Still proud – portrait interview with Samwel Naikada

Samwel Naikada. Photo Håkan Lindgren
Samwel Naikada. Photo Håkan Lindgren

The modern way of life is gradually taking over in Samwel Ole Naikada’s Maasai village. But he will never let go of the Maasai legacy of protecting forests and wildlife. When he leaves Kenya for global climate negotiations the traditions go with him.

TEXT  Mats Hellmark

This is an English translation of an interview published in the magazine Sveriges Natur #5/14

PDF version here: Fortfarande stolt – porträttintervju med massajen Samwel Naikada

Extended Swedish version here


We meet with Samwel Naikada in the small town Kilgoris where he studies. A tall, cool guy who sort of surfs on top of the messy street life. Over lunch the photographer Håkan asks that particular question you should never put to a pastoralist, whether Sami in Sweden or Maasai in Kenya or Tanzania: “How many animals do you own?”

Samwel smiles and explains that this is like asking someone how much money he has in the bank. In fact, it’s far more than that. Even the very word Maasai is connected to the animals, cattle stands for life itself.

After a visit to the grocery store, shopping for European stomachs, Samwel folds his tall self into the car he has borrowed from his children’s school teacher and we head south. The first part is decent dirt road, the rains haven’t started yet. Every now and then we meet donkey carts loaded with charcoal for cooking, a sight that Samwel disapproves of. Charcoal burning threatens forests across Africa, but in Maasai areas this hasn’t been a problem.

– For us it is a taboo, a curse. Whoever does it will turn as black as coal himself, it is said. But now the traditions are dwindling, people care less and less …

The village Olkirreruki. Photo Mats Hellmark
The village Olkirreruki. Photo Mats Hellmark

The last miles are completely off road, we bump through bush landscape, follow narrow cattle trails and pass a broken fence that was demolished by elephants a few days earlier. A herd of zebras disperse in front of the car just as we are about to enter Samwel’s boma (fenced area for livestock and houses).

– They feel safer close to houses since there is less risk of lions here, Samwel says.

The day before a cheetah killed a small antelope at the closest waterhole, and a few days earlier a jackal stole a baby goat. Samwel’s village Olkirreruki is situated right next to the great forest Nyakweri which in turn adjoins the Maasai Mara National Park. No wonder there is an abundance of wildlife nearby, and that Samwel got hooked on nature conservation already as a child.

– You could say that I was an activist from the start. I hated when trees were felled, and when poachers hunted in the woods.

He reported them regularly to the National Park Rangers, and eventually the boy who was so good at speaking English started to get odd jobs for the conservancy.

Håkan and I move into one of the family’s huts, next to the cow enclosure and the small house for the goats, made with interlaced branches. The hut has walls made of dried cow dung just like the others, but is more modern with its square shape, small window-openings and corrugated tin roofs instead of straw. Since a few weeks back there is also a solar panel on the roof that powers small lamps and a device for charging mobiles (previously the family had to walk eight kilometers to a larger village for charging in shops with electricity).

Samwel shifts quilted jacket and jeans to traditional Shuka (blanket to wrap around the upper body) and long rod. This is the way he feels most comfortable, and the animals are most at ease with people who dresses traditionally.

– Still I rarely wear Shuka when I go to town, everybody keeps asking what we are celebrating…

Children from the village. Photo Mats Hellmark
Children from the village. Photo Mats Hellmark

But for the longer trips, to the large cities where the climate negotiations take place, he always brings it. Even if the weather is a bit too cold, like in Copenhagen 2009. Samwel has represented indigenous people in four global climate negotiations. Clothes that stand out make it easier to get attention.

– We often need to make a lot of fuss to be listened to, to make our views part of the process.

Cooperating with indigenous people from different parts of the world is rewarding, and Samwel sees many similarities in attitude and culture. But the general result of the negotiations is disappointing. Top players like the US push their own agendas and fight to minimize their efforts. The indigenous peoples are among the most vulnerable and affected, but get little sympathy. Samwel has also been working with biodiversity issues under the frame of the Convention for Biological Diversity and he feels the Nagoya Protocol takes better account of the rights of indigenous people.

Samwel specializes in forestry issues. He has presented the local conservancy project Dupoto Forest and Wildlife Association at several workshops, one of them in Copenhagen.

– I was participating in the panel discussion along with Wangari Maathai and several Kenyan parliamentarians. At first the people from the government did not want to cooperate, they saw us almost as rivals. But that has changed, in Durban we negotiated out of a common position.

