Kenya’s Loita Forest is a pristine wilderness sacred to the Maasai. The forest’s venerable protector sees a mystical landscape threatened by greed.
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.
We spoke about the land: ‘If we lose the land, we lose the culture. Lose the culture, lose the peace. Lose the peace, lose the community. Lose the community, lose our way of life. forever.’
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.