This is one of five stories that explore the greater Serengeti region and its ecosystem. Read the rest of those stories here.
Recently I embarked on a journey into the Serengeti. It wasn’t the Serengeti you might envision, not the postcard vistas of rolling, yellow-grass savannas punctuated by umbrella thorn acacias. And I didn’t stay in a luxury tented camp or join the armies of tourist vans swarming around lion kills.
Instead, I traveled to Loita, a part of the greater Serengeti ecosystem that doesn’t appear on the standard itinerary—a hidden Serengeti, if you will, one that includes a lush mountain wilderness rising more than a mile above sea level. It’s about a 150-mile drive southwest from Nairobi and overlooks the world-famous Masai Mara National Reserve. Yet it’s a place most visitors to Kenya don’t know exists.
My plan was to make my way up into the heart of this green fortress to a place known in the Maa language as Entim e Naimina Enkiyio, or the Forest of the Lost Child. It’s a 115-square-mile cocoon of unspoiled rainforest, a land practically hidden in plain sight. Once there, I hoped to be granted an audience with the man who oversees this realm.
First you must know that I live a world away from Loita, in Nairobi. It’s a metropolis of some five million people. It buzzes and hums as one of Africa’s technological innovators, the nucleus of the so-called Silicon Savanna. It’s one of the continent’s busiest transportation hubs, with flights to and from four continents. A place of gleaming skyscrapers filled with companies from around the world. The UN’s Africa headquarters are here, as are a plethora of international media organizations busily broadcasting the continent’s stories. We endure hair-pulling traffic jams and wonder about the local implications of climate change. And of course, since 2020, the scourge of COVID-19 has dominated.
I was feeling claustrophobic in Nairobi, and the chance to travel to Loita seemed a boon. But truthfully, it wasn’t just relief from the city I was seeking; it was the chance to experience the world from a fresh perspective, an ancient and timeless one.
The man I hoped to see was a Maasai leader named Mo-kompo ole Simel, also known as the Oloiboni Kitok (pronounced O-loy-BON-ee KEE-tok). In the centuries since the Maasai migrated with their cattle down from the Nile Valley and settled in eastern Africa, including the area they called the Siringet (“the place where the land runs on forever”), they’ve been guided by men who hold the title of oloiboni, all drawn from a clan endowed with exceptional temporal and spiritual abilities and schooled in natural and supernatural healing practices.
To be the Oloiboni Kitok, the highest ranking oloiboni, is to sit between worlds as mediator, prophet, and seer; as intercessor and healer; as cultural liturgist and political strategist; and as keeper of good relations between humanity and nature. More than 30 years ago, Mokompo ole Simel took on that lifetime mantle of Supreme Oloiboni from his father, becoming the 12th Oloiboni Kitok in his clan’s lineage.
It’s difficult to describe the full scope of his influence. He’s the spiritual leader of more than a million Maasai who live in Kenya and Tanzania. He’s sought out for blessings and advice on matters big and small—from a family’s lost cattle to major conservation plans for Loita. Maasai from as far away as Samburu in northern Kenya make the 200-mile journey to Loita to see him. And it’s not just Maasai who seek his counsel. Politicians from other countries have solicited his blessings, advice, and help to curry favor with voters.
Yet he’s not an easy man to see. You can’t just drive to Loita and find your way to the home of the Oloiboni Kitok. You must be introduced, which is how I came to meet a friend of a friend named Mores Loolpapit, a doctor and public health professional, a nonpracticing oloiboni, and, serendipitously, the Oloiboni Kitok’s nephew.
And that is how one midday in May, I came to sit on a carpet of soft green grass festooned with tiny purple and yellow flowers, under a behemoth oreteti tree. The sky was blue, and though it was sunny, an easterly wind sprinkled icy rain droplets. Somewhere nearby, a donkey brayed.
Mores had guided me here via an eight-hour drive over rough roads that gradually ascended to a mountain savanna that is a gateway to Loita. It’s here at his homestead, a collection of mud-brick and thatched-roof buildings and animal corrals, where the Oloiboni holds court and where I hoped to ask for permission to visit Loita and to interview him.
I was one of two dozen visitors, including a five-man delegation from Tanzania who’d arrived before dawn. We were all received as pilgrims. Nobody was treated as a stranger.
Tradition dictates that no guest comes empty-handed, and we had brought some household goods—flour, spices, coloring books, and pens—to be offered to the Oloiboni’s wives and children. I clutched four precious coffee seedlings, my own special tribute. We waited about two hours.
Finally the man appeared. In his wake, a tide of activities erupted. A chorus of human voices greeted him, and the gathered emissaries surged forward. A favorite calf hurtled toward him, goats bleated, and in the distance a quintet of giraffes ambled by.
He was in his late 80s and moved with a slight stoop, gesturing like a symphony conductor, directing a herdsman to which pastures his sheep, goats, and cows should go to graze, dispatching another young man to the market, and tasking his son—and heir apparent—Lemaron to extend healing services to calm three nervous visitors.
