The Serengeti plains dominate most pictures of Africa’s wilderness in our culture today, perhaps driven largely by the ease of making movies there. It is possible that Howard Hawkes’ movie, Hatari!, starring John Wayne has something to do with it. It was made almost exactly when Tanzania and Kenya became independent, and may have been seen as a template for earning precious foreign exchange. Having seen the iconic movie at an age when I was not sure whether I preferred to be human or rhino, it was only a matter of time before I came to the gates of the Maasai Mara Game Reserve.
The district around the reserve is one of the last remnants of the Maasai expansion of the 19th century. As we approached the reserve we saw more and more of the Maasai, recognizable by their colourful shukas (the blanket worn around their shoulders). The Maasai are symbolic of the great changes that colonialism brought to Africa. In spite of their reputation as killers of lions, the Maasai beliefs in the sacredness of soil ensured that they lived in equilibrium with their new lands. The territorial expansion of a small population also made sure that their impact on the land remained small.
As at Njoro, my house looks over the Rongai Valley and, as at Njoro, the Mau Forest broods in resigned silence, close on the edges of fields fresh robbed of their ancient trees.
—West with the Night, Beryl Markham
They have not fared well since the beginning of the 20th century. The desperation with which the people around the gate of the reserve tried to sell us hand-crafted wood or beaded jewellery was an indicator of their marginal existence. The Maasai counted their wealth in cattle, and were completely dependent on it for food. Now, with land fenced off, and wealth having a different function, the Maasai are still having trouble reconciling their faith and traditions with the twenty first century.
The obsessive concern with wildlife leads insidiously to the degradation of the human population.
—North of South, Shiva Naipaul
We paid our entrance fee to the park and passed easily through the gate into the reserve. But for the Maasai tribesmen, this barrier has become as impermeable as any international border since the area was declared a game reserve in 1961. I would rather have a sanctuary for wildlife than not. But as the border opened to us and we passed through into a dream of another century, I had enough knowledge of history to know that this refuge was made necessary by the colonial greed which cleared forests across the world and replaced them by tea and coffee plantations, and enough knowledge of animals to know that many antelopes, lions, elephants, and leopards can live in forests as well as in grassland.