Amboseli Fall 2017
Hamjambo marafiki na familia! Liz, Britni and Phoebe here to tell you all about our week in Amboseli. This week was focused on learning about the impact of tourism and modernization on the Maasai culture. Traditionally, the Maasai are semi-nomadic pastoralists who herd their cattle in search of water for their animals. In addition, we investigated land issues that have caused the decline of their traditional pastoral lifestyle. By conducting interviews with local farmers and Maasai, participating in a Maasai homestay experience, and going on game drives we learned so much about the Amboseli region that we are excited to share with you!
Farmer Interviews (Liz):
On our first day in Kimana town we conducted interviews with local farmers to get a sense of land issues in the Amboseli region, as well as the struggles that agriculturalists face. We approached a settlement of several metal sheet buildings surrounded by cultivated fields, not far from the center of town. Satellites stuck out from the roofs, new accessories installed almost strictly for watching soccer. KSP students were split into five groups and began interviewing Kenyan and Tanzanian farmers of varying ethnicities about limiting factors to agriculture like fertile land, water, and wildlife impact.
In the Amboseli region, water loss and changing rain patterns have degraded the land such that wildlife and people alike are suffering. Once dominated by pastoralists, this region is now becoming increasingly agricultural as people become desperate to find a profitable and sustainable livelihood. Farmers create a weekly schedule dictating who can use the irrigation system and when. Many of the farmers suggested that the best way to combat the water issue is to build wells, requiring lots of time, labor, and resources which might not be worth the benefit if farmers move frequently because of infertile land. The other significant infringement on profit is wildlife. Because Amboseli Park is so close, and not fenced, wildlife roams freely out of their protected land and onto farms in search of water and food. Each night, farmers sleep in their fields, using torches and firecrackers to scare off animals. They fear losing their entire livelihood in one night, especially if a hungry elephant comes trampling through. Conservation, while an important initiative in the face of changing climates, also unfairly impacts locals. Many farmers are frustrated that they bear the negative impacts of conservation without being provided electric fences or other compensation for their losses by the government. We departed the fields, some green, some bare and dusty, thinking how these hard working and genuine people can be so smiley and spirited in the face of such dismal challenges.
Game Drives (Phoebe):
The sixteen of us piled into our three, forest green Land Cruisers and set out on a sunny Tuesday morning in hopes of both seeing and learning about the wildlife found within the bounds of Amboseli National Park. Upon entering the park, we watched as other Cruisers zipped by ours, filled with eager khaki-laden tourists with their cameras at the ready. We snickered as they passed, keeping in mind what we had learned so far about the negative impact of tourism on the region. At first, we believed that our drive was for more holistic purposes, while the rest of the mzungus (white people) were there to gawk at the wildlife. As we continued driving slowly down the uneven dirt roads within the park, wildlife began to appear before our eyes. We would look left and see grazing gazelles or wildebeest and then look right and see zebras casually strolling across the plains in the distance. In awe of the vast landscape that was home to so many different species, we grabbed for our own cameras and began to point and shoot. It was at that moment that we began to feed into the tourist stereotype which we had previously been making fun of. After overcoming the initial excitement of seeing so many different animals, we began to feel the inner conflict of our role as both students and tourists alike, considering what impacts we were having during our studies.
We settled into our seats and began asking our tour guides questions about the different wildlife in the park and their certain behavioral patterns. The winding, bumpy roads throughout the park led us to an overlook.We climbed to the top, making out Mt. Kilimanjaro to the right as we stared out onto to the vast landscape. We were able to read informational panels about the geologic history of Mt. Kilimanjaro and its impact on the well-being of the surrounding land and wildlife. Back at the lodge, exciting conversations were shared over lunch about all of the sights we saw and the snapshots we took that morning.
In the heat of the mid-afternoon we all hopped back in the Cruisers and went out on a second game drive. It was during this drive that we learned to keep our cameras away, making this experience feel like less of a tourist excursion than the first drive. We were able to see many animals feeding in the late afternoon sun. As the sun began to set, we followed the dusty roads out of the park. It was during the drive back to the lodge for the evening that, in our silence, we could process and reflect on all that we had seen throughout the day. Upon exiting the gate of Amboseli we left behind all of the gazelles, wildebeest, zebras, buffaloes, hippos, elephants, lions and hyenas we saw to continue their day-to-day lives, unaware of just how much they had impacted ours that day. We felt we were more than just tourists on that sunny Tuesday. We were academics, young minds eager to learn about the park’s wildlife species and their relationships with the landscape.