Our arrival is a big event in Olkirreruki where cars (and white people as well) are rare sights. Samwel’s six children are overjoyed as Håkan takes snapshots and show them on the camera screen. Their grandfather Tubula Ole Naikada comes to greet us. He is in his eighties (year of birth unknown), but is still out herding animals every day.

When he was young the local Maasai still lived as nomads. The animals could graze where the grass was greenest. The rains were also longer, the drought periods shorter.

Tubula Naikada. Photo Mats Hellmark
Samwel Naikada’s father Tubula Naikada. Photo Mats Hellmark

– After independence 1963 the land was subdivided, agriculture became more frequent and national parks formed closed areas. We could not move as we used to. Life became more difficult, says Tubula.

The traditional diet is almost entirely based on milk. Meat is uncommon, Tubula ate it almost only during the period when he was a warrior, Moran. The Morans also prepared and ate herbs that made them brave. Hunting dangerous animals were part of the rites. Tubula has killed two lions and one elephant. And several men.

– I liked to fight …

His son Samwel has undergone the rituals that mark the end of the warrior period and initiate for life as an elder, but just as ceremony. He has never lived the warrior’s life, which lasts for several years.

– To get a good life today young people need education and jobs. There is neither time nor possibilities for pursuing the old way of living all the way.

For his own part, he broke the traditional bonds by eloping from the wedding his father had negotiated for him in order to continue studying in town. He became the first in the area with high school exams (today it is common) and the last few years he has taken up studies again at university level in Kilgoris.

His wife Diana (who is actually the sister of the girl he ran away from) takes responsibility for livestock and family when he is in Kilgoris.

– It works out fine. There are mobile phones…

Nevertheless, preserving the culture is important to Samwel. One suggestion he has put forward is creating a local training center where elders can pass on knowledge to the young Maasai.

– Maasai pastoralism is in harmony with nature, as long as there is enough land for the grazing. The hunting is generally not done for meat but regarded as rites of initiation. The clans have totem animals, a factor that contributes to the will to protect nature. And forests have always been important, for medicine, for the holy sites and for water supply.

The forests are used, but sustainably. When roots or branches are harvested it is important to cover bare areas to ensure survival of the trees. For firewood only dry branches are used.

Early next day Samwel and two young guides accompany us into Nyakweri forest. We are a bit tired as the dogs have been chasing hyenas around the huts during the night, but it is a great experience to walk under the canopy of trees and listen to all the stories. A glade has just been visited by elephant mothers who gather particularly nutritious roots for their kids.

Walking safaris are a way to raise money for the Dupoto organization that Samwel heads. The word Dupoto means benefit: income from ecotourism will ensure the survival of the forest. A large dam has been built (the village can now manage two years of drought without shortage of water), 40 beehives have been set up and Dupoto pays for expansion of the local school.

Samwel Naikadas mother Resiato NolkiPali Naikada. Photo Mats Hellmark
Samwel Naikada’s mother Resiato NolkiPali Naikada. Photo Mats Hellmark

Dupoto has given the villagers a positive view of protected areas. This has not always been the case. Although the national park Maasai Mara attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists every year, the revenue only marginally benefits local communities. Instead the possibility for grazing is limited and wildlife from the park cause property damage and human injuries and deaths every year.

– The parks protect wildlife but are not helpful to the locals. There are provisions for compensation, but they do not function as they are supposed to, Samwel says.

The Dupoto project has also had conflicts. A British-owned tobacco company was starting up large plantations adjacent to the forest six years ago. Bribery and harassments fragmented the local society for some time.

– I called around to authorities and made a row about it. It took six months of struggle, but finally the Kenyan Environmental Protection Agency said no to the farms. The company really hated me and tried to get at me personally.

But threats do not discourage a Maasai, Samwel concludes.

– We don’t give in, we are still a proud people …

Samwel’s milestones

1993 Samwel escapes from the wedding to be able to study for a high school exam (the first in the area). It takes several months before he comes home to meet his father again.

1997 Forming Dupoto Wildlife and Forest Association to protect the Nyakweri forest with its rich flora and fauna.

1998 Moves to Nairobi for tourism education. He works there for a few years but is longing to go back home.

2004 Working on conservation projects in Kilgoris and the areas surrounding Nyakweri forest.

2008 First time Samwel participates in global climate negotiations (Póznan). He has also been to Copenhagen in 2009, Cancún in 2010 and Durban in 2011. “For indigenous people it is important to make a lot of fuss if you are to be heard”, he says.