The Oloiboni supported his uneven steps with a thick, carved stick. A dark blue woolen cap covered his head. He wore a red and blue Maasai cloak called an olkarasha. As he approached, he made eye contact with those who waited.
His face was deeply lined, and his golden-brown eyes were veiled by cataracts. I rose to greet him. In one extended glance he seemed to read me, a quick assessment of all my innermost virtues and shortcomings. It left me flustered and suddenly exposed.
The Oloiboni’s voice was low and rasp textured: “You are here,” he said in Maa.
“I am,” I said. Following the Maasai custom, I bent my head so he would touch it in greeting.
I then lined up the four coffee seedlings on the grass between the now seated Oloiboni and me. I don’t speak Maa and the Oloiboni doesn’t speak Swahili, so Mores had introduced me and indicated he would interpret.
“Speak,” said the Oloiboni.
And so, I told him a story about how a wandering forest spirit became the coffee tree in the forests of the old Kingdom of Kaffa, so it might live among the humans it doted on. How it took on a therapeutic role, stimulating conversations that would repair broken relationships. How it worked to turn strangers into family. How it was a companion and liturgical presence that Orthodox monks in what was then Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) consumed while communing with God and the saints.
As Mores interpreted, the Oloiboni listened with intensity. His eyes appeared to lighten. I concluded, “So we brought these to you and this forest, if you agree, to place under your protection so that the spirit might also find shelter here.”
Stillness. Bird chatter. Men murmured. Waiting.
At last the Oloiboni offered the smallest of nods. With an amused tilt to his mouth, suddenly he turned his head. “Lemaron!” he called, followed by an exchange in Maa. Mores translated, “The Oloiboni Kitok welcomes you. He blesses this visit. You can go anywhere. You may enter the forest. As for an interview, wait for his word.”
“Where in Mokompo’s forest will you go?” Mores asked.
I hadn’t thought about specific locations. “The waterfall.”
“There are many,” he said. “Choose one.”
The next morning, reinforced by the Oloiboni’s blessing, we departed for our chosen waterfall. As we drove through a mist, I thought about the legend from which the Forest of the Lost Child gets its name. Once a Maasai girl looking for her stray calves entered the forest. The calves returned home without her. Young men searched for the girl but couldn’t find her. The forest had decided to keep her.
When we arrived at the summit where our hike would start, three junior elders were waiting for us. These scouts were stately, wiry men, watchful and taciturn, except for the gregarious Langutut ole Kuya, who recently had returned to Loita from a camp in the Masai Mara. Our guides explained that as the crow flies, our waterfall was roughly five miles away, which would mean a five-hour walk through a cascade of marshes.
As we began hopscotching among boggy reed islands, I amused myself thinking about how the terrain reminded me of the Dead Marshes in The Lord of the Rings that J.R.R. Tolkien described as “an endless network of pools, and soft mires, and winding half-strangled water-courses.”
But after our third marsh passage, the novelty of imagining this as a Middle-earth journey deteriorated into resigned slogging. Our shoes were slathered in mud, and our pants legs were soaked. Staying dry wasn’t an option. Water was everywhere. Streams popped out of the ground like jinn, while others stuttered and evaporated mid-flow. Water leaked from rocks or dropped as a long, single thread from high outcrops.
All of it made its way into what appeared to be a swamp but was really a meandering river, the Olasur. We traced its growth as it widened and deepened. The guides told us it hosted fish, hippos, and, disturbingly, crocodiles. And then it disappeared into the forest, through a tunnel of overgrowth. As we crawled through the dense thickets, though we couldn’t see it, the sounds of its current became our beacon to follow.
After a while, we staggered into a spot the Maasai call “the place of boiling waters”—slowly bubbling warm puddles fed by geothermal springs. Chilled, I wanted to linger, but we had to push on. Up and down we went, slipping down embankments of scree, pulling on vines to climb steep hillsides, then tumbling down mud trails, only to crawl up another hill.
We squeezed past giant moss-covered boulders, pushed through enormous spiderwebs, became overly familiar with stinging nettles and red ants, and learned to quietly sidestep places where the guides sensed the presence of elephants and buffalo. I did, however, manage to step in the dung of both.
Langutut was unperturbed by all of this. He noticed everything: He pointed out the shapes of trees, the textures of leaves, the patterns of lichens on rocks, the position of a fallen tree, breaks in branches, scratches on bark. He paused over myriad kinds of dung and indicated what creatures had left them. He talked about the flight paths of insects and birds, the intensity and temperature of the wind, the texture of the light that comes through the canopy, the scent of things, the breathing of plants, the meaning of silences.
As I walked, my concentration began to narrow to what was in front of me. How the soil changed from dark brown to bright red and then to almost black, and then sand and loam and then orange, and back to dark and pale browns. I began to see patterns in leaves and shadows.
