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They call themselves the custodians of a global heritage.
They are the Mara Guides Association (MGA), the first ever union formed by Maasai Tour Guides to ensure the health of ecosystems in Maasailand and justice for Maasai people through Kenya’s tourism industry.
After five long years of struggle for legal recognition, the MGA is ready to launch! A large community event will be held on June 30th to celebrate the MGA launch and the graduation of 12 newly certified guides from Prescott College’s Maasai Field Guide Training Program.
The MGA is transforming the tourism industry in Kenya. Kaitet Ole Musukut, or “Edward,” an organizer and member of the MGA, explains that Maasai guides realized if they didn’t take a front seat in the industry, the Mara would continue to be abused by those who don’t care for the people, ecosystem, and wildlife. The MGA is united under a common mission,
“to provide stewardship for the management, protection and sustainable use of Maasai Mara Game reserve and other Maasai natural resources for the economic, aesthetic and spiritual benefits of present and future generations. MGA will advocate the economic interests of its members and Maasai community in and around the Mara and beyond. "
“We needed unity,” says Steven Ole Montent, another central member of the MGA, “this unity came through the way we realized that if there was business in Talek, they could call our brothers in Oloolaimutia, and if there was business in Oloolaimutia we could call our brothers in Talek.” The MGA is representative of guides from across the Mara who share business; standardize wages so that guides don’t undercut one another; and network job opportunities for other members of their community. As Ole Musukut says, “the Maasai guides with or without cars share work and resources and even consult elders in the community, one of the elders has already given us a bull for our launch.”
Before recent times, few in the Maasai community profited from the tourism industry. Ole Montet tell us the story, “we would wait to sing in the village, we would just sell ornaments, blankets, later to realize that the money clients were paying was not really going to the community.” He explains, “our community thought, we should benefit from this business.” Ole Sumare, a guide who paved the path in 2006 for the rest to follow, began his career as one of the first Maasai guides in the Mara. In the early days it was very hard, he describes, “you could travel many miles to find business and be rejected.” And even so, he says, “you could only get business rescuing vehicles that were from Nairobi or far away, you could wait more than two months for work.” Since the trophy hunters of colonial times, guides from outside the Maasai have brought foreigners to Maasailand. But the MGA envisions a future where every vehicle must have a local guide that will be fairly compensated. They don’t aim to chase away other guides, just to ensure that they are the ones who can mediate the relationships, ensure the ethical treatment of wild animals, and practice cultural tourism to the benefit of local people.
John Ole Tira is the honorable chairman of the MGA, and a spokesperson for the association, conservation, and the economic prosperity of the Maasai community. He shares, “when we started MGA, we had a list that was over 90 [Maasai] guides. When we came to registration, you have to mobilize resources, so those who paid registration are 40-46, and many are still working on raising funds. This community has been oppressed and our registration process has been very challenging because of that.” Meitamei Olol Dapash aided the MGA through the registration process and, after thousands of dollars and extensive community organizing, the MGA is a lawfully recognized entity that will reshape the terrain of the most profitable industry in the state of Kenya.
The MGA’s vision is to improve all aspects of tourism in the Mara for wildlife, tourists, and Maasai communities. They plan to use their vehicles to improve waste management in the Mara, and organize weekly trash cleanups. They talk about putting an end to the degradation of land and nesting species from off-road driving, The MGA takes a firm stand against poaching and the harassment of wildlife. They are excited to expand employment opportunities for the whole community, to empower women and idling youth around trading centers. John Ole Tira says, “our goal is that 80% of the people employed in the industry will be local people and they will be working in well-paid positions too.”
In addition to the protection of land, animals, and economic opportunity, they identify cultural tourism as an industry that needs reform. Any guide who brings tourists to Maasai villages, they say, must be educated, trained in cultural sensitivity and community rights to share in profits. Antony Kotoine Ketikai represents his compatriots saying, “we want to promote the relationship between locals and wildlife, insure security of the reserve, report animal theft, raise a voice to save the Mara, to educate our own community, and support one another to gain and share knowledge.” Ole Kiriama adds, “we can teach others how to do what we are doing, how to form an association like this.”
Protection of the environment is a challenging job in an era as land and conservancies are privatized and the MGA feels the urgency. Chairman Tira says, “as members of MGA we are noticing that the populations here is increasing day by day and there is not enough grazing fields. It is now high time that people find an option, we are diversifying our industries. We have also seen the problems in the Mara in terms of conservation, and it needs to be taken great care of for future generations.”
The MGA is comprised of not just guides to the Mara, but the people who call this place home, the people who intimately know the issues and challenges of this region, and who protect their community. The MGA is comprised of conservationists, ecologists, pastoralists, entrepreneurs, and activists who can find solutions for today to make a better tomorrow. They recognize a changing world and are equipped with the knowledge and skills to act as the “custodians of a global heritage,” the Maasai Mara. The MGA says, there is a dawn in Maasailand, and in the presence of Maasai guides, this dawn is unmistakable.
Tourists will now be able to book tours with those who are certified through the MGA to follow ethical practices and support the local community. Continue to follow blog posts for information about how to book tours through the MGA! Website and more coming soon!