As the adage goes, ‘don’t judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.’ Now consider walking five miles instead of just one, at the tender age of eight (without your parents and with no shoes on your feet) at four o’clock in the morning, in complete darkness on the outskirts of Kenya’s Masai Mara where you can (and do) encounter dangerous wild animals en route. All this, just to get to school each day. Then, tired after a day of learning, you’ll need to repeat that same arduous journey home.
Meet Simon Saitoti. Twenty-eight years ago, he was that courageous eight-year-old Maasai boy braving the dark, lonely walk to school, determined to get himself an education and a brighter future. Accomplishing just that, Simon is now the esteemed Regional Programme Officer for our social development partner, Africa Foundation. Humbling and heartfelt, this is Simon’s story.
Determined to succeed
A typical Maasai childhood is short-lived. Traditional roles are upheld, which ultimately force children to grow up quickly. The unsafe and unaccompanied school walks through Big Five country are commonplace for Maasai children, but only for those privileged enough to go to school.
The many far less fortunate children are expected to stay behind and adopt adult responsibilities, such as grazing the cattle, tending to the livestock and walking unfathomable distances to collect water.
Although Simon is fiercely proud of his culture and still adheres to many Maasai traditions to this day, he never envisioned a traditional life for himself and made sure, from an early age, that he excelled in school.
Walks on the wild side
Simon was given his first pair of shoes when he was in the sixth grade. From grades one through to six, he never owned a single pair of shoes yet still walked 16 km to and from school every day, barefoot and without complaint. In fact, he was so immensely proud of his first pair of shoes (white rubber sandals) that he continued to walk to school barefoot for an entire year, carrying the precious shoes in his hands so that they didn’t get ruined.
“I would wait until I was about 50 metres from my school and I would look for fresh water nearby so that I could wash the dirt off my feet and put on my clean shoes. For me, back then, the shoes were for beauty and not for safety, and because they were white, I thought they were for indoors,” recalls Simon with a laugh.
With absolute nonchalance and not even a hint of arrogance or bravado, he recounts stories of walking past many dangerous animals on his school walks as if it were a regular occurrence in every child’s life. Well, for Simon and his friends, this was everyday life. Often, elephant, buffalo, leopard and lion would cross their path and Simon believes God protected him in those early years.
Walking 16 km a day is hard work for a little one and you’d suspect that Simon refuelled with a hearty lunch during the day. This was yet another hardship he endured, but being a resourceful boy, Simon always had a plan. His mother would send him off to school with a hollowed-out calabash filled with cow’s milk, which he would hide in the bushes near his school. During lunch break, he would sneak out to drink his milk and look for wild fruit to keep him going for the rest of the day.
Maasai homes are built from soil and sticks. There are no windows and, with no electricity or lighting and just one small opening in the roof to let smoke out, the simple act of doing one’s homework is near impossible. For this reason, Maasai schools have a daily review session from 16h00 to 17h00, whereby students can review the day’s lessons and complete their homework before going home.
Given that Simon had such a long distance to walk, and because he always excelled naturally at his studies, the teachers gave him special permission to leave school early to get home before dark. Of course, this meant that he wasn’t able to do his homework. Therefore, Simon chose to wake up at 04h00 every morning. Without fail, he would be the first student to arrive each morning, a good 60 to 90 minutes before his peers, so that he could sit quietly and complete his homework.
One life-changing lesson
Simon’s journey with &Beyond and Africa Foundation actually began 20 years ago. He remembers vividly the morning that the &Beyond Kichwa Tembo rangers pulled up at his school to take them on a Conservation Lesson. Having grown up on the very escarpment that overlooks the world-famous Masai Mara, Simon had never actually been into the reserve. Never set foot in that mystical place that “wageni” (Swahili for guests) flocked to from all corners of the earth.
That single Conservation Lesson forever changed Simon’s life. The aim of these lessons, which our &Beyond guides still regularly conduct today, is to educate young learners in rural African communities about conservation and how to leave our world a better place.
Simon remembers clearly how the ranger told them that they were the leaders of tomorrow and the future custodians of this precious landscape. “He told us many things,” Simon recalls, “including that we should consider taking future courses to help us secure jobs in the reserve and to protect it for future generations. He also taught us the negative impact of poaching and the risks of grazing cows in the park, as they could get diseases from the wild animals or be eaten by lions.”
