You're never far from the savannah when visiting the Woodland Park Zoo, and thats not just because of its wildlife and African Village installation. No, the authenticity of the experience, for those lucky enough to sign up for one of his summer educational tours, is program guide Kakuta Ole Maimai Hamisi, who's been with the zoo on a semiannual basis since the village was built in 2001 with Gates Foundation money. Before that, he was an assistant curator at the Seattle Art Museum. And before that, a student at Evergreen. And before that, well, he was a Maasai tribesman and wildlife guide living in his southeastern Kenya home village of Merrueshi. (Here it should be noted that Hamisi recommends the spelling Maasai - iliterally, my people - not Masai, as explained on his Web site, www.maasai-association.org; more on that later.)
Woodland Park Zoo North 50th Street and Fremont Avenue North, 206-648-4800, www.zoo.org.
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Spending about half the year in Seattle, half in Kenya (while also writing his master's thesis for Vermont's School of International Training), Hamisi sees his mission in culturally ambidextrous terms. "It's all about conservation," he says. "Problems we face in Africa are not very different from what we face here." His emphasis, both on his zoo tours and on educational safaris he leads for Northwest high-school students and their families, is on making the Maasai central to preserving their fragile savannah ecosystem—not just props for Western tourists to photograph when there are no lions around. As the first in his village to study or even travel abroad, he wants "to inspire local people" to take the initiative in preserving their own habitat. "They are the custodians of the land," Hamisi avows, as opposed to outsiders who "marginalize indigenous people."
Being so gregarious with zoo visitors ("I can talk forever") has also earned his nonprofit Maasai Association some serious support in the Northwest. With board members from Nordstrom, Amazon.com, and Microsoft, his fund-raising efforts have already led to the first primary school in Merrueshi. Late this summer, he'll take a select group of students (from Lakeside, Bellevue High School, etc.) and chaperones to help build a secondary school. And on his Web site, in a feature that Amazon.com should definitely offer, you can click and contribute to the "Donate a Goat or Cow" fund.
"I'm sort of a computer fellow," Hamisi laughs. He communicates directly with Merrueshi by text messaging, since there's no electricity or Internet. Thinking back to his youth, he recalls, "I went to school under the tree. We sat on rocks." When he arrived at Evergreen in 1996 (with his tuition paid in part by villagers selling goats and cows), he remembers being awed by the campus library. "It was like a theory," something he'd read about, but never seen.
And yet his work, whether building his Web site or building Merrueshi's new school, is decidedly hands-on. Of the Seattle youth he'll be taking to Kenya this summer, he says, "Kids can influence decisions in the future. The kids will become agents" of conservation and environmental stewardship. So he plans to continue shuttling back and forth between his home region (population 1,400) and the Northwest. As he tells zoo visitors: "I am a nomad."—Brian Miller
Kakuta Hamisi's Picks:
Best way to impress zoo visitors: Ranking the animals by lethality. Who knew the cape buffalo was No. 2? And No. 1? You'll have to take the tour.
Best quality of the northwest: "Lavish green. Green is something that we don't see very often in the savannah."
Best Running path: Lake Washing-ton Boulevard from Leschi. Or just to sit and relax. "I go hang out."
Best place to escape the zoo crowds: Cafe Diva on Greenwood Avenue North. Being from Kenya, he finds that Starbucks' brew just isn't strong enough.
Best dinner Spot: "I'm not a vegetarian!" The Maasai traditionally live on cattle. In Seattle, he likes Lalibela at 28th Avenue and East Cherry Street. He'll order anything on the menu—"as long as it's beef."
Best bookstore: Amazon.com. "It's my world. I'm an online shopper."
Best bargains: The Rainier Valley Goodwill store at 1400 S. Lane St.
Best wilderness getaway: Mount Baker National Park. "I appreciate the outside—the wild forest, the open savannah."