Tuleto "James" Sengeny Interview

 
 
 

GUIDE Q&A: Tuleto "James" Sengeny

 

The guide who has been with Outside GO from the beginning on being a Maasai warrior, not knowing his age, and hunting lions

By: SAFARITALK

 

Photos: Chip Cunningham | Sengeny visiting Outside GO Headquarters in Santa Fe

 
 

Outside GO is defined not only by beautiful locations worldwide, but by the exceptional guides who make adventures in these remote locations possible. These capable and efficient men and women have become family, and there is no better example than James Sengeny, who has been guiding with our team for over 20 years. The following interview is an excerpt from Safaritalk.

Smile so bright it could disturb a wildebeest crossing.  Eyes so sharp they would detect a hare from a plane.  Soul so gentle if he were to ever win a prize for it, he would give it away.  Indeed, we are talking about James Sengeny, a premier Maasai guide from Kenya who makes his home just outside the Masai Mara National Reserve.  During his visit to the U.S., Safaritalk catches up with James who muses about his age, his “monkey man” days, his big break, the wildebeest migration, jellyfish, etc.


 
 
 

Q:

 

So, you tell me that you are not quite sure how old you are...

 
 

A:

Yes (laughs). Maasai people have traditionally not cared about birthdays. You were born the year of the big flood or the year the lions killed a lot of cows or whatever… that was about it. My parents said I was born about a month after a big battle took place between the Maasai tribe and the Kalenjin tribe. People say that was 1972. So, that makes me 42. Maybe (laughs)…

 
 
 

Q:

 

How and when did you become interested in wildlife and nature?  Did your family have any influence in that regard?  Was there a particular moment in your life you can point to?

 
 

A:

My father loved wildlife, but he was just a regular Maasai, keeping cattle, sheep and goats. I will say there was a moment when I was about seven years old. We were living close to Aitong, which is north of Masai Mara. I was with my father herding cattle, and I got very hungry. We did not have any food with us, and we were about a mile away from our manyatta. My father pointed in one direction and told me if I walk straight there I would find our manyatta and some porridge in the house. During the walk, I got caught between a rhino mother and her calf. The mother could have easily charged me and killed me, but she and the calf ran away. I got so scared I screamed for help.

 

"This was my first true encounter with dangerous animals."

 

Even though I had seen buffalos and elephants, they were far way. Even though I had heard lions roaring at night, I was always inside – safe. Up to that point, real close encounters with dangerous animals were just stories told by elders. This encounter with rhinos really shook me. But at that moment, I learned that dangerous animals will leave you alone if you leave them alone. It was from that moment on that I became really interested in wild animals and nature.

 
 
 

Q:

 

During warriorhood, you can’t scream for help, can you?

 
 

A:

No, you can’t (laughs).  In our Maasai culture, it is very important that warriors are brave. I became a warrior when I was 14. Some of the things we did like cattle rustling were very scary, but I had to show a brave face.

 
 
 

Q:

 

Back then, things like lion-killing by Maasai warriors were still widespread.  How were you able to reconcile those things with your love of nature?

 
 

A:

Luckily, I didn’t have to deal with a lot of that, because I went to high school. Not many other warriors attended high school. I had only one month a year when I was with my fellow warriors.

 
 
 

Q:

 

What was your first experience in the safari industry?

 
 

A:

There was a company called Geo Safaris that operated a safari camp at a mobile campsite in the Mara. In 1991, I was hired there as an askari. But I had a special job: I was the “camp monkey man”. I was in charge of chasing away vervet monkeys. Those monkeys can get very naughty if they get used to a camp. They can steal just about anything. So, I harassed and chased them all day. They are so smart. When they saw other askaris, they wouldn’t budge. But when they saw me, they would run.

 
 
 
 

Q:

 

And you got your real break a year later.  Please tell us about that.

 
 

A:

Yes, Chip and Sandy Cunningham (now proprietors of Outside Go) were running a local camping company. Chip would sometimes fly into the Mara or sometimes drive in for mobile camping. I was hired as one of the askaris on one of their trips. This was before there were cell phones. Chip’s vehicle broke down on the way from Nairobi, but we didn’t know. There were three or four of us askaris, and we just waited all day and nothing happened. So, we decided to come back the next day, and they finally showed up. It was my first real encounter with mzungus. They offered me spaghetti, and I ate it very carefully because I didn’t really know what it was. But it was delicious!

Anyway, I was the only askari who spoke any English, so Chip asked me to be his spotter. The guests wanted to see wild dogs. By 1992, wild dogs were almost gone from the Mara region, but I knew where one small pack was denning. So, I took them there, and the guests were very happy. Then they asked me where they can see a cheetah. I had no clue, but I told them, yes, we can see a cheetah. And just a few minutes later, we lucked into a cheetah. The guests were very impressed with me, and they now wanted to see a leopard. Again, I had no clue as to how to find one, but we lucked into a leopard too. By this time,

 

"The guests and Chip are thinking, "Wow, who is this man?"

 

From then on, every time Chip came to the Mara, he asked for me and we became very good friends. On one of the trips, I took Chip to meet my father. My father asked him if Chip would be willing to take me to Nairobi to get me more schooling, and Chip agreed. So, in 1994, I moved to Nairobi to live with Chip and Sandy. I learned how to drive, and I went to some basic wildlife training classes offered by KWS. I also attended a KWS Institute near Lake Naivasha. Shortly after that, Chip and Sandy got a job to manage Ol Donyo Wuas (now Ol Donyo Lodge) in the Chyulu Hills, and I went with them.

 
 
 

Q:

 

Tell us about your family.  Your wife, children, your brothers…

 
 

A:

I met my wife while I was working at Ol Donyo Wuas. I got married in 1997 when I was 25, which is very late for a Maasai to be married. We have five children, all in boarding schools, and we live near Aitong. I am the eldest of the 7 Sengeny brothers. All of us but one work as guides in the Mara.

 
 
 

Q:

 

What are some of your favorite places in Kenya aside from Masai Mara?

 
 

A:

I would say the Lake Jipe area of Tsavo West comes to mind. Shaba and Meru also. They all have something in common:  they are not crowded with tourists, and they are very scenic.

 
 
 

Q:

 

What is the best part of your job?  What is the worst part?  How about this… tell us about your worst safari experience ever.

 
 

A:

The best part is encountering different cultures. The guests really have been wonderful. I never get tired of learning something from my guests. The worst part is when guests become too controlling, rather than trusting the guide to do his thing.

The worst experience ever? One time, I was guiding a honeymoon couple from Europe. Masai Mara was the first stop on their honeymoon. Before they left the Mara, they got divorced. They flew out on separate planes. Was it something I did (laughs)?

 
 
 

Q:

 

This is your second visit to the U.S.  You have been to many, many cities and states.  What impresses you most about America?

 
 

A:

The cities are very impressive. Manhattan. Wow, what tall buildings! The suburbs are nice too.  You have very well preserved forests. The Canadian goose is a beautiful bird. And I got to see a white-tailed deer this time. It seems everything is very orderly in America. Everyone respects the rules. I don’t see much taki-taki (rubbish) on the streets.

 
 
 
 

Q:

 

Will you promise to visit again?

 
 

A:

I will if you promise to visit Kenya again.

 
 
 

 

Outside GO is an adventure travel company with decades of experience. We'd love to help you plan your next trip. Rest assured it will be authentic, stylish, and built around your wildest dreams.

 

 

MAKE AN INQUIRY

 

Tuleto "James" Sengeny Interview

 
 

Once you submit your form, we'll get back to you with ideas, options, and logistical insight to begin planning the trip of your dreams. It's as simple as that.