Hey there! Aubrey and Tina reporting live from Nairobi. Following the urban homestay, our group had the privilege of traveling to the Amboseli region of Kenya. Once an area belonging to Maasai people living pastoral ways of life, Amboseli now consists of six different group ranches and inhabitants from non-Maasai communities. The idea of group ranches arose as an effort to preserve pastoral land from post-colonial leadership and elites attempting to grab land. However