Residents of the Olboma manyatta, a traditional Maasai village on the edge of the Maasai Mara National Reserve in southwestern Kenya, live a rare existence, cheek by jowl with the wild things of the African savannah.

The reserve, famed for its annual wildebeest migration, is home to a vast menagerie, including lions, leopards, hyenas, cheetahs, wildebeest, zebras, elephants, and hippos, among others.

The villagers are from the Maasai indigenous community, where a manyatta is traditionally made up of 48 houses and a cattle enclosure.

Houses are made the time-tested way, with sticks and branches, and the walls, floor, and roof plastered using a sturdy mixture of mud and cow dung.

The women are adorned in ethnic beaded jewelry, and both men and women wear traditional clothes made up of checkered blankets.

Just a stone’s throw from the manyatta, one can see cattle grazing under the watchful eyes of their owners.

What is unique is that the locals are grazing their animals in fields where wild animals also roam.

Like family

The main reason behind this unique setup is that landowners from the indigenous community came together to donate land to wildlife to secure their habitat.

Kaasale Kijoolu, 52, says that all 1,200 landowners in the community decided to give 6 acres of land each to wildlife for the conservation of the wildlife ecosystem in the area, an idea which would in the long run also benefit the community.

This gave birth to the Mara Siana conservancy, a nascent community conservancy fully supported by all 1,200 landowners, including 150 widows, for conservation.

“For us, as women, because this is a conservancy, we attract many tourists,” explained Kijoolu

“They come not only to see the wild animals but also to buy our ornaments and beadwork and see how we live in our village. This is a win for both the tourists and us.”

Before the conservancy was started in late 2015, poaching was rampant, says Abraham Sakoi, a tour guide in Mara Siana.

“People would kill elephants for their tusks and rhinos for their horns,” he said.

“It was only after we came together and started the conservancy that the poaching fell off because all of us came together to protect the animals, they became like family.”

Before the conservancy was established, the locals used to live in scattered homesteads across the valley. This increased cases of human-wildlife conflict, leading to wild animals being killed as locals searched for pastureland, or even humans being killed by agitated wild animals.

“We’re paid for being members of the community who donated this land, we get some money from the entry fee and a camp called Entumoto where tourists stay,” said Sakoi.

“Also look at me, I never thought I would be a tour guide driving such a vehicle, there are so many ways that we have benefitted.”

The Maasai heavily depend on cattle for nutrition and in this area, they have been grazing their animals side-by-side with the wildlife.

“They don’t harm or target us,” said Joseph Memusi, a herder.

Proceeds from the conservancy have also gone to the construction of a secondary school, a library, and new classrooms for the existing primary school.

Pandemic challenges

Sakoi lamented that there are some challenges that they have faced due to COVID-19.

“The number of tourists fell to zero. We used to get money every month from all the tourists who spend the night here, so it was really hard on us because tourism was affected,” he said.

“Despite this we still love the wild animals and we take care of them,” he added.

Evans Sitati, manager of the Mara Siana conservancy, said: “The main motivating factor that compelled communities to form the conservancy was to develop grass for their livestock, to get financial benefits and employment in the conservancy and in the camps that are operating in the conservancy, (and) they also want wildlife to thrive in its natural habitat.”

Despite the many challenges that the community endures, their spirits remain unbowed as they vow to stick to the conservation of their wild friends.​​​​​​​

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