How a DNA test led to a Kenyan safari adventure

(CNN) — Tracey Cheatham didn’t come to Kenya for the animals. She came for the people.

The doctor from Las Vegas has spent a year planning this trip with her lawyer husband Mark McIntire to celebrate her 50th birthday.

They’ve flown the 300-kilometer trip from Nairobi to The Sanctuary at Ol Lentille, in the far north of the Laikipia Plateau, because aside from offering a luxurious and private safari lodge experience, it’s a social enterprise owned by, run by, and directly benefiting the local Maasai and Samburu communities.
“I did one of those DNA tests, so I could figure out which countries I was from,” Cheatham tells CNN Travel. “When we got the results, I was from everywhere, with the exception of Morocco and Egypt. Every place else it looked like I had a little bit of Africa in me.”

Having visited Tanzania previously, this is her latest step in exploring her heritage. “It feels important for me to come here as a black American,” she says.

40,000 acres of privacy

A stone-built paradise on a rocky hill — think The Flintstones reimagined by Mies van der Rohe — the Ol Lentille lodge is at the center of a conservancy area three times the size of Manhattan.

From the four villas, from the pool, from the outdoor dining and seating areas, panoramic views assail you.

A vast wilderness of sandy hills and valleys, patched with acacia trees like markings on a giraffe’s hide, rolls out for 40,000 acres.

The resort hosts a maximum of just 14 adults (plus children) at one time and, looking out over the sprawling, uncultivated conservancy, it feels like the world is yours alone.

“You can do what you like and when you like,” says the sanctuary’s English-born director John Elias. The conservancy is home to elephants, antelopes and more, and you can view them on game drives, quad-bike and mountain bike excursions and even camel safari.

And, with no lions or buffalo to worry about, “it’s fantastic walking country,” he adds.

As well as the infinity pool with stunning views, there’s a spa and plenty of lounging area in your private kitchen and living areas.

Conservation tourism

For Cheatham and McIntire, though, the first adventure they want to go on is to hop in a 4×4 and traverse the rough dirt tracks to visit a local primary school, mobile clinic and a manyatta (or village).

Timothy ole Mosiany, operations manager, is our guide. A member of the Maasai community, he explains the Ol Lentille Trust’s model of community-based conservation tourism.

“The Ol Lentille Conservancy was initiated by the local community together with the African Wildlife Foundation about 15 years ago. Before then, the conservation area used to be a grazing land for the local community who are the owners of the land.”

The tourism facility at the Sanctuary came a couple of years later, in 2007.

“So the community are benefiting from doing conservation, improving their land as well as doing the tourism business.”

Meeting the locals

We arrive at Nkiloriti school in the glorious sunshine of mid-morning. The huge blue skies are dotted with cotton-wool clouds and the red-sweatered children are strolling around or sitting in the shade of an acacia tree. Goats wander blithely around the grounds.

It’s a picturesque scene, but the children have walked as much as 10 kilometers to get here.

Many pupils won’t have made it here today at all. It’s mid-March and the rainy season has still to arrive. The prolonged drought has meant children are needed at home to fetch water or look after livestock.

Cheatham and McIntire meet with the teachers and children and distribute fresh supplies of notebooks and stationery. The school was built by the Ol Lentille Trust and the trust also covers the teachers’ salaries.

A mobile clinic is making its monthly visit to the community and a crowd is patiently waiting to be seen. The trust has “been able to build a 24-bed hospital for our local community, where we had none existing,” explains ole Mosiany.

The mobile clinic visits once a month.

The mobile clinic visits once a month.

Maureen O’Hare/CNN

Making a difference

As a physiatrist, a specialist in physical medicine and rehabilitation, it’s a subject close to Cheatham’s heart.

Only about 2% of active medical doctors in the US are black women and her path to get there wasn’t easy.

“I graduated from high school seven months pregnant,” she explains. She studied law, stopped college and had a second child. She adopted her niece and nephew and, after her nephew suffered a traumatic brain injury, she was inspired to become a doctor so she could help other people like him.

She started med school as a mother to four young children and was a doctor by 31. “Life was hard. I made the best of the situation that I had and I knew I had a long-term goal. I wanted to make a difference.”

Our visit to the manyatta — a small village of just a few families, who welcome us warmly with singing and dancing — “was another layer of emotion that I wasn’t quite ready for.”

Coming home

There is no water or electricity here in these simple huts, but there are solar panels on the roof so the villagers can charge their cell phones. Phones are the community’s way of keeping in touch with their relatives who have traveled to Nairobi and beyond for higher education.

“Being a descendant of a slave and then getting to come home and see people who look like you [and] welcome you into their community… ,” reflects Cheatham. “People don’t talk about privilege a lot. I consider myself, at some level, having privilege, being that I’m well educated and have seen so many different things and have been able to expose my children to so many different things. These children don’t get that,” she says.

“For them to be able to see me, I think meant a lot to them because, generally, tourists don’t look like me when they get to see them. I hope it was a blessing for them. I know it was a blessing for me.”

The village children enjoy posing for the cameras.

The village children enjoy posing for the cameras.

Maureen O’Hare/CNN

Problem-solving

The trust is partly funded by profits from the sanctuary and from donations by visitors.

“Most of our guests are thoughtful, intelligent people,” says Elias. “We show them problems and their response to that is, ‘how can I help?’ We’ve been able over the last eight years to put about $5.5 million worth of investments into this community.”

What they offer at Ol Lentille, he says, is “experiential travel. This is not about ticking off the big five mammals in a big game park somewhere.

“This is about giving a depth of understanding of how a totally different people live, how they make their livelihoods, what the structures of families are, what does it mean to be a Maasai or a Samburu.”

‘Amazed by every moment’

Cheatham and McIntire still have a few relaxing days ahead, of sundowners and bush dinners and wildlife-spotting. It’s not their first time on the continent and it won’t be their last.

Says sanctuary director Elias, “I freely admit that I’ve got ‘the Africa bug’ and a lot of people catch it.

“People who’ve got it come back. Our repeat rate here is 40%. One of our guests was here at Christmas and it was his 43rd visit; that’s obsession.”

“The reason why vacation is so important to me as well as to Mark,” says Cheatham, “is that this is the one time — it’s our protected time — that we have for each other where we don’t have the outside world. Each trip we learn something more about each other.”

Says McIntire to Cheatham as they reflect upon their day meeting the local community, “I’ve seen in our years together the evolution of how you’ve embraced your ancestry and started talking about doing something like this. Yesterday was what I imagined that you had always wanted to see and experience.”

Cheatham agrees, with a broad smile. “I’m amazed by every moment that I’ve gotten to be here.”

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