A father’s favour
Proud of his son’s scholarly successes and wanting to keep him out of mischief after high school, Simon’s father showed up at &Beyond Kichwa Tembo Tented Camp, requesting that we hire Simon as a volunteer. When the manager questioned what Simon could do, his father pointed at the reception computer and simply asked that we keep his son busy.
Simon had never used a computer before. It took him a week to familiarise himself with the letters on the keyboard and in no time he was entering guest feedback data and impressing the Kichwa family with his determination. Soon, he was hired as a casual worker and started earning his own small pittance, which by the way, he had no clue what to do with. “I had never earned money before,” laughs Simon, “I had no idea what to do with it, so I just put it in my suitcase. To me, my money was just for my suitcase.”
Again, Simon’s forward-thinking father had other plans for him, this time a college education. Simon pleaded with his father, offering to contribute financially to the family household with his newfound salary. “My father refused the money, and I was very frustrated,” Simon recalls, “He actually went to the lodge manager behind my back and had them fire me. I was very upset. I eventually phoned a friend in Uganda and said, ‘no one loves me in this country, can I come there?’”
“I explained to my father that he didn’t want me, the lodge didn’t want me, so I was going to move to Uganda. Unfazed by my grand gesture, he said so long as I stayed in school, I could go to Uganda. So, off I went to college,” Simon laughs. “And this is where I met my future wife.”
Breaking the norm
Years prior, when Simon completed high school, his parents had planned for him a customary arranged marriage. Breaking the Maasai traditional norms, Simon challenged his father, insisting that it would disturb his schooling. “Thankfully they agreed to wait,” says Simon, “They told me to go and study well and not to let them down.”
When Simon met his now wife Joyce at college in Uganda, he announced to his parents that he was coming home to visit and that he was bringing a ‘friend’. “They knew it must be a lady and they were very nervous,” he recalls. “It was not common in Maasai culture for a man to bring a woman home. I said I would only marry her with my parents’ blessing.”
“First they had to determine whether Joyce was from a good family and ensure that we were not from the same clan. This investigation took a whole month and then I was given their blessing. Next, we had to hire a bus and my whole village travelled 500 km to commence a 36-hour negotiation with Joyce’s family. My (now) father-in-law agreed but insisted that we complete our university studies first. We graduated in 2011, got married in 2012 and we now have three beautiful children.”
Keeping traditions alive
Simon wanted to leave the traditional homestead and build his own house and life, but, he explains, “As the first son to leave the manyatta, Maasai custom dictates that not only the mother, but the siblings too, must be given the choice of whether or not they’d like to join him.” As Murphy would have it, they all wanted to be with Simon.
Suddenly, not only was he responsible for building iron sheet houses (as opposed to the traditional mud and stick manyattas) for himself and the 16 family members now under his care, but he also became the official head of the household and was now responsible for their food and upbringing as well. “It was a relief to my father and a burden to me,” Simon jokes.
To this day, he honours the traditional Maasai hierarchy of respect when it comes to any form of decision-making, from arranging dowries right down to selling a cow. When big decisions need to be made, not only do Simon’s brothers have to consult him first, but Simon, in return, must also confer with his father. This chain of respect is very much engrained and honoured. “As long as your father is still alive, you do not have the bigger say,” explains Simon.
Travel with purpose
With his traditional upbringing, fierce cultural pride and an innate drive to help those less fortunate, Simon remains a true custodian of our Care of the People ethos. He works hand-in-hand with the local communities that surround our lodges in Kenya to help foster empowerment, growth, development and a brighter future.
Simon encourages guests to travel with purpose and regularly takes them into the community where he grew up, regaling the many entertaining and humbling stories of his childhood. It is through these guided, educational and interactive encounters that travellers can learn, give back and really experience the heart of a destination and its people, and in turn, the local communities can benefit in a positive and sustainable way.
If you ever find yourself at &Beyond Kichwa Tembo in the Masai Mara, do yourself a favour and ask for Simon by name. If you’re lucky, he’ll join you for a sundowner at the Tusker bar (or the gin bar next door at &Beyond Bateleur Camp) and share his captivating stories with you. Better yet, venture out to the Maasai community with him. You’ll leave the Mara all the richer for it.
SEE WHAT LIES BEYOND
Come and join Simon on an unforgettable Maasai community visit in Kenya.