Manyatta Experiences (Britni):
Next on the list, was a visit to a “cultural manyatta.” What is a cultural manyatta you ask? Great question. A cultural manyatta is a group of Maasai families who form a traditional village to draw in tourists for the purpose of income. The people who live there perform a traditional Maasai lifestyle. Notice how I said “perform”… please remember that for later. Almost immediately after we stepped foot off the vehicles, the entire community came out to greet us. Men and women lined up and sang different melodies simultaneously. No one had time to pull out their camera as each Maasai took hold of a student and dragged us into the clamour. After, it was time for a tour of the manyatta. We turned around and were greeted by a wall of thorns surrounding the Maasai homes. In groups we were given tours of the eight or so huts made of a mix of ash and cow manure inside. Then, the Maasai split into women, leaders, and warriors and we were all given a chance to ask one another questions about our respective ways of living.
Later in the week, pairs of us were taken to a Maasai homestead to stay overnight. We were surprised at how different, and yet similar, our host families’ homesteads were to the cultural manyatta. The wall of thorns was still there, but only a nuclear family lived in a dung hut and tin house on the homestead, rather than an entire community. What the cultural manyatta failed to demonstrate was the effect of modernization on the Maasai people. We were also surprised to find that agriculture seems to be playing a larger role in the Maasai lifestyle than traditional pastoralism. Regardless, the Maasai culture has not been eroded completely by these factors. Many of us participated in things like milking cows, or rather trying to milk, cooking, and fetching firewood and water. The piece de resistance was learning how to mix ash with cow manure to patch the dung hut we had slept in the night previous, most of us sharing rooms with several family members, goats, skittish cats, and flies included. We ended our stay by learning how to bead the decorative bracelets the Maasai are famous for.
So, perhaps the most important lesson for those who may visit the Maasai, is that culture is always changing. This is true whether you are a Maasai living a decreasingly pastoralist lifestyle or a U.S. citizen living in a modern society. Ultimately, a cultural manyatta is not representative of how the Maasai people live their lives today. Did you remember that word, “performance”? Well, that’s exactly what a cultural manyatta is. Many people don’t realize that that is not how all Maasai live today; culture is simply not static. Another aspect that we learned about the Maasai culture is the importance of tourism. In the case of cultural manyattas, environmental degradation has led to a decrease in pastoralism causing them to find other sources of income. To do this, these people replicate their traditional lifestyle much to the delight of tourists, as this is akin to the “Single Story” of the Maasai. For those of you who don’t know, a “single story” creates stereotypes which leaves our understandings incomplete and fails to recognize complexities, like modernization, that are at play.
Interview with Maasai Community Members (Liz):
At the end of the week, we had the opportunity to interview Maasai community members, including leaders, female elders, warriors, and educated young women. Each group welcomed us to their circle, greeting us by exchanging hello’s in in Maa, “sopa” and “ipa.” Splitting into more focused groups, we asked questions about the social effects of modernization, impacts of group ranching, issues surrounding irrigated agriculture, and tourism’s effect on development. Our discussions were incredibly fruitful, as community members answered our questions passionately, speaking furiously in Maa and often interrupting each other and the translator. With only 20 minutes to interview each group, we never seemed to have enough time to ask all the questions we had. Luckily, we were able to join the Maasai community members for lunch where we were able to ask more specific questions about their lives, occupations, and hopes. In turn, they were able to ask us questions about our culture. One woman asked what issues we have in the United States which we have not seen in Kenya. Our responses included things like an inefficient and irresponsible national food system, rejection of climate science, and preventable gun violence. The exchanges that we shared both during the interviews and over lunch proved to be one of the most valuable learning experiences of the week. The result of our interviews were four fascinating group presentations later that day, sharing our new knowledge about the above topics. This week we were able to get a more holistic understanding of how modernization is affecting the Amboseli region, including land, wildlife, people and culture.
Signing off for now, stay tuned to read about KSP’s adventures in Mombasa!
Liz, Britni and Phoebe