In 1983, on his 22nd birthday, David Patient was diagnosed with what would become known as Aids. He was given six months to live by his doctors. The young man was fraught and even attempted suicide. Fast forward to 33 years later and Patient is still going strong. From facing down death, Patient – along with his partner Neil Orr – became a gallant activist, placing himself on the front lines in the fight against the spread of the disease, using education as a tool.

He shares some of his experiences in the first of a two-part excerpt taken from his book Make a plan: possibility and empowerment in a time of AIDS, co-authored by Donna Mosher. It will be launched at the conference next week.

Conservation Corporation Africa had a problem. It was a problem that threatened the viability of their business. Most importantly, it threatened the lives of their staff.

The luxury travel company, now called andBeyond, offers some of the finest safari and tour experiences to visitors from around the world. Their commitment to sustainable and responsible travel, conservation, and community empowerment has been globally recognised.

AndBeyond hires and trains indigenous guides to take tourists on exclusive safaris.

These trackers and game wardens, who are members of as many as fifty different tribes from across Africa, possess an innate knowledge and understanding of the land and wildlife that cannot be taught.

The warriors speak the language of the bush. They know how to read leopard spoor and how to track an elephant. They pass the knowledge to their sons. They know how to “deliver” the wildlife and experiences that a visitor wants to have on safari.

Contracting

Maasai warriors guided tourists at the andBeyond lodges in Kenya and Tanzania. In the late 1990s, these staff members began contracting HIV. Their lives were at risk, as was the irreplaceable knowledge they possessed. By 2002, andBeyond knew they had to do something to stop the increasing rate of infection, to restore the health of their staff, and to preserve the indigenous knowledge that was vital to andBeyond’s business.

The Maasai are a nomadic people who traditionally have moved their homes every two or three months as they followed the rains and the migration of wildlife across lands surrounding the Serengeti. Cows are their principal commodity. The size of one’s herd determines status and wealth in the community. They have no sense of private ownership, believing that any and all cattle they encounter on their travels belong to them. The Maasai value their livestock much like financial assets.

The traditional Maasai village is constructed in a circular manner that reflects the values of their culture. A fence of thorny branches defines the kraal and protects the community. The women and the children live in a ring just inside the kraal. The Maasai are a polygamous society, so there are numerous wives and lots of kids. The next ring will be where the men (called warriors) of the tribe live.

The chiefs, or munyakittis, and the tribal leadership live in the next ring. The livestock is kept in the centre. This structure tells us that women and children are valued the least and may be sacrificed in the event of an invasion by another tribe or by wildlife.

Next, if necessary, they are prepared to lose the warriors. As a last resort, the leadership of the tribe would go. The animals must be protected at all costs.

Meishoo iyiook enkai inkishu o-nkera.” So goes a Maasai prayer: “May Creator give us cattle and children.”

Suddenly – at least in terms of an evolutionary calendar – several developments coincided to jeopardise this ancient tribal community and its traditional lifestyle.

For ages, the Maasai moved every few weeks. The concept of national boundaries and private land ownership was alien to them. But not to the governments of the lands that sustained them. By the last half of the twentieth century, a Maasai warrior from Kenya could no longer roam freely where weather and grazing took him. Everywhere, fences hemmed him in. Land was protected as nature reserves, or in private hands.

The Maasai were compelled, essentially, to stay in one place.

Their livestock, the tribe’s livelihood and primary food source, could no longer readily roam to forage for fresh grasses. With the shortage of a healthful food supply, the health of the cattle suffered.

And just imagine the impact of keeping livestock in the centre of the kraal.

Accumulation of excrement rapidly compromised the health of this now-stationary community. The people experienced unprecedented increases in infection, respiratory ailments, and digestive issues.

Economic demands forced the men to look for paid employment off the land and away from the community.

Separation from their wives increased the incidence of casual sex. And that, of course, left them vulnerable to HIV infection.

The Maasai warriors were dying, and with them was vanishing the indigenous knowledge on which they thrived, not to mention their gifts with multiple languages, in guiding the international guests, preparing the delicious meals, and more. And this was a direct threat to the sustainability of the andBeyond business model.

Troubling

In the early 2000s, particularly after 9/11 and the resulting drop in tourism, andBeyond began to experience a troubling financial decline.

Nevertheless, in 2002, andBeyond asked Neil and me to offer training that could reverse the trend and save the lives of their staff and the tribal communities.

Neil and I were willing to offer our services in exchange for a stay in their luxury lodge.

But the company still needed to invest in transportation, food, staff, and all the other expenses of a ten-day residential conference for the tour guides, their families, and their village leadership.

At a cost of some US$70 000, andBeyond was able to present two training sessions: one in South Africa for the southern lodges and one in East Africa for their operations there.

Neil and I arrived at one of the company’s East African lodges, Kichwa Tembo in the south-western Mara, to train one hundred and thirty members of two tribes, the Kikuyu and the Maasai.

Some were from rural areas, and others lived in cities. We needed to share as simply as possible why they were getting sick, how they could regain their health, and what they needed to do to stay vibrantly healthy.

Traditionally, our programmes introduced an overview of the immune system, an elementary explanation of germ theory, and the power of nutrient-dense foods.

And so we launched optimistically into the morning of the first day.

At the lunch break, the chief representative of the Maasai tribe approached us. “This is fascinating stuff,” he told us through his interpreter. “We have never been exposed to any of this before. And whilst we are learning all this, you need to be aware of something. We don’t eat solid foods.”

Remember: cattle equal wealth for the Maasai. Accumulating cows rather than consuming them is common practice. Therefore, a traditional Maasai diet includes the blood from a cow, mixed with its milk. The blood is carefully drawn from the cow’s jugular artery in such a way that it doesn’t harm the animal in any way.

They forage a bit when the rains are good, but for the most part, the Maasai do not eat vegetables. And Neil and I were there to teach them vegetable gardening!