiative and is initiating development projects aimed at ameliorating the effects of under-development.

Narok and Transmara county councils earn about Sh2.5 billion annually in tariffs and fees from tourism in the sprawling reserve, which has over 600 lodges and tented camps.

Despite the huge revenue, there is nothing to show for it. Children also regularly drop out of school for lack of facilities.

The main beneficiaries are lodge and camp owners, tour guides and drivers and some county council officials.

Frustration has forced the locals to become poachers, charcoal burners and lease their land for wheat plantations.

These activities have a negative impact on the survival of the reserve, with conservationists calling for measures to ensure the communities view tourism as an investment rather than a resource for cartels.

The new initiative will see hotels, through Kato, remit money for the manyatta visits to the association accounts, which will declare its profits. The money will be disbursed to members or be diverted to projects of the community’s choosing.

Each tourist will pay $21 (Sh1,700) to tour the manyattas.

The initiative’s co-ordinator, Mrs Teresa Mpeti, says: "They end up being given less than Sh500 for the visit, yet each tourist in a van of eight pays $21."

She warns that any tour company that will not comply with the new arrangements will not enter the reserve.

Seventh wonder

Mpeti says the cultural villages have been losing about Sh370 million each year.

"Lives of Maasais neighbouring the reserve has, over the years, moved from bad to worse. Even with the naming of the annual migration of wildebeests from Serengeti National Park in Tanzania as the seventh wonder of the world, nothing has changed," she says.

The association has about 900 members, Mpeti says, and will work with other stakeholders to ensure it succeeds.

She says politics will be kept out of the business, and that its financial records will be accessible to all members.

The Africa Conservation Centre Programme Director Johnstone Sipitiek says the main cause of these communities’ woes was ignorance, which has led to exploitation.

"The communities have conserved and lived with the wildlife and it is sad that only a few people, those who have no conservation knowledge, are benefiting," says Mr Sipitiek. He also wants tour companies to improve the salaries of their drivers as a measure towards ending exploitation of the locals.

He says the association, which falls under the umbrella of Maa Cultural Tourism Kenya, will soon cover Amboseli, Tsavo, Samburu and other national parks, reserves and conservancies where the Maasai live.

"We will deal with issues of pricing, marketing, and fundraising," he says, adding that the benefits will be equitably shared within all cultural villages.

Dr Mvula, in a speech read on her behalf by Mr James Lasaloi, an official of the initiative during the launch of Maasai Cultural Villages Tourism Association, said she was happy with the new cultural manyatta ticketing system in Narok.

She said it marks the start of a new responsible way the Maasais will do business with tour operators and hotels in Kenya.

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