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Monday, March 22, 1999 Published at 15:47 GMT

Masai hear the march of time

The Masai lifestyle is changing

The BBC's former Africa Correspondent, Brian Barron, returns to Kenya for the first time in 18 years

Insecurity and economic problems have had a devastating impact on tourism in several African countries.

One of the worst affected is Kenya, where tourism is down by at least 60%.

[ image: Masai: A tribe in flux]
Masai: A tribe in flux
This massive loss of foreign exchange has led to a financial crisis in the Kenya Wildlife Service, responsible for safeguarding game sanctuaries.

Beneath trees that spread their branches above Amboseli game lodge, you can have a buffet dinner and watch wildebeest skittishly approach the floodlit waterhole.

But it is best to keep your own eyes on the bread rolls because the lodge has a resident colony of vervet monkeys.

These rather beautiful creatures, from one to two feet high, are partial to the baking chef's output.

Vervets leap across the tables snatching what they can.

It was only when I got back to Nairobi and was talking casually to a baboon expert that alarm bells rang.

Monkey danger

"Those monkeys are more than just an amusing pest," she said. "Some of them may be infected with monkey B virus, a sort of precursor to HIV. If they bite or scratch you, it's fatal. You'll be dead in a matter of weeks."

[ image: Water is desperately needed]
Water is desperately needed
That chilling vignette says a lot about Kenya today.

It would not take much to warn tourists to stay well away from the vervets - which despite their cuteness have a confrontational style.

But no one bothers, and these potentially lethal creatures have the run of the game lodge.

They are often the first to welcome - if that's the right word - tired tourist parties offloaded from cruise ships in Mombasa six hours drive away, for a quick safari within sight of Mount Kilimanjaro.

Masai land grabbed

In spring, the end of the dry season, Amboseli is at its most parched.

The game park gets its name from a Masai word meaning "dusty plains".

By all accounts, it was pretty dry when British explorers journeyed through here in the 19th century.

At that time the slave trade was flourishing, although Arab slavers conducting their horrible business from equatorial Sudan down to Zanzibar always skirted Amboseli because of the warlike Masai tribes.

To become a warrior a Masai had to prove himself by killing a lion with a spear.

But the colonial British stopped that custom - more to safeguard the lions than the Masai.

And the British grabbed the choicest half of the Masai tribal lands, handing it over to white settlers.

Old and new

But these days the Masai are in flux, struggling to adjust to Kenya's money-driven imperatives.

The centuries of pastoralism, with the Masai surviving on the milk and blood of their cattle, are drawing to a close.

At least 30% of Masai children are going to school - unheard of even 20 years ago.

Their parents still wear little red togas and hang jewellery from their sculpted ears. But more of them are turning to crop farming because that is where there is money to be made.

Broken promises

Kenya's post-independence government, now stuck in a quagmire of corruption, has been no more altruistic to the Masai than the British.

It has failed to honour promises of water supplies and a share of tourist revenue.

[ image: Their homes in Masai land are under threat]
Their homes in Masai land are under threat
So the Masai are torn between demanding their rights and bowing to the inevitable, because in Kenya today a particularly harsh version of "every man for himself" has become the social norm.

Amboseli game park was their ancestral land until they were pressured into handing over 150 square miles in the mid-1970s.

Since then a soaring birth rate has seen the Masai multiply.

They have started building electrified fences around their remaining land to protect themselves from elephants and predators.

But that has put further pressure on the wildlife because there are fewer waterholes, and the old migration routes of species like the elephants have been blocked.

Elephant problem

At some stage, hard decisions are going to have to be made by Kenya's wildlife directors about the burgeoning elephant population.

There are 1,000 elephants crowded into Amboseli - partly the result of an elephant baby boom.

That was put down to the plentiful rains delivered a year ago by the El Nino weather phenomenon.

Overall, the dilemma is a familiar one - the crunch between human aspirations and wildlife in a place where there is not enough land and water. There is no simple solution.

Tourism dries up

Perhaps those of us from European countries should remember we killed off all our own dangerous wild animals centuries ago.

[ image: If wildlife disappears, so will tourists]
If wildlife disappears, so will tourists
While the Masai suffer hard times and the economic outlook is grim, tourism has collapsed because of Kenya's reputation for violence and political tension.

That means there is no revenue to finance Amboseli and the other 27 game parks.

In the short-term, the long rains are overdue and what is sorely needed is for Nature to be bountiful.

If she obliges, water would fall in the vast dusty zone that surrounds the game park - and that would relieve the elephant congestion. Maybe tourists will start trickling back, too.

To banish depression, I climbed Observation Hill at 6.30 in the morning.

The snow glints on Kilimanjaro's summit 20 miles away, dominating a vista that inspired Hemingway to write the Green Hills of Africa.

Despite mankind's worst efforts, Amboseli retains its magic.

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