2012 Begins to study at university level again to gain formal qualification for higher conservation jobs.

Samel Naikada. Photo Mats Hellmark
Samel Naikada. Photo Mats Hellmark

Indigenous Information Network is the Kenyan NGO Samwel collaborates with to build a climatically sustainable community in Narok District. IIN has also made it possible for him to participate in the climate negotiations, in part supported by Swedish aid money.

Read more about Dupoto Wildlife & Forestry Association and guided walks in the Nyakweri forest here

To the top with a smile – interview with Emelie Forsberg

PORTRAIT: Emelie Forsberg is the runner girl who showed up as a rookie and won everything that was possible to win in one of the world’s toughest sports. Yet it is not the victories that drives her, but the urge to be moving in nature.

TEXT by Mats Hellmark, editor at Sveriges Natur
PHOTOS by Thron Ullberg

This is a rough English translation of my interview with Swedish Trail Running Champion Emelie Forsberg, published in Swedish in the magazine Sveriges Natur. The Swedish version and one of the images is available on this link

Treadmills and asphalt are not to Emelie Forsberg’s liking. If you are to run, you should do it outside, in nature, she thinks. Preferably up and down the wildest mountain sides.

No wonder she has settled here, I think, when we board the car ferry from Tromsø. Since 2013 Emelie’s home is the mountainous Norwegian peninsula Lyngen, with some of the region’s sharpest peaks just around the corner from her house. Insanely beautiful, but hardly possible to take on without ropes and proper climbing equipment. Or?

A pair of good running shoes is quite enough. Or a pair of skis like these ones, says Emelie.

We are standing in the entryway of the house that she rents together with her boyfriend and elite training partner Kilian Jornet, pondering over skis and boots that weighs almost nothing. The sport is called ski mountaineering, and Emelie is among the world’s best in this field as well.

You put skins on the skis and trample off uphill, she explains. At the top you remove the skins and head off down the gutters at full speed.

– I’ve never actually had a fall during racing. It’s all about being comfortable with what you do, even if you’re tired.

To Emelie ski mountaineering is an everyday activity during wintertime: she can’t run when the snow is deep, and it stays that way for a long time this far north of the Arctic Circle. As she doesn’t consider the road an option she won’t have many running days in her body before the season’s first races.

That alone makes her a bit of an exception among the world’s best in trail running (running on small nature trails) and skyrunning (mountain running). In Sweden these are sports that are upcoming, but still has some way to go before reaching the popularity they have in many other parts the world. In the Alps mountain races attract large audiences and Emelie is a celebrity who is met with cheers and applause everywhere.

When she broke through in 2012, it was as a sensation: without coaching and with few previous qualifications she left the rivals behind in race after race. She is particularly fast going downhill, Emelie has a somewhat magical ability to just let go and let her feet find their own path. (Watch video clip of a downhill race) A World Cup victory and 20 podium finishes in 21 races was the improbable outcome of the season.

Last year was even more successful: finishing first in almost every race, including double victories in the European Championships in the Dolomites. The grand final of the season was a race that is considered one of the world’s most difficult: Diagonale des Fous, the Diagonal of fools, is set on the island of La Réunion, east of Madagascar, and winds over high mountains and through rainforests for a distance of more than 160 km. The race goes on for two nights. Although she had a tough time she finished second.

BUT IT’S NOT just the medals that makes her special. It is the way she wins them: with a constant smile. It is easy to see how much she enjoys running.

– Many people say oh, you started racing and won at once. But I had prepared myself with other sports and spent much time in mountainous terrain. I actually don’t think so much about trail running as a sport. To me it is a way of moving in nature the way people have done as long as we have existed as a species, and as other animals do: lightly and quickly, without leaving a footprint.

The forests were the playroom for Emelie when she grew up; she was always on the go in the nature surrounding her home in the Swedish coastal town of Härnösand.

– Me and my sister always went by ourselves to friends, never got driven in a car. When you spend a lot of time outside as a child you begin to enjoy it. Many kids never experience this freedom to move today. I think that is a pity. You have to be in nature to develop a love for it, to start caring.

When she started school different sports became new “playrooms”: orienteering, soccer, skiing, rock climbing, basketball. But trail running ended up as number one.

– Partially because it’s so simple. Anyone can do it, there are no fixed standards except those we create ourselves.

How important is the experiencing of nature to you, compared to winning the races?

– 90-10 maybe. You get to experience so much out in nature, such a respect and understanding. That’s what really drives me. That feeling is so great to share with the others who are competing.