We encountered several swarms of bees. “This is also called the honey forest,” Langutut said, noting the abundance of flowering bushes. He pointed at a grove he identified as nursery trees.
“Trees grow in families,” he said. “Older trees nurture and guide young trees. They share friendships among themselves and with people.”
He described the practical, medicinal, and spiritual power of some of the trees—the oreteti, podo, wild olive, and date palm.
As we hiked, he mentioned other secret spaces within the forest—caverns that held pure streams and art inscribed on their walls. He talked about a cathedral of giant trees where the Oloiboni conducts the most private ceremonies. I learned elemental Maa words—ewang’an (light) and oloip (shadow). My ears filled with birdsongs, wind whispers, the whistle and click of insects and other creatures, the rhythm of raindrops hitting leaves. My nose filled with scents of pungent earth—rust, rot, citrus, and mint.
One of the guides noted a hornbill honking and a change in the timbre of a colobus monkey’s gro-gro-gro. These were rain signals. We picked up our heavy steps.
Finally we emerged above a vertiginous valley lined with cliffs of brown stone flecked with white. Blue, white, green, and pale yellow butterflies quivered around us, signaling the end of the rainy season. A large bird of prey circled overhead. Below us at last was the waterfall, the Olasur tumbling from a rock tunnel, falling some 600 feet into a chasm beneath the foliage. Farther on, Langutut said, it would join the Oloibortoto River and, left to its natural course, would end up in Lake Natron.
But we could not stay. We had to make our way back through the forest before nightfall, before mist obscured the marshes. And as we trekked out of the forest, I learned another Maa word when we glimpsed the fullest, biggest, and brightest of moons. Olapa.
When we reached the guesthouse, the Oloiboni had left word: He would speak with me in the morning.
A brown-feathered cockerel carried a locust in its beak as it strutted in the Oloiboni’s compound. Cows and goats ambled off to pasture with a young guardian. Still brimming with the experiences from the forest, I sat beneath the giant oreteti tree to wait.
The Oloiboni’s eyes lit up when he saw me. I can’t deny that I felt his aura. Call it pure charisma, or possibly the effect of all the legends I’d heard mixed with the wonder of the previous day’s journey. Or perhaps it was the joy of stumbling upon a leader with an unwavering allegiance to the natural world. I saw a symmetry between the Oloiboni and his oreteti—both grounded, ancient, and mysterious, both offering shade and shelter to those who seek them out.
Our conversations meandered like the Olasur. He referred to the lineage of his predecessors and his progeny. He described what it meant to be the Oloiboni Kitok: It was not a choice. He was born into the position. He spoke of “his” forest: It is a shrine and cathedral, a refuge and fuel source. It’s the garden of God, the “guesthouse of rain.” It is school, supermarket, hospital, pharmacy, and nursing home. Human perfidy threatens it—gluttony, pride, lust, and envy, in particular.
The Oloiboni told of wave after wave of incursions by outsiders: shady government officials, faux preachers, and eager developers. They all spoke in subtle but deadly terms: fences, demarcation, title deeds, bank loans, road through the forest. He alluded to ceaseless plots, particularly from deep-pocketed international conservation groups that purported to tell the people—the Iloitai—what was best for Loita.
We spoke about the importance of the land. “If we lose the land, we lose the culture,” the Oloiboni said. “Lose the culture, lose the peace. Lose the peace, lose the community. Lose the community, lose our way of life. Forever.”
We sat in silence. I saw an elderly Atlas, holding up not just the heavens but also his Earth. A weaver bird trilled insistently. The Oloiboni looked in its direction. Tranquility settled over him. I should’ve asked, What did it say? But instead, I turned the conversation to the changing climate.
“I’ve heard such things,” he said.
Have you seen the seasons change here?
“The cold hits harder and more often, that’s true.”
What about drought?
He frowned. “Just once, five years ago. But that was the consequence of our misdeeds. We had raised fences. We fixed that error.”
The weaver trilled again.
Do you have a message for a humanity that is confused by this changing climate?
A long pause. “What can I say?” he finally answered with a humoring smile. “As temporary guests of this home called life, in this house that is Earth, shouldn’t we know by now how to behave honorably?”
For the Maasai, he explained, this meant adhering to olmanyara. It’s a difficult term to translate. On a previous night around a campfire, Mores described olmanyara as an ethos that is less about conservation and more about custodianship. It’s about receptivity to nature, of being aware of and hospitable to existence in its every form.
Thunder rumbled in the distance. It was raining in the Mara, a prelude for the primordial animal migrations to resume.
“Are you ever afraid of the future?” I asked.
“Should I be?” he teased. Quickly, the elder swerved, and I was a student again. “Now you’ve been to our forest. What did you see?”
“My ignorance,” I said. “I had thought of the forest as only trees.”
The Oloiboni laughed. It was a mirthful sound. It made everyone laugh too. “What else did you see?”
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, based in Nairobi, is author of the novels Dust and The Dragonfly Sea.
This story appears in the December 2021 issue of National Geographic magazine.