Written by Stuart Butler, journalist & photographer.
“I come from a very traditional Maasai family on the edge of the Masai Mara. I’m the youngest of many children and my grandfather was a well-known laibon” Seeing my confused expression Cecilia, the manageress of the Saruni Mara, explains to me that a laibon is “A spiritual leader, like a sage. He’s a person who has the power to see into the future. A laibon is one of the most important members of traditional Maasai society as they act as both a spiritual guide and a decision maker. They are also able to cure certain medical conditions using herbal medicines. Today, though only a few laibon remain”. We are sat in the shade of the high, thatch roofed dining room of Saruni Mara as Cecilia tells me about her past and how she came to work with Saruni, “When my grandfather was around we were never alone in our home. There were always people who had come to seek advice from him. If he was giving a medicine cure to someone he would sometimes make a little cut on one of us children and rub the medicine into the wound so that the person would know it was safe!”, she pauses her story to laugh at the memory of her and her siblings trying to hide behind one and other so as not to be the one used as the medical Guinea pig. “The power of the laibon is passed from father to son. My mother though didn’t want my dad to ever become a laibon, because it also meant a lot of time away from home visiting people. Sometimes my grandfather would vanish for years on end. I never really knew where he went at those times. Because my mother didn’t want this happening to my dad a ceremony was held during which the elders removed the power of the laibon from my dad and my brothers. I’m very happy that none of them ever became laibons”.
I was curious to know how a girl from such a traditional Maasai background could end up doing a role so different to the one that tradition would have dictated that she take. “Considering that he was a laibon, my grandfather was unusual for his generation in that he encouraged us girls to go to school. At that time most Maasai girls were uneducated, got married early and had children very young. He didn’t want that for us and said that if we worked hard we would do other things.”
With her grandfather’s encouragement Cecilia finished school and left village life behind for college in Nairobi where she studied hospitality, computing and Italian. “I’d always wanted to work in tourism and had thought it was better to learn another language, so I chose Italian. When I returned back to my village I was told that Saruni Mara – which was a new camp then – were looking for staff. They didn’t know that I spoke Italian and when I was sat waiting for an interview I could hear the interviewers talking to each other in Italian and saying how they really needed a young lady from the area who could speak a little Italian”. Smiling at this memory she continued her story, “When I was called in for the interview I started talking to them in Italian straight away. They were so surprised that they gave me the job there and then and told me they’d send me to Italy for training! When I went home and told my father he didn’t really believe me. I’m the youngest of six daughters and so he was of course very suspicious and insisted on coming to meet the owners of Saruni just to check that it was real and that I would be safe!
“My first position with Saruni was in the laundry department. I was then promoted to housekeeping, which I did for a couple of months before moving to work in the in-house spa. At the time I had no real idea what a spa was. But, Saruni sent me to Italy to train”. I interrupted her to ask what she thought of Italy, “Ahhh”, she sighed in enthusiasm, “Italy was a lovely experience. But…”, She lowers her voice to a whisper “Don’t tell my boss, but I missed eating ugali (a plain porridge like maize meal that is a staple of Kenya and East Africa. It’s a dish that’s never quite caught on in Italy…).
On leaving behind all that Italian food and drink and returning to her beloved ugali she was soon promoted to manageress of the Saruni Mara camp. “I’ve been working for Saruni for 18 years now. I really appreciate the time I spent doing all the different jobs before becoming manageress, because it allows me to truly appreciate what the rest of the team does and to understand the issues and problems they might face”.
And her grandfather? What did he make of it all? “Unfortunately, my grandfather died when I was fifteen, but if he could see me now then I’m sure he’d be very proud of what I’ve become”. And we’re sure he would too.