Sitting on my mom’s coffee table in Chicago are three handcrafted coasters featuring a dizzying display of intricate beadwork affixed to a piece of worn brown leather cut into a perfect circle. To look at these coasters is to see beyond the item in front of me and remember the work-worn hands of the women who crafted them. You see, these coasters have traveled thousands of miles—across oceans and mountains—from Kenya’s Masai Mara.
I had come across the coasters—and a myriad of other handcrafted goods—while visiting the Basecamp Masai Mara. For days, I had been traveling with Basecamp Explorer through the wilds of Kenya, chasing hyenas at sunset as they snoozed beneath acacia trees and staring in awe at lions as their golden-hued fur stood in contrast to the surrounding bush. A little about Basecamp Explorer: founded in 1998 by Svein Wilhelmsen, this tour company operates safari camps in the Mara Naboisho Conservancy, which borders the government-owned Masai Mara Reserve.
The Mara Naboisho Conservancy consists of 530 individual plots of land belonging to local Maasai people, which are paid a monthly leasing fee by Basecamp Explorer (and other tour operators). This unique tourism model has introduced a more profitable revenue stream to the Maasai community, allowing for reduced conflict between wildlife and the local people, and setting a precedent in Africa for what responsible safari tourism can look like.
From a traveler’s perspective, there are countless benefits to booking a safari in the Mara Naboisho Conservancy over the Masai Mara Reserve. There are walking safaris where you accompany Maasai guides on foot and discover details of the wild you could miss from a vehicle. There are bush meals and sundowners, where you have the option of enjoying a bite or sipping crisp gin and tonics out in the bush as opposed to the confines of your safari camp. There are night game drives that use infrared lights to bring you close to predators as they stalk the savannah for their next meal. In the conservancies, there is much more freedom to explore and connect with nature than in the reserve, where crowds run high and safari vehicles are confined to dirt-packed roads.
Beyond the perks of having a happy hour in full view of zebras; tour operators like Basecamp Explorer are supporting the Maasai community in other impactful ways, and one of them is through their women-empowering Basecamp Maasai Brand. Established in 2003, the fair-trade Basecamp Maasai Brand is a community-based business aimed at helping local Maasai women find financial independence through beadwork and handcrafted goods. With the Maasai community largely a male-dominated culture, creating spaces for women to connect and develop independence is crucial. Every month, 75 percent of earnings from the Basecamp Maasai Brand go towards the women, while 25 percent of the remaining profit is used to cover business and administrative expenses.
Arriving at the Basecamp Masai Mara, I walked to an open-air building the color of sun-baked clay. There, perched on low ledges, sat a group of Maasai women ranging in age and generation. Donning brightly-colored traditional Maasai clothing, the women chatted as their hands moved quickly—crafting bracelets, belts, handbags, and coasters made of recycled materials (a nod to Basecamp Explorer’s eco-conscious model). With over 118 women working with the Basecamp Maasai Brand, the impact of this women-empowering initiative—alongside the jobs offered by Basecamp Explorer—is seen in the improvement to homes in the nearby villages, where something as simple as water tanks can now be spotted from the road.
When planning your first African safari, there are many things to consider right off the bat. What country do you want to travel to? What safari tour operator do you want to book with? What time of year should you go? What park should you visit? Where should you stay? But of all the logistical information that goes into planning that first big safari trip, your impact on the destination is a question that also needs to be taken into consideration.
As travelers, we are uniquely positioned to positively impact a destination through the choices we make. Where we choose to put our hard-earned money can mark the difference between benefiting local initiatives and people or lining the pockets of mega brands and corporations. In traveling with Basecamp Explorer, the impact of our trip was seen in everything from the local Maasai and Kenyans employed by the company to the various environmental and social initiatives Basecamp has created.
Today, those coasters sit proudly on my mom’s table in Chicago. To everyone else, they are just colorful coasters standing in stark contrast to her sleek black coffee table; but to me, the coasters are a memory captured in an inanimate object. They represent the work of numerous Maasai women, the responsible tourism promoted by Basecamp Explorer, and the power of travelers to make a difference.