Field sketch of Julius Nderitu by Eric Andriantsialonina, Kenya, November 2021 | Ink and watercolor on paper.

The Driver

The inside story of how our driver became our fieldwork hero.

March 2024

When you visit the Maasai Mara National Reserve for the first time you feel as if you’ve been there before. You’ve seen it already, on film or somewhere else, and that sense of familiarity can distract you from seeing what’s really happening there, in front of your eyes.

On a clear day, you can see for miles. The grassy plains extend outward in every direction, interrupted only by the flat-topped acacia trees that dot the landscape. A less natural sight also dots the horizon: open-topped SUVs on the prowl for a coveted snap of the reserve’s true rockstars: elephants, giraffes, lions, cheetahs, and rhinos. It’s a familiar scene to the men behind the wheels. They are the gatekeepers who shepherd the adoring visitors in and out daily. But not all visitors are welcomed guests.

On November 26, 2021, as the park closes and the sun sets over the savanna, some 200 hoofed visitors enter Maasai Mara. These are not wild African bison, but domesticated cattle, driven in by two young herders, fully aware of the threat of attacks from wild animals or the 10,000 Kenyan shillings ($72) fine they face for bringing illegal livestock onto park grounds.

In recent years, severe drought had led to a shortage of available pasture, forcing herders into a dilemma: Graze illegally on the reserve, risking confrontations with wardens and attacks by lions, or watch their livestock starve to death.

The two young men and their cows might have gone unnoticed were it not for a nearby Toyota Land Cruiser carrying DAWNING’s research team, at the end of a long day of work.

We were in Kenya traversing five diverse regions to investigate the impact of the water crisis on the rights of women and girls. The project involved three weeks of fieldwork, close to 100 in-depth interviews, thousands of photographs, and the collaboration of a diverse team of 25 professionals, more than half of them Kenyan.

The sighting of the herd caused a stir inside the mud-spattered Land Cruiser, at the time bound for a base camp miles away. Our team was tired, but recognized a rare opportunity to speak directly with Maasai herders about the six-year drought that forced them there.

Our driver, Julius Maina Nderitu, made a sharp U-turn, flinging the team sideways as he approached the herders. Julius wasn’t confident that the herders would speak to us; he thought they would run away the moment he beckoned them over.

Julius is a polite and portly man with a shaved head and wide smile. Sensing no threat, the herders obliged. Controlled chaos ensued within the car, as our team woke up to the extraordinary opportunity. Not sure how much the herders would stand our rapid-fire questions, Julius translated in his friendly voice – an exercise in teamwork that felt natural.

In exchange for anonymity, the young herders spoke freely about the choice they made: “It is worth it to come into the park, even if you lose cows and have to pay a fine. It is better to lose 20 cows rather than having all of them die of hunger.” The men also freely shared that they had bribed two wardens to enter the park.

Our team sped off to find those wardens, whom Julius also persuaded to talk openly with us about the daily invasion of cows at night. The improvised commando mission shone a light on an unexpected angle of the story —and an unexpected new team member.

Julius Maina Nderitu was born in 1979 in a small farming community near the foot of Mount Kenya. The firstborn of four, his upbringing was spent close to nature. Julius’ uncle, a guide at Maasai Mara, regaled his nephew with the stories of his safaris.

Once old enough to care for the family’s goats and sheep, Julius would bring them to the edges of a nearby forest to graze. There, he saw small animals like impalas, as well as footprints of lions and hyenas, which he and his friends made a sport of trying to analyze.

The family’s relationship with nearby wildlife was not always peaceful. During the dry season, hungry elephants were known to ravage the family’s farm at night in search of food. “It was so destructive,” Julius recalls, “but at the same time, I sympathized with them. We had supper, we are full, but the animals are hungry—that’s why they’re coming to our farm.”

Later in life, he became a vegetarian in solidarity with the threatened wildlife around him.

Julius moved to Nairobi for college, where he dedicated himself to studying languages—first Japanese, then Spanish. Following in his uncle’s footsteps, he founded Campo East African Safaris in 2010, catering at first to Spanish-speaking tourists.

Our team was different from his usual clientele. We worked every day from early morning to late at night, and we had no interest in sightseeing. For the first ten days, he mostly stood back and listened, mindful of his role as a driver. But guides in the savanna aren’t the same as guides in Times Square.

That November evening in Maasai Mara, encouraged by our team and guided by his own instincts, Julius seamlessly took on a new role, more routinely described as a “fixer”—a local contractor hired to use their knowledge of local linguistics, politics, culture, not to mention street smarts, to bring tough projects to life.

In Julius’ case, we might say “safari smarts” – an intuitive ability to decipher and follow tracks, to see what’s not there and piece together what is. Unfortunately, this type of essential and specialized work too often goes uncredited or even unacknowledged in international projects.

After Maasai Mara, Julius became deeply collaborative with our team. We drove 200 miles north from the drought-stricken reserve to the village of N’Gambo, whose residents’ lives had been upended by the opposite problem: N’Gambo lies partially submerged under Lake Baringo, which flooded catastrophically one year before after a week of torrential rains, forcing villagers to flee with whatever they could carry on their backs.

By the end of 2021, some 76,000 families had been relocated to a nearby camp, with scant access to water and other basic services. One villager said her family’s food rations abruptly halted after one month at the camp.

In dire circumstances and without government support, residents of N’Gambo were forced to survive by any means necessary. We heard about how many women and girls from the camp, desperate for money, were turning to sex work in Marigat, the nearest city. “Young girls will do anything to survive,” a local schoolteacher lamented. “Even girls in our classes have engaged in prostitution with men in the community to get money for soap and sanitary pads.”

En route to our small hotel in Marigat that evening, the DAWNING team stopped at a roadside canteen. Over a round of Kingfisher beers, we discussed what the schoolteacher had said. “There has to be someone organizing and connecting them to clients,” insisted Raul Roman, our project director. “If there really is a prostitution and trafficking ring in Marigat, there has to be a king.”

Julius interjected slyly, “maybe it’s a queen. A woman would have an easier time gaining the trust of these displaced women—particularly if they’re young.”

“Can you find this queen?”

“Yes. But it’s going to be a late night.”

“Do it.”

The team awoke to a muggy morning, eager for news. In the small communal kitchen at our hotel, Raul made a beeline for Julius before bothering to put any food on his plate.

“Did you get the queen?”

“I did. We see her at 11 a.m.”

The previous evening, Julius had taken it upon himself to walk into the bar at the most upscale hotel in Marigat, a watering hole where sex workers are known to regularly meet clients. He struck up a conversation with a waiter: “Who are these girls at the bar? They look very new. Are they from the city?” Waiter: “No, they’re from the villages. We only see them at night. They’re looking for men.”

“Are they working alone?”

“No, they have a boss. She should be here later.”

As the boss arrived, the waiter pointed her out. She initially believed Julius to be a customer. But his affable demeanor shifted the tone, and she ultimately shared that she had also lost her house in a flood.

The conversations Julius opened were game-changing for DAWNING in Baringo. They called attention to a more complex and nuanced reality than what most people perceived.

The pursuit of truth takes a village. Julius, our driver, became one of the best researchers we’ve ever had at DAWNING. In our upcoming book Pipe Dreams, published by FotoEvidence and based on our work in Kenya, Julius is credited as “Research Fellow and Driver.” His words, and a full-page watercolor of him, open the chapter on Baringo.

Article by Elliot Waldman | Photographs by Rafe H Andrews and Nick Parisse | Watercolors by Eric Andriantsialonina 

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