Gillian Thomas joins a party of infants from Brighton for a face to face encounter with the nomadic people of Kenya
Cow's blood mixed with sour milk makes a delicious cocktail - according to Kenya's Masai people. This unpalatable revelation stunned five- and six-year-olds from Brighton into silence during a visit to Drusillas, the children's zoo park at Alfriston, East Sussex.
"The Drusillas in Africa Project", a special study-programme on the Masai for schools, is running there until October. Highlighting the inseparable relationship that exists between native cultures and the environment, its centrepiece is a replica Masai mud hut. Domestic objects like jewellery, knives and gourds for storing milk, all specially brought from Kenya, illustrate the Masai's customs and way of life.
School visits, which are tailored to the pupils' age, include a workshop on making masks, shields and necklaces. During a hands-on session of Masai culture, pupils try on traditional costumes worn by children, women and warriors, have their faces painted and handle authentic articles like spears and shields.
The pupils from St Joseph's RC primary school were also excited to meet two Masai schoolgirls who were flown over from Kenya for two weeks as part of British Airways' Assisting Conservation Programme.
The mud hut shows how whole families sleep in two tiny rooms on simple beds covered in straw and cow hides. It is not only surprisingly low, being used mainly for sleeping, but also dark to discourage flies. Heat is provided by a small brazier.
During a tour of the zoo itself, keepers point out the African animals and explain how they are adapted to the conditions there. While visits are particularly relevant to environmental work at key stage 2, it was clear that even the first-year children from St Joseph's began to realise that the way people live is inextricably linked to their environment.
"The visit has introduced them to some very strong images," said their teacher, Andrew Puddiford. "Details like the fact that milk is kept in gourds which are cleaned out with a heated stick because water is so scarce really impressed them. And they were fascinated to see how warriors paint their faces and wear 'shukas', a kind of toga, rather than western clothes. All this has helped make them aware at a basic level that where people live dominates their culture. This is a difficult concept for five-year-olds to grasp, though in the classroom we had already been looking at children from different parts of the world. Now I shall be basing the rest of the term's work on the Masai."
As they washed their hands after painting their faces, I noticed that one child sternly told another off for leaving the tap running, having just learned that the Masai have to conserve every drop of water.
Drusillas African Project is central to the aims of the zoo's directors, Michael and Kitty Ann. "Until now our main concern has been to protect and breed endangered species and to educate the public on the need to do so, " they say. "But now we foresee the emphasis in zoos moving away from the animals to the reasons why they are endangered in the wild. We believe that highlighting the links between traditional cultures and the environment should be our new role. The growing threat to habitats and centuries-old cultures needs to be addressed urgently. And children, as the opinion-leaders of the future, have to be our main target."
The project illustrates perfectly this shift in direction. It was prompted by a pioneering wildlife sanctuary in the Amboseli area at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro which is the first to be run by local people rather than the government.
School groups of all ages learn that the Masai people are nomadic farmers who have grazed their cattle in the vast Amboseli area for centuries, without ever the wildlife. The St Joseph's children responded spontaneously to the basic environmental ideas presented by the zoo's education officers and keepers.
Older ones can explore more complicated issues, like the creation of the Amboseli National Park in the Seventies when the Kenyan government carved it out of the Masai's traditional territory, promising them a share in safari revenue and compensation if their cattle were attacked by the wild animals.
Unfortunately, the relationship broke down and Masai warriors started killing the animals in revenge. Now an end to this conflict could be in sight following a visit to England by two Masai farmers. They were brought over by David Lovatt-Smith, a retired National Parks warden and ardent conservationist, who now lives in Sussex.
After going to six zoos including Drusillas and learning of the international efforts being made to conserve endangered species, the farmers have managed to convince the Masai elders back in Kenya that their people's future depends on protecting the wild animals. As a result they are now creating their own safari reserves - for which Drusillas is helping to raise funds - and the killings have stopped.
School visits to Drusillas Zoo Park cost Pounds 3.50 per head, plus Pounds 1 for the Africa Project; Alfriston, East Sussex BN26 5WS. Tel: 01323 870656