“Have you gone on safari yet?” I can’t even count how many times this question has come up in conversations with my family and friends back home. In Swahili, ‘safari’ means journey, so indeed, this semester has been one big safari. KSP has taken us on journeys to rural Nyeri, beautiful Lake Naivasha, through the rift valley of Tanzania and across the busy city of Nairobi. However, our trip to Amboseli National Park in mid-March allowed us to experience a true tourist safari – in the Western sense of the word, complete with wildlife and traditional Maasai. Amboseli National Park is a relatively small piece of land, 151.4 square miles, located on the Kenya-Tanzania border, just north of Kilimanjaro. The park attracts tourists from around the world, to get the perfect shot of wildlife with a backdrop of the regal Mt. Kilimanjaro, as well as experience traditional Maasai culture in the surrounding area.
Our game drive through the park began just after sunrise. The sixteen of us filed into three Land Cruisers and entered the park, alongside tourists carrying cameras larger than a small child. We drove around the park for several hours. To put in perspective just how touristy we were, I ended the day with almost 400 new photos on my camera. On our relatively short one day game drive, we saw cheetahs, buffalo, zebras, impala, ostrich, hippos, hyenas, wildebeests, and herds of elephants. The park is also home to over 600 species of birds. Though parks attract tourists from all over the world to see the wildlife, there is also prominent human-wildlife conflict surrounding these protected areas. In Amboseli, we had the chance to speak with local farmers, who described how elephants, eland, and other species cross park boundaries looking for food. An elephant can destroy an entire farm, and the livelihood of the farmer, overnight. People are not allowed to kill elephants if they are on their land, so to protect their crops, farmers use flashlights to scare away wildlife, sometimes sitting out all night to watch over their land. A few farmers who could afford it had also built electric fences. It was incredible to be able to experience Kenya’s wildlife firsthand, but we also got the opportunity to learn about the complex human-wildlife conflict that spurs from this demand for tourism.
We continued to explore the tourism industry of Kenya by visiting a Maasai cultural Manyatta. The Maasai are a well-known pastoralist tribe, that are often posted as the face of East Africa for tourism purposes. Tourists that are drawn to the parks for wildlife often visit cultural Manyattas as well, hoping to experience different cultures. A traditional Maasai homestead is called a Manyatta. It consists of a series of Bomas – dung huts with grass roofs – situated in a circle. The animals are kept in the center of the circle, for their protection as livestock are a Maasai’s livelihood. A cultural Manyatta is designed specifically for tourism purposes. The Maasai welcomed us with a dance then showed us traditional medicinal practices, gave us a tour of their Bomas, and marketed their beadwork to us. We also had the opportunity to interview the Maasai about the cultural Manyatta. The men manage all income from tourism while the women have autonomy over the income from selling their beads. The cultural Manyatta was especially interesting knowing it was created for the purpose of tourism. We were very aware of the performance that the Maasai were showing us in contrast to contemporary Maasai culture. Later in the week, we were able to experience a more authentic Maasai lifestyle on our homestays.
At the Maasai homestay, we had the opportunity to learn from the Maasai by participating in multiple activities including cutting and collecting firewood, carrying water, milking goats, cooking meals, patching bomas, and beading bracelets. Since we had visited a cultural Manyatta before the homestay, we were able to compare the two experiences directly. The homestay was a much more authentic experience and allowed us to fully understand the ways in which Maasai culture is evolving.
After making observations and having casual conversations with everyone we interacted with during these experiences, we had the opportunity to conduct interviews with various groups of Maasai. We interviewed traditional pastoralist men, community leaders (whom were all men), traditional women, and educated women. From each group, we got an idea of their thoughts on tourism and development, and how it is impacting their lifestyles.
When discussing tourism, we focused mainly on the cultural Manyattas. After talking with the pastoralist men, we learned that the cultural Manyatta is not necessarily an accurate representation of their culture. There are multiple differences between a Manyatta and a traditional Maasai homestead. For one, there are no permanent houses in a cultural Manyatta. Male members of the community move back and forth between the Manyatta and permanent homes in other parts of the region. In the Manyatta, the Bomas are very squeezed together, with no space in between so there is very limited room to put livestock. Men also have to play specific roles at the Manyatta purely for tourism purposes. A committee determines the roles each man must play each day during tours. The men have to be dressed in all traditional wear (even though western clothing is becoming much more popular among the Maasai) and abide by what the committee assigns them to. All the men in the group expressed their disdain about this. However, each individual also agreed that the Manyattas were beneficial because of the income generated from tourism. The educated women also supported the cultural Manyatta because it provides revenue for the women that sell crafts. The money these women make from their crafts is their property. This allows the women to be more independent, especially because they do not receive any money from tourist fees and have no say in how it is used. Unlike the pastoralist men, the pastoralist women emphasized that the Manyatta was beneficial because it allowed them to preserve aspects of their culture.
We also had the opportunity to discuss development and the role that education plays in changing culture. The consensus among the groups was that the culture may be changing but education is valuable because of the benefits it brings to the community. The role of educated people is to enlighten the community on what is changing and to advise the community on how to better maintain their land. The traditional pastoralists were particularly adamant that no matter how much their culture changes, they would still retain important aspects such as the Shuka, the importance of cattle, and some of their inherent values.
We also spoke about group ranches as well as irrigation methods. Community ranches provide benefits for pastoralists because they are effective at curbing land loss in Maasai communities. There is also a community fund provided by the ranch that goes towards school fees. However, some members of the Maasai community wish to subdivide the land because group ranches restrict autonomy over the land. Lastly, on the topic of irrigation, there was controversy over the pros and cons of irrigation. Benefits of irrigation include increased crop yields, the ability to alter the environment depending on wet and dry seasons. The traditional women only saw the benefits in irrigation. However, there were also many downsides including water shortage, soil depletion, and negative impacts downstream due to pesticide contamination.
These interviews allowed us to culminate all our experiences throughout the week and gave us a holistic understanding of the issues as well as potential solutions in the Amboseli region. It was a great week!
-Maeghan, Maya, and Molly