Most of my art writing focuses on the viewer. How looking at art can change us. Broaden our perspectives. Teach history. Transport us.
On a trip to Kenya in December of 2021, I was introduced to a remarkable project demonstrating how the impact of art can be greater on the makers than the admirers.
Formed in 2003, Basecamp Maasai Brand is an economic enterprise empowering disadvantaged women’s groups in the Talek region of the Masai Mara in Kenya through art making. Today the program works with over 150 local women.
The women create leatherwork, jewelry, fabrics and decorative items, maintaining traditional handicraft skills, fusing historic processes with contemporary style. Sold to tourists on site at the Basecamp Explorer Masai Mara camp and online, the objects create a source of income for women providing them with the opportunity to improve their standard of living.
Confronting Traditional Expectations
A women’s role in Maasai culture has conventionally been restricted to rearing children and housekeeping. As recently as the late 20th century, fewer than 20 percent of Maasai women in Kenya enrolled in school. Today, even with free primary education in Kenya since January 2003, fewer than half of Maasai girls enroll with only 10 percent advancing to secondary school.
Long-established cultural barriers and wide-spread illiteracy drastically reduce opportunities for Maasai women to contribute to their family’s income and participate in the tribe and nation’s modern economic system.
A Culture of Creativity
At four to five years of age, every Maasai girl starts developing her unique beading technique. Basecamp Maasai Brand recognizes this skill and offers employment and a reliable source of income to Maasai women from regions with Basecamp Explorer Kenya campsites ages 17 to 60.
Basecamp Maasai Brand is certified as a “fair trade” business, providing artisans with 55% of the agreed total production revenue after material cost. The remaining revenue goes toward salary for the management group and tools. Money is paid directly to the women. The women also have an active role in the process of pricing, which takes into consideration the cultural significance of the product being sold.
The program’s impact on its participants takes many forms. Standards of living are improved from the most basic – money to purchase equipment necessary to make drinking water cleaner – to the most aspirational – individual home ownership.
Taking control of their financial situation fosters greater gender equity. Expanding their lives beyond the home encourages women to further their education and advocate for greater education for their children – female and male.
Most instantly apparent from my brief time spent around the women of Basecamp Maasai Brand were the benefits associated with creating this community within a community. The smiles on the women’s faces. Their conversations. Their friendships.
These women were no longer isolated inside their households raising children and choring, they were engaging with peers, laughing, a broader social dynamic for them had been created. Their worlds expanded, surly enriching them beyond monetary measures.
All of this takes place inside the Enjoolata Centre, newly built at the Basecamp Masai Mara Camp which borders the vast savannah of the Maasai Mara National Wildlife Reserve and further connects to the Serengeti National Park in neighboring Tanzania.
Enjoolata in the Maasai’s native Maa language translates to the joy felt when something hidden or unknown becomes known; it implies discovery. Enjoolata is experienced both by visitors to the Centre and the women working there, although in very different ways for very different reasons.
Beyond serving as home base for Basecamp Maasai Brand production and sales, Enjoolata Centre offers the local Maasai a space for vocational training, its an educational and community center, in the near future a radio station will operate from within its walls offering conservation-focused programming for the region.
For guests, the story of the Maasai and the region’s wildlife is shared.
“Responsible Tourism” has become a buzzword since it was defined – in Africa – in 2002. Broadly, it requires “making better places for people to live in and better places for people to visit.”
Being inherently skeptical, I suspect many tourism operations wear the moniker under the thinnest of veneers of “responsibility” like recycling or the token hiring of a local person or two.
That’s not what I experienced spending a week with Basecamp Explorer.
Tourism takes a heavy toll on the planet. Ironically, I read in the Nature Conservancy magazine on my way to Kenya that just one long haul flight from the United States to Africa, the kind I was on from New York to Nairobi, creates more carbon dioxide emissions than the average African creates in a year. That doesn’t seem very “responsible” or socially conscious.
I struggle with that personally considering the amount I travel. I’m on a plane every other month. If not for the outsized carbon footprint created by flying, I’d travel even more.
But here’s what I’ve learned. The fossil fuel industry has spent decades and billions of dollars making consumers feel guilty for their choices. The very term “carbon footprint” was created by an advertising agency working for British Petroleum in order to shift blame for the emission of planet warming gasses from the producers and suppliers of oil, fossil/natural gas and coal onto consumers. This was the same tactic the plastics industry took in blaming individuals for litter instead of putting the responsibility on themselves to create products less disposable and more biodegradable. Think about that when you visit Kenya and see all the trash on the roadsides.
While our individual choices do matter, you are not the cause of climate change. Just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions. You didn’t design America’s cities to favor cars over people. You didn’t design our power grid to continue being addicted to fossil fuels 35 years after George W. Bush – the first one – ran for president, promising to use the “White House effect” to battle the “greenhouse effect” during a campaign stop and then doing nothing about it.
Tourism takes a heavy toll on the planet.
At Basecamp Explorer in Kenya, from its Basecamp Maasai Brand to its protection of 50,000 acres of wild land for wildlife at the Mara Naboisho Conservancy, to the partnership involving over 500 local families touching thousands of individuals which provides for that land to be protected – now generating sustainable, predictable income for those families through Basecamp’s tourism operation – to reforesting efforts and the hiring of 90%-plus local Maasai men and women to run the enterprise, I became satisfied that my trip to Kenya was “responsible.”
The camps run exclusively on solar power. Their construction is designed so that if they were ever asked to leave, the campsites would be reclaimed by nature in a matter of months, leaving no hint of their ever having been there.
Still have your doubts?
Here’s another practical example. Poaching is non-existent in the Mara Naboisho Conservancy? Why? Because the economic incentive for it doesn’t exist. With the local Maasai being paid by Basecamp Explorer to keep the ecosystem thriving with animals in order to generate tourism business, the local people “police” the area themselves, making sure poaching doesn’t gain a foothold here.
With the Maasai understanding how the area’s wildlife generates income for them, the wildlife is protected. Numbers and diversity of wildlife in the Mara Naboisho Conservancy have dramatically increased in the 20-plus years in which Basecamp Explorer has operated its safari tours and camps here.
I think about responsibility, social consciousness and sustainability in every trip I take – or don’t – and I’m already thinking about my next trip to Kenya with Basecamp Explorer.Female artist
What do you think?