When Basecamp was founded in 1998 the founder, Svein Wilhelmsen signed a lease agreement with the Maasai chief at the time, the late Ole Taek. As head of the Taek family and chief of the community, Ole Taek was becoming increasingly worried about the issue of land and the future of the Maasai community. By leasing his family land to an organization determined to sustainable tourism, such as Basecamp, Ole Taek wanted to create a solution to the problems facing the Maasai community together with Svein Wilhelmsen.
This marked the beginning of a friendship between two men from completely different worlds; a friendship founded on mutual respect and shared ambitions. The close relation between Basecamp and the Taek family has persisted, even after the death of Ole Taek. After Ole Taek passed away the family land was divided between his children, who continue to keep close attachments to the Basecamp family.
In addition to owning the land, Basecamp is built on, the Taek family members are linked to Basecamp in various ways. One example is Ole Taek’s daughter, Mama Ntete, who works in the laundry department at Basecamp Masai Mara twice a week. Mama Ntete is also included in the Basecamp Masai Brand project, a handicraft project that gives Maasai women a much-needed income in a rigidly patriarchal society like the Maasai community. In addition to Mama Ntete, the late chief’s youngest son, Tonkei, is a Head Guide at Basecamp and the main representative of the family.
At my eager request, they are both happy to meet me in the Safari Lounge at Basecamp Masai Mara to share their experience with Basecamp.
The first thing that strikes me as we sit down is the family similarity. Both brother and sister have the characteristic Taek smile with the wide gap between the front teeth. They smile at me warmly and seem eager to share their story with me. Mama Ntete is a mature woman and like most Maasai women her face reveals the strenuous life she has led. The hard-working Maasai mamas display the harshness of their lives on their faces; each line reveals stories of joy or disappointment.
I ask about her name and Tonkei explains that Mama Ntete is named after her son Ntete. Apparently, when a Maasai woman becomes a mother she adopts the name of her oldest son. I ask Mama Ntete what was her name before she had children and she simply laughs and waves her hand apologetically. Tonkei explains that
the Maasai women tend to forget their original name when they have children.
To me, this signifies how a Maasai woman is a wife and a mother, not an individual in the western sense of the word. It is Basecamp’s vision to gradually change this tradition and empower women by offering education for girls and employment for women. Mama Ntete is one of the beneficiaries of Basecamp’s emphasis on women’s rights. For one she is employed in the laundry department, which secures her a monthly income. In addition, her inclusion in the Basecamp Maasai Brand -project allows her to earn money even though she has no education.
I ask Mama Ntete how her life has changed after she started working for Basecamp and whether it would be different without Basecamp. She only understands Maa, the traditional Maasai language, so her brother Tonkei translates for us. Mama Ntete smiles broadly and chatters away in Maa. Tonkei listens carefully before explaining to me what she is saying
without Basecamp it would be nearly impossible for her to find a job.
‘She does not have any education and other camps would not offer her training. Basecamp provides her with a secure income, and allows her to take care of her children.’
Tonkei explains that Mama Ntete moved back to the Talek region after her husband died. Her dad, the late chief Ole Taek, decided to include her in the inheritance and she was given a plot of land along with her brothers. It is rare for women to inherit their fathers; Mama Ntete is one of a few privileged women.
Tonkei smilingly explains that
the land his sister inherited is the land we are sitting on right now.
He laughs at the coincidence and turns to listen to his sister’s fervent chattering. He translates: ‘Basecamp has not only given her employment in the laundry and income through the Basecamp Maasai Brand; she is also benefitting from the success of Basecamp. The land that the camp is built on is Maasai owned and therefore even the existence of Basecamp is good for the local people.’
I ask Mama Ntete how she spends her income, and she stresses that her main priority is her children’s education. With her income from Basecamp, she can pay for their schooling. She also explains that her youngest son is the benefactor of a Basecamp sponsorship. Basecamp offers sponsorships to several children in the Talek region to make sure that more children complete secondary school. Girls, in particular, tend to drop out at a young age, often to get married. Basecamp wants to reduce this number through awareness building and various other incentives such as scholarships. Lack of funding is a big problem, and sponsorships enable more children to complete higher education.
I ask Mama Ntete and Tonkei what other positive outcomes a stable income can have for a Maasai family-like Mama Ntete and her children. They discuss the question briefly before explaining that because of the income from Basecamp the Taek family has been able to sustain the cattle they had when Mama Ntete moved back to the area. Because they have an alternative source of income they have chosen not to increase their herd.
A growing number of cattle could be a potential negative consequence considering the decreasing accessibility to grazing land.
‘Because of Basecamp there is no need for Mama Ntete and her children to rely completely on cattle for an income,‘ Tonkei explains. ‘They have been given alternative and more reliable means of providing for themselves.’ He looks over at his sister before adding: ‘This makes her feel secure and confident that she can offer her children a stable upbringing, even if there is a drought.’
I am interested to hear what Mama Ntete wants for her children’s future. The world they are growing up in is completely different from the one she experienced, and I can only imagine how daunting this must be for a mother. Tonkei willingly translates my question. Mama Ntete repositions herself in her seat, her Maasai beads twinkling as she does so, and points towards the gate.
She says something in Maa, and Tonkei explains. ‘That is her son there working at the gate. That is Ntete, her eldest son. Do you see? My sister is grateful that her children have opportunities here in the area. She is happy for them to study or work elsewhere because she knows that they will come back. There are possibilities for them here when before there was nothing.
This security makes a mother happy
He goes on: ‘Even though several Maasai youth dreams of the big city, the majority wants to stay. Sometimes young people attempt to live elsewhere, like in Narok or Nairobi, but most of them return. Thanks to Basecamp and similar benefactors young people now have opportunities here. This is home for us, so we are happy that we can stay.’
Mama Ntete nods approvingly and I wonder if she might understand more than she admits. Regardless, I try a faltering Ashe Oeleng (thank you) and Mama Ntete smiles approvingly, displaying her characteristic grin.