Sue Watt visits a special lodge: Sabuk Lodge, home to one of Africa’s first female guides who’s now helping to educate Samburu girls. It’s a win-win situation and guests benefit too.
There’s something special about a lodge that’s also a home, something the bland travel industry phrase “owner-run” just doesn’t convey. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, sometimes the “feel” of a place is far more important than furnishings and fittings, and if you can combine a homely, relaxed ambience with beautiful décor, you’re onto a winner. Sabuk in Laikipia, north central Kenya, does just that - and more besides.
Over three days at Sabuk, my mother and I explored the wild Laikipia Plateau by foot and unusually, by camel, with amazing sightings of leopard, elephants and kudu. But camel safaris aren’t the only rare thing about Sabuk. Its owner, Verity Williams, was one of Africa’s first women safari guides, starting in the early 1980’s when it was very much a man’s world. She’s travelled across the continent leading private safaris in classic Out of Africa style, even working on that film as a location advisor. She’s still a busy lady – guiding, hosting guests at Sabuk and running the ranch that surrounds it. But she also finds time to work closely with her neighbouring Samburu communities.
There’s a deep connection between Verity, her staff and the local people. She set up the Nalare Community Wildlife Conservancy to help conserve the wildlife and habitat of this incredible area, at the same time working to raise the living standards of the 2500 people that live here.
Pastoralists with a deep pride in their tribal culture, the Samburu still have homes or bomas made of mud and sticks, tending to herds of cattle and goats, and follow traditional customs and beliefs. One of those beliefs is that a woman’s place is most definitely in the home and as soon as girls are able, they work on domestic chores, many never finishing their primary education.
I visited the local Lobarishereki Primary School, where Verity is slowly bringing about a transformation in girls’ education. Donating a percentage of Sabuk’s profits, she has funded the building of a dormitory for 60 girls.
“Verity’s support is so important to us. The dormitory has made a huge difference,” Samson, the school’s headmaster told me. “The girls are doing really well in their studies because they don’t have to walk two hours each way to school, often in the dark, nor carry out all the household chores traditionally expected of them. Now, they have the time – and the electricity - to study in the evenings and at weekends.”
In a community where 98% of parents are illiterate, education was a new thing for the 500 pupils here. Until recently, very few children went on to further education but now, Lobarishereki ranks fourth in the whole district for the number of pupils graduating to high school. And Verity is helping to sponsor them, along with providing teaching materials, computers, furniture, and funding for classrooms, kitchens and teachers’ salaries.
At Sabuk, she employs only local people, and helps with income generating projects for women like making elephant-dung paper, beading and bee-keeping. She’s also funded a medical dispensary and three wells for the communities.
The result is a strong bond between locals and lodge, which benefits Sabuk’s guests too. Because of their close connection, we were invited to a traditional Samburu wedding while we were staying with Verity. This was the real article, not just a show for tourists, and we were the only white people there. The welcome we received was warm and genuine, and the spirit and soul of the Samburu dancing in their vivid wedding finery was unforgettable.