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My lunch with a Maasai warrior

By SCOTT GARCEAU, The Philippine STAR Published Nov 27, 2022 11:38 am

Godfrey Kinyaga, a native of Kenya’s Maasai tribe, had never been on a plane before touching down in Manila — in fact, he hadn’t been far outside his home at the foothills of snow-capped Mount Kenya. Though he wasn’t afraid of taking off 35,000 feet into the air and flying to Asia (“No problem, I am a warrior”), legroom was a slight issue for the six-footer.

It’s true: Kinyaga is from an iconic warrior tribe in northern Kenya that has existed as cattle herders for as long as anyone can remember. Being a warrior means protecting his tribe from natural predators (cheetahs and leopards, mostly), human cattle rustlers, and the occasional angry, rampaging rhino.

The Maasai are a cattle-herding nomadic culture in northern Kenya.

Kinyaga is sitting down with media at BGC’s Manila House to kickstart a fresh Southeast Asian tour with A2A (Asia to Africa) Safaris, Asia’s first luxury safari outfit, that will next take him to Singapore and Bangkok. The goal: to attract more Asians to book safaris and experience the “Big Five” up-close at the 62,000-acre Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya. It’s one of the last strongholds for rhinos in Africa, which has seen its population decimated from 11,000 due to poaching to only 400 left by 1987; but their population has slowly increased to 750 in 2017, thanks to conservation efforts. Through A2A Safaris’ partner in Kenya, Cheli & Peacock Safaris, thousands of Asian luxury safari experiences have been booked, with an aim to increase eco-awareness, help the local community economically, and preserve threatened wildlife, like the black rhino.

Godfrey is a senior safari guide at Lewa and he’s decked out in local attire today: a traditional red Shuka cloth with black checks, plus woven ankle and wrist bracelets and beaded necklaces.

Meet the Maasai warrior for eco-tourism: Media guests sit down with Godfrey Kinyaga at Manila House in BGC. At far left and right are A2A hosts Victor Dizon and wife Tracie Anglo Dizon.

Godfrey comes from a tribe that doesn’t believe in calendars or counting things (though he does sport a nice wristwatch along with his various bracelets). In fact, he says he doesn’t know his actual birthdate, because the Maasai don’t keep such records. (We’re guessing around 35?) This has caused some confusion while traveling — say, when facing Manila’s Immigration checkpoint upon arrival. Not only doesn’t he know what year he was born, even counting one’s cattle is considered a bad omen for the Maasai: “We don’t believe in numbers. Even our cows, we don’t count. We recognize them by their colors and markings, because we believe if you count them, one has to die tomorrow.”

So never ask a Maasai warrior how many cows he has.

As we tuck into a typical Manila House lunch of sushi, salad and pasta sprinkled with caviar, Godfrey enjoys a healthy-sized beef medallion. The Maasai, a nomadic cattle-raising culture, historically subsist on a diet of “beef, milk and blood,” he tells us. So they’ve long been fashionably paleo.

You are guaranteed to see a rhino at Lewa Conservancy.

The Maasai guides at Lewa get very close to their rhinos, even sleeping next to them, almost like surrogate “mothers,” as we’re shown in a photo. Many of the rhinos are rescues, taken into care after their mothers have been poached. Now, more and more rhinos are being born at Lewa, thanks to conservation efforts, before being released into the wild. They’re very emotional and intelligent creatures, Godfrey finds. “When a guide gets into a vehicle to leave, the rhinos get mad. It’s like they’re thinking, ‘Where are you taking him?’ I think animals are more like us: they keep memories.”

And yes, rhinos do get mad. He says he’s more frightened of a charging rhino (who have great sense of smell but lousy eyesight) than a close-up lion. But he’s even more frightened to be around water buffalo, which have formidable horns for charging and goring. “It’s really a problem in Kenya, a lot of deaths from water buffalo.”

Lewa safari guides get close to the rhinos.

Safaris are excellent places to get an enhanced view of our place in nature, and more eco-safaris will help raise awareness and funding to keep conservation efforts going.

“The big conservation move in East Africa is to create a corridor all the way from the north to south, one million acres of land to allow wildlife to roam, including the rhinos,” notes Kieran Day, CEO of Cheli & Peacock Safaris.

First set up in Hong Kong 20 years ago by former investment bankers Jose Cortez and Victor Dizon (who’s here today with his wife, A2A creative director Tracie Dizon), A2A Safaris has since expanded to Singapore, Manila, Taiwan and China, as well as in the US and UK, arranging over 10,000 tours to Lewa along with other destinations, including bespoke journeys to Latin America, the Arctic and Antarctica.

Prince William has long been a supporter of Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, and proposed marriage to Kate Middleton on a safari there in 2010.

In fact, Lewa has become a favorite safari spot for British royalty, and it was during a 2010 safari tour that Prince William proposed to Kate Middleton. Both are now passionate conservationists.

The other thing Lewa provides is education, and Godfrey is a product of that. “They’re sponsoring kids in schools, girls and boys, all the way to university. They’re supporting a lot of education, and women with micro-credits to open up markets for those who do crafts to buy from them,” says Godfrey, also noting the many clean water projects they provide the Maasai community. In return, the Maasai act as neighborhood watch guards as well, stopping poachers. “They offer jobs to the Maasai,” he says. “They put community in front, so that the tangible benefits are clear to the community, so they act as the eyes and ears.”

Maasai warrior Godfrey Kinyaga visits Manila. (Shown with author)

Victor mentions that many Filipinos have already enjoyed A2A Safari tours, and with lockdown restrictions lifted, “June to October is a great time to travel everywhere in Africa; it’s a coolish time of the year.”

When Godfrey arrived at NAIA Immigration, they asked his occupation. “I am a guide,” he tried to explain. “What is a guide? What do you do? Show me your pictures…”

Soon to board another plane for Singapore, where we predict he will face more stringent questions upon arrival, his A2A sponsors suggest they rehearse his answers beforehand.

“Maybe I’ll just dress this way when I get off the plane,” he says, noting his Shuka dress with a smile.

Maybe… not?

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