Africa: Live like a local

From a Maasai beadworker in Kenya to a Tanzanian savannah guide, we meet some of the continent's most charming characters

By Emma Gregg
Published 19 Aug 2016, 09:00 BST, Updated 7 Jul 2021, 14:51 BST


The e-bike entrepeneur: Laurent Marrier d'Unienville

"I discovered e-biking in 2015. I was looking for a way to regain my fitness after a serious illness. Electric bikes are totally new to Mauritius and when I tried one I was like, 'Wow! This works.'

It's the perfect way to train. The idea of a tour company came soon after.

"At first, my friends thought I was crazy. People don't cycle much here. But now, many of our guests are Mauritian. On e-bikes, it's easy for everyone to stay together and ride at the same pace, even with little cycling experience.

"We offer exercise, scenery and culture, so our trips have broad appeal. Sometimes the guy who came for a workout will say he never expected to see and learn so much, and the person who doesn't normally ride at all will love the physical side. I've even taken professional cyclists out. For them, it's something different. They can crank up the resistance on the bike to make the experience really sporty. I think this is the future.

"On my tours, I talk about pirates, settlers and slaves. I've done a lot of research. Even though I'm eighth-generation Mauritian — the tombs of my ancestors are in the Souillac Marine Cemetery here in the south — I've learned things I didn't know before. When Mauritians come on my tours, they say the same;
so much took place here in the 18th and 19th centuries, but we're not taught much about it in school.

"Mauritius is very multicultural. Some Mauritians consider themselves totally separate from the rest of Africa, but I disagree. Jo'burg is only four hours away. We're different, but we're definitely African."

How to do it: British Airways flies direct from Gatwick to Mauritius.
Electro-Bike Discovery offers half-day group tours in southern Mauritius from Rs1,500 (around £30) per person.


The owners of luxury safari lodge Angama Mara insisted that the quarters for their mostly local Maasai staff should be as well-designed as the guest areas — so, it's sleekly modern, with respectful references to Maasai culture. And the people who work at the lodge, which opened in 2015, seem delighted with the result. We caught up with two of them…

The naturalist: Fredrick Kerika Ole Sinoni
Who inspired you when you were growing up?
My father. I consider him a hero. Managing a huge family of four wives and 27 children is no easy task. He was a local administrator and would attend conservation workshops, bringing home leaflets containing wildlife illustrations and interesting facts. These small pieces of information helped me develop my passion for nature.

What do you routinely wear when you're guiding a bushwalk?
A typical Maasai warrior ceremonial outfit. It makes me stand out and gives me a sense of identity. Beadwork is entirely a woman's role, so my necklaces, bracelets, straps and the beading on my shukas (clothing blankets) are all handmade by my mother, sisters and girlfriend.

Do you think the Maasai will still be wearing traditional dress in 25 or 50 years' time?
Christian preachers used to discourage the Maasai from wearing traditional clothes and ornaments, calling them ungodly, but we're now reclaiming our identity. People wear traditional dress everywhere, to the market, at church and for other important occasions. In my opinion, our dress code is here to stay.

Are tribal rituals important to young men?
They're very important, since they indicate our age group and social status. This ensures cohesion and mutual respect. They have enabled us to come a long way as a community.

Do the Maasai have a special understanding of nature?
Yes, the stones, leaves, grass, trees, birds and animals are our first library books. Spending time in the bush herding cows hones our skills. We can track wildlife and the changing seasons by merely picking up on the clues in our surroundings.

what makes you happiest?
I have a passion for nature and love meeting people from different parts of the world. With every encounter a new story unfolds and a lesson is learned. That's the essence of life — it's a continuous learning process.

The craftworker: Elizabeth Kaiyoni
How did you learn your craft?

My grandmother taught me how to work with beads when I was a girl. Selling things was my way of contributing to the family.

What's the significance of the beads worn by Maasai women?
We have necklaces for specific events, like weddings or meetings with the elders. I make my own. When I wear them, I feel in touch with tradition.

Why are Maasai traditions important to you?
They teach our children how to become good elders. Also, tourists find them interesting — many people want to dress and dance like the Maasai! Presenting our culture to tourists has brought us schools, hospitals and other benefits.

Are you proud to be Maasai?
Yes, because we've kept our culture intact. Our cows are our wealth; we live in manyattas, groups of small houses, that unite us — it's a cheap and resourceful way to live. I'm happy because I'm in my home country, healthy and at peace.

What does it mean to you to be African?
My skin doesn't change even if I walk under a hot sun. If I'm pricked by a thorn, I remove it and apply herbs and it heals very fast. I'm African, therefore I'm tough.

How to do it: Jacada Travel offers a luxury safari staying four nights at Angama Mara and three nights at Segera Retreat from £7,295 per person sharing, full board, including activities, transfers and flights from Heathrow.


The savannah guide: Ernest Onesmo
What do you look for in a walking safari guide in the African bush? Sharp eyes, a steady nerve and a sixth sense for danger? Rifle skills, just in case?

The best guides have all the above, but are also artful interpreters, able to decode the intimate mysteries of the bush. When you step out of your safari vehicle and start walking, you break an invisible barrier. Suddenly immersed in the Great Outdoors, you want to get stuck in — touching bones, sniffing herbs, listening for tiny sounds. Ernest Onesmo, who's based at Sand Rivers in the Selous Game Reserve, knows this.

"Do you recognise this?" he says, picking up a pinch of sweet-smelling, semi-digested grass.

"Elephant dung?"

"Correct! And it's also a source of new plants, if we let the seeds germinate; an insect repellent, if we burn it; paper, if we press it; or stomach medicine, if we use it in a potion. Each time we let a poacher take out an elephant, we sacrifice so much. It's a battle we can't afford to lose."

Ernest is an all-rounder, as adept at mixing a gin and tonic on the bonnet of his Land Rover as he is spotting birds, tracking lions or planning a bushwalk. On foot, he's totally at ease.

In many ways, ours is a walk like any other. But there's a crucial difference: I've packed my toothbrush. As I follow Ernest through dappled woodlands where antelopes eye us, shyly, from a distance, I'm thrilled that our destination remains, to me at least, a mystery.

"Welcome!" says Ernest at last. "This is your home for the night."

We've reached a beautiful lakeside clearing. The fly-camping team have rigged mosquito nets over mattresses near the shore, and hoisted a bush shower in a terminalia tree. As we rest our legs beside the crackling campfire, delicious cooking smells drift our way.

"Everything OK?" asks Ernest.

It certainly is. Right now, there's nowhere else I'd rather be.

Read more in the September 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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