We’re in a large, circular, clearing ringed by low mud huts and a brushwood fence. It’s very dusty and very hot. A circle of men kneel in the dust. One of them is chanting. It sounds like a prayer. ‘What is he saying?’ I ask my guide, John, who has brought me for a cultural visit to this Maasai village on the boundary of Amboseli National Park.
‘He’s praying for our ancestors and he is praying for rain,’ I am told.
At every pause in the chant, the kneeling men intone the word, ‘Naai.’ I am encouraged to do likewise. The air reverberates with the word. It’s strangely moving.
‘What does Naai mean?’ I ask.
‘May God make it happen,’ comes the reply.
In Amboseli in late 2022, the need for God to make rain happen is severe indeed. The drought that has afflicted the area is the worst since 2009; there has been no rain for a year. The entire park, and the halo of conservancies that encircle it, is one huge dust bowl. Dust devils, or mini tornadoes of dust as high as skyscrapers, whirl across it. Dust hangs heavy in the air. The entire landscape has turned monochrome. No surprise: the word ‘Amboseli’ means ‘the place of salty dust’ in the language of the Maasai.
In the park, the animals are dying in their thousands. In this village, of the 200 hundred cows the villagers once owned, only 50 remain. Right now, most of them are out foraging for what pitiful scraps of parched grass they can find. But the villagers have also built a special enclosure for the cows too weak to walk. They gaze at us large-eyed.
‘There is no grass for them to eat,’ says John, ‘so first they weaken, then they die. We’re trying to buy grass for them; even animal fodder but it’s very expensive and, because we have lost our cows, we have lost our income.’
The pain is written clearly on his face.
To the Maasai, their cattle are everything. They’re their pride, their income, their food source, their building materials, their bedding, their visible sign of status, their obsession and their all-abiding love. This is cataclysmic. And it’s not only the cows that are suffering: the people are hungry too.
‘We understand about global warming,’ says John, ‘but without our cattle we cannot survive.’ He looks towards the procession of dust devils, ‘but we must accept it,’ he finishes.
Luckily for this village, they are located just a few kilometres from one of the park’s most famous lodges, Amboseli Serena Safari Lodge. And an exceptionally close relationship exists between the lodge and the 20 villages that lie in its vicinity. Nearly half of the lodge’s staff are drawn from the local community.
But that’s not all.
‘We go to the Serena clinic if we are sick,’ says my guide. ‘If our women are due to give birth the lodge provides a vehicle to take them to hospital. If our cattle get stuck in the swamp, the lodge’s vehicles pull them out. The lodge sends us visitors who pay to learn about our way of life. The lodge buys our handicrafts, they pay us to dance for the visitors, they help finance the school and pay for scholarships for our best students. The lodge is our father,’ he finishes.
No surprise then, that the lodge has taken the initiative to approach all of its suppliers and ask them to send a food shipment into Amboseli. The response has been profound. Some suppliers are sending bales of maize flour, others cooking oil. Some are sending milk, others drinking water. Even better, the company responsible for shipping goods from Nairobi has agreed to deliver for free.
‘The food arrives tomorrow,’ says my guide, ‘and we are waiting.’ His patient acceptance is humbling. ‘How will it be distributed?’ I ask. ‘The chief will award it to each according to his or her need,’ I am told. The following morning, as we drive out of the park, the dusty windscreen is pockmarked by something strange: water. It takes a second to register.
God has indeed made it happen.
Our sincere gratitude to the suppliers who so generously worked with Serena Hotels to supply food and drink for the drought victims. A special thank you to Straight Line Enterprises Ltd, Malachite Ltd, Yue Green Co. Ltd, Brookside Dairy Ltd, Githunguri Dairy Farmers Cooperative Society Ltd, Grace Kamindo, Sunkist Investments (Kenya) Ltd, Farmers Choice Ltd, Kilimani Green Grocers and Sundries and Hass Petroleum (K) Ltd.