Leelanau pays it forward in Kenya’s Maasai Mara


A student at the Mara Daima Academy in Aitong, Kenya, gifts a traditional shuka to Leelanau visitors Mary and Steve Stanton. Photos by Kim Schneider

By Kim Schneider

Sun contributor

We’re bounding down a rural lane in a safari Land Rover, traveling between a national park and an elephant sanctuary, rolling up t-shirts.

One by one, we take the shirts emblazoned with Michigan tourist destinations (Sleeping Bear Dunes, Fishtown, the Detroit Lions and so on) and wrap them around donated gifts and supplies from around Leelanau County. We create handy bundles of toothbrushes, finger puppets and tiny cars for the kids, feminine napkins or athletic wear for women and men, while bounding past farmers hoeing their fields.

If it’s an unusual activity on a safari trek, it’s because we were traveling with Henry Gathura—our generous guide and owner of the company Capture Kenya Expeditions—and a group of other-oriented travelers from Leelanau County.

A giraffe wanders past a group of ostriches in the Maasai Mara National Park.

We traveled to Kenya in November to visit some of the world’s most famous wildlife parks. We explored the Maasai Mara with its prides of lions and other rare cats, and Amboseli National Park, notable for the world’s longest study of elephants and its large population of massive tuskers. We stayed in an elephant reintegration site interacting with keepers from the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. These keepers feed the babies from bottles, wander with them in the forest, and slowly nudge them into a life in the wild.

But partly due to the connections made on my first safari, we didn’t set out with just our personal gear or stick to the wildlife adventure.

My first trip took place in 2021, a time of extreme desperation in countries like Kenya with economies so dependent upon tourism. In dreaming and planning the trip, I made strong connections with both young professionals working to reduce human/wildlife conflicts and counter climate change, and with a visionary school principal and pastor. This son of a Maasai chief was working to keep the best of his tribal traditions while helping to end harmful ones like forced early marriage of girls and also working to establish a school closer to where the children lived and to keep them safe from harmful wildlife encounters on their walks.

Help extended to the causes over time, and the ongoing friendship that developed, meant our group was treated as family upon arrival at the principal’s traditional home or boma, given gifts of jewelry made with our names, and invited to both help milk a cow, make tea from the milk, and visit classrooms of children eager to share hugs.

Empire resident Norm Wheeler teaches the tribal chief to play his trumpet.

We gave thanks the whole way for the help of the Leelanau community that shared many of the gifts we were toting. The group included me, a travel writer who returned from the first trip eager to share the experience with others, Empire’s Mimi and Norm Wheeler (co-editor of the Glen Arbor Sun), their daughter Julia Ludden, and Suttons Bay’s Steve and Mary Stanton.

We put out requests to our friend networks for supplies that others might have handy. Mimi and her contacts supplied soccer balls, jump ropes and school supplies. Mary, director of Leelanau Christian Neighbors, brought unsold merchandise and finger puppets. We all brought technology gifted by friends—like iPads and phones sitting unused in drawers here, but in huge need in school classrooms there. And we shared personal gifts, like the way Norm, the founder of the county’s Beach Bards, led children in each classroom through interactive poetry fun.

The trip was impactful for reasons beyond the way we fell asleep to the roaring of lions and the grunting of hippos outside our safari tents. The highlight, Mary noted, was the joy radiating from the people.

“The people who worked in lodges, in the elephant and giraffe sanctuaries, weren’t kind to us because they had to be. They were kind to us because they were kind people. You could see that within them, which made you a better person. I felt changed, I did.”

The rural jaunt near safari’s end stood out for the fun of waving to beaming children (and parents) who ran to us and seemed to love greeting visitors from afar. It was just a bonus that we’d pull over and hand out the bundles, eyeing sizes the best we could of women holding babies or men pulling over on their motorcycles.

“Other spots get tourists and get some help,” guide Henry had told us. “Here, they have no one else. This will touch their hearts, and yours.” And it did, particularly when two days later we headed in the other direction down the same road and saw a smiling girl walking along. Her t-shirt read Fishtown.

The traveler group is holding a fundraiser for the rural Maasai school and other needs of children in the village from noon to 3 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 30, in the community room of Keswick United Methodist Church in Suttons Bay (3376 Center Highway). Come to enjoy a (by donation) meal of African soups and chai, live music, the chance to learn more about the region and to purchase or bid on beaded crafts made by village women. Interested in going on your own safari? Capture Kenya Expeditions customizes each trip: CaptureKenya.com. Or contact Kim Schneider, kimschneider@charter.net, to join a future group trip.