February 28, 2024


In the hot midday sun on the edge of Mara Ripoi conservancy in Maasai Mara, a group of women gather under the shade of a gnarled, old Balanites aegyptiaca tree, or oloireroi in Maasai.

The women listen keenly as Everlyne Siololo outlines some key benefits of belonging to the newly formed 5,500-hectare (13,500-acre) conservancy.

“This was hardly possible a few years ago,” says Siololo, 29, during a break in the meeting. “There were times when a woman’s voice was rarely heard. In fact, some men still look down on uneducated women. They need to trust women more.”

  • Norkishili Kayiaa, one of three female administrators on the Mara Ripoi conservancy committee, addresses its members

This wildlife reserve is one of a handful where some of the key decision-makers are Maasai women, who are carving out space in a domain long dominated by men. The reserve borders Maasai Mara, Kenya’s enormous game park, which spans more than 1,500 sq km in the Great Rift Valley. Along its borders, many former Maasai cattle-grazing areas have been converted into wildlife conservancies where controlled grazing is allowed.

Two-thirds of Africa’s protected land lies outside national parks, and conservancies are one of the main models designed to protect those vital habitats. A conservancy is formed on land that is collectively owned and managed by Indigenous communities — such as the Maasai — and set aside for protection, so it will not be carved up into small farms or developments. The community earns income by partnering with wildife tourism companies, which pay rent.

Maasai societies are highly patriarchal, and governance of the conservancies has typically fallen to men. Now, however, a new generation of women are taking up leadership roles and guiding jobs, and Ripoi is one of the few conservancies in the greater Mara ecosystem where women hold administrative rights: making decisions on cattle grazing zones and financial matters, and discussing employment opportunities – including whether jobs go to women.

“A local chief urged my father to take me to school, though most of my siblings are uneducated,” says Siololo. She now holds a diploma in tourism and wildlife management from Maasai Mara University – the highest level of education of her polygamous family of 16 boys and 12 girls. “After college, I too wanted to become a chief, to ensure all girls in our village are enrolled in school, while any dropouts were assisted to continue with their education. Empowering a woman is about safeguarding community interests.”

Siololo was too young to become a chief, but she took up work as a driver-guide with Gamewatchers Safaris, a nearby tour company that protects 16,000 hectares (40,000 acres) of community land in the Maasai Mara. The company’s managing director, Mohanjeet Brar, says employing women in the camps and conservancies makes a significant impact, as their income is typically used to improve the livelihoods of their families.

“I think we would all agree that women often make better decisions on the use of funds in a household,” Brar says. “They are also pioneers for their communities and inspire many girls to dream big.”

In Ripoi, three of the 10 governing conservancy committee members are women. Two of them, Norkishili Kayiaa and Nooltetiain Mpeti, are Siololo’s stepsisters. The third is 23-year-old Margaret Tingisha.

These women must strike a delicate balance: attending to conservancy matters, domestic work including milking and getting children ready for school, where they start classes at dawn.


We arrive at Siololo’s home as the first rays of the sun hit the plains. All but the youngest of her four children are in school. Armed with a plastic jug, Siololo heads to the cattle boma, an enclosure where the herd spends the night after grazing.

“This one is tough and does not take kindly to the process,” Siololo says of one cow that must be restrained with ropes before milking. She narrowly ducks a kick from the “belligerent” animal. “Our livestock is central to wildlife conservation. Under the conservancy rules, we can graze our cattle and goats in secluded areas that do not interfere with wildlife,” she says.

Kayiaa, 48, a mother of seven, says her involvement in conservancy administration has improved communication between her and her husband. She has also had to overcome stereotypes. “The first time the conservancy elected its officials, there was no woman,” she says. “Then we said, there must be ladies. I was among those elected. Previously, women here had no say, even in the sale of a family goat,” she says.

Each year, the conservancy pays 3,400 Kenyan shillings (£16) an acre, cash that the women use to feed and educate their children.

Tingisha’s family has leased 50 acres to the conservancy, and the money earned has enabled her to open a beading business.

“I quit school at grade four and could barely read or write when we joined the conservancy,” says Tingisha. “I have since learned how to read and write and can contribute in discussions about employment opportunities for our people,” she says.

Evans Nchoe is Siololo’s husband and a local businessman. “Educating girls and empowering women is changing Maasailand,” he says. He is happy that Maasai women are becoming more engaged in matters that were previously the preserve of men, and decries the former culture that demeaned women. “We have a new generation of men that is closer to women than the previous one. Today, we sit down and consult. I was elated when Everlyne came and told me that she had got a job. Today, more men wish their wives are employed too. That is progress.”

Despite this progress, the women in Ripoi want more leadership and employment opportunities within Maasai Mara conservancies given to women – and higher up the chain.

“True, we have women committee members but what if a woman was the conservancy chairperson, treasurer or secretary?” Siololo says. “When such opportunities arise, they usually consider the boys, thinking that girls will not cope with camp life, but when a goat gets lost at night, it is the women who look for it in the bushes despite the dangers from wild animals.”



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