INTERVIEWING EMELIE feels different compared to talking to other sport stars. It may have to do with the sport itself: those who have read Born to Run, the “bible” of ultra- and skyrunning already know that a strong sense of community, freedom and love of nature is prevalent, often more so than fighting for positions and kilometer times.

But Emelie has a directness and a way of thinking slightly outside the box that feels unique even in this context. Just consider the way she won her first mountain marathon in 2010, competing as an unknown exerciser. In the middle of the race she paused for a long coffee break with homemade chocolate cake.

Emelie likes food and pastries and finds it difficult understanding athletes who starve themselves to gain seconds. A specialized running reporter once described Emelie Forsberg’s sursprising formula for success as happiness, non-existent training plan and lots of cinnamon buns.

– Haha, yes, I like bread and baking. I have taken a baking course on Saltå mill and worked as a baker at Storulvåns mountain lodge using a lot of locally grown and organic ingredients. You have to give the baking process time and the ingredients should be the best.

One example of good ingredients is crowberry, which she picks in large amounts in the mountains of Lyngen and uses for juice and bread. A smart way to get vitamins without using too much imported fruit during winter. She prefers organic food, but thinks Norwegian stores are not as good as Swedish supplying it. The prices are also higher.

When she moved to Tromsø in 2011, she first lived in a community with other young people in the city centre. To make ends meet they collected food in waste containers outside the grocery stores.

– We actually got a lot of our food from the containers. Fine food, but with a short shelf life. Sometimes we even got whole Skrei-cods. I think it’s a pity that Swedish stores let so much edible food go to waste instead of giving it away. It is such a waste of resources.

Emelie believes in simplicity, to choose your own way. Scandinavians should be able to make a free choice of life style, she thinks. Maybe work less and avoid getting caught up in the rat race in order to fulfill expectations of high status and buying expensive objects. Emelie herself is not a big time consumer. She rarely buys new clothes, mostly uses sportswear.

– I train a lot but actually don’t take showers so very often either, she says with a giggle.

THINKING SUSTAINABLY has been a habit all the way from childhood. Emelie’s father died when she was a newborn and the early years was a hard period for her mother who worked, studied and cared for two small children.

At school there was a lot of talk about recycling and environmental issues. The Forsberg sisters were much influenced and brought the ideas back home.

– It was our initiative to live more consciously and sustainably. Mom also took to the ideas and made it a way of living in our family.

Environmental issues were also crucial for her choice of profession. She started to train for forester in Umeå, but discovered that the education did not match her ideals. In addition, she did not like to live in a big city. After an interruption of studies she started studying to become biologist, an education she expects to revive and finish, perhaps this autumn.

But for the moment she has full focus on the running. She is a member of Salomon’s international team, she organizes training trips to the Swedish mountains, she is writing for a running magazine and is a frequent blogger.

In the blog she writes about running, but also about living in harmony with nature, about time and about ecology. For the most part, the response is positive, but she has also received some negative comments about the climatic effects of her flights to competitions around the world.

– Right now I live to compete and be a public figure. I know it is not sustainable in the long run, and try to minimize travel and adapt my everyday life. But I think that everything has its time. If I could live on my salary and just keep moving in these mountains, that would be satisfying enough …

Mats Hellmark mats.hellmark(at)

Trail Running: Running on nature trails and over untrodden ground.
Skyrunning: Running at over 2000 meters altitude and with a slope of more than 30 percent.
Ultra Running: Running distances longer than the marathon (42 km).

• Read Emelie’s blog and recipes in English on
• Read Emelie’s blog in Swedish for the magazine Runner’s World.

Born in Härnösand, Sweden. Growing up with the forest as a playroom. She tries many sports, for a while basket ball was number one.
Working during the summer at the mountain lodge in Jotunheimen, Norway. Starting to study to become a forester in Umeå.
Work at mountain lodges in Jotunheimen and Storulvån, as a baker.
Studies biology. Runs her first mountain marathon in Vålådalen, Sweden. She won, in spite of a long coffee break with chocolate cake …
Moving to Tromsø, Norway, for studies and for the amazing scenery.
Breakthrough year when Emelie starts competing for real and wins most of the races, including the World Championships in Skyrunning.
Almost exclusively victories in the races, including two European Championship golds in Italy. Campaigning for the Keep Sweden Tidy Foundation (Håll Sverige Rent) concerning ”allemansrätten”, the special Swedish system of rules that allow citizens to roam freely in nature.

Two instagram-images I took during Thron Ullberg’s photo session with Emelie:

thron 1

thron 2

Some of Thron’s shots from the magazine are published here