RACING WITH THE MAASI
PURE ENCOUNTERS MOVIE STAR AND PURE AWARDS JUDGE, EDWARD NORTON
WORDS BY SARA HENRICHS
Edward Norton is a two-time Academy Award nominated actor and filmmaker. He is also a committed social and environmental activist who serves on the Boards of President Obama’s Committee for the Arts and Humanities and the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust, as well as being the United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for Biodiversity. He endowed and created the Middle East Peacemakers Fund at Yale University. In 2010, Norton and three partners co-founded an innovative new web platform, CrowdRise, (crowd-sourcing, fundraising, and volunteerism).
We caught up with Edward to find out his passions about the Maasai tribe, being a pilot and his thoughts on the role and responsibility of the experiential traveller.
When was the first time you went to Kenya and can you see a positive evolution? How many times have you been so far?
I went to Kenya for the first time in 2000. I have family that live in Laikipia and my sister used to work for the Africa desk of a great San Francisco based travel company called Geographic Expeditions. I’ve been many times in the years since, sometimes more than once a year. I’ve been involved with the building of a community-based organization down in the Maasai communities of the Amboseli-Tsavo ecosystem since about 2002. It’s called the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust and I’m head of the Board now. Kenya is changing, like any other country, and it has challenges but also incredible opportunities to get things right that other countries like the US have already screwed up!
Can you describe your first experience with the Maasai and how have you maintained relations with them?
My first experience meeting people from the Maasai community was at the fantastic eco-lodge called Campi Ya Kanzi, which is down in the Kuku Maasai Group Ranch in the Chyulu Hills. At first I was like any other visitor to this community owned eco-tourism operation… just in awe of the landscape and the wildlife and fascinated by the culture of the Maasai. They were incredibly welcoming and wonderful guides into the environment. I was very struck by a guy named Samson Parashina who had a very focused and sophisticated interest in helping his community evolve in their management of natural resources to create a sustainable economic and cultural future. I’ve spent a lot of time working on conservation issues and around a lot of professional conservationists all my life and I thought ‘This guy is the real deal… I should be trying to help him.’ So I got involved in supporting the organization that he started with the Italian conservationist who originally founded Campi ya Kanzi with the community, Luca Belpietro. It’s called the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust and after 10 years of working on it together MWCT is now a globally recognized and highly awarded organization.
There were 30 runners including yourself taking part in the NY Marathon in 2009 and you raised over $1million for the Trust, which is incredible! What were you able to do for the Maasai with this fund? And how do you feel about this achievement?
It was a great way for us to involve the guys from MWCT personally in the communication about MWCT’s mission and value within the global conservation agenda. The money we raised provided nearly two years’ worth of operating funds for the organization, which now employs over 200 people from the local community through its various programs. It was great fun. We were all proud of what we pulled off and we had a lot of great friends both running and donating who deserve a lot of the credit. I really had hoped to be the fastest on our team… but one of the three Maasai guys crushed me. He impressed even the pro runners. I did outpace two of them though and that bought me a lot of credibility the next time I went back to Kenya!
You have a private pilot license – was that one of the reasons you wanted to explore Africa? What has been you most memorable flight?
I had been in small planes all my life and out in Kenya everybody I know flies around in them… so I finally made the time and knuckled down to study and train about 10 years ago. It’s still one of my addictions. I borrowed a friend’s plane once in Kenya and flew from just north of Kilimanjaro all the way up to Lake Turkana to visit the Leakeys at their Turkana Basin digs up there. That was pretty memorable.
And where do you still want to fly to?
There’s almost nowhere I wouldn’t prefer to be flying over driving. I’d like to poke up the British Columbia coast from Vancouver… see those forests and stop and kayak.
What is your advice to the high-end experiential travel industry?
That would not be a short answer! I’d say that tourism has to be understood as an ‘extractive industry’ just as much as logging or mining or fishing when it’s poorly practiced. But it can be a great force to assist preservation of natural places when done the right way… as they do at Campi Ya Kanzi. There’s a more extensive conversation I was part of that I think is pretty good about this subject that you can read here.
As a social activist and environmentalist you launched CrowdRise, which was recently nominated by Barron’s among the 25 Most Important New Ideas in Philanthropy. What is your message to the experiential traveller?
I’m not sure CrowdRise relates to travel specifically, although we have seen many people, especially young people and even kids, come back from travel experiences that affected them and create crowdfunding projects to support a program making a positive impact in the place they went. I do think that these days we can engage so much more easily and have direct impact in far away places that, more than ever, travel can be the stepping stone into life-long engagements and friendships that really enrich your life. That’s certainly been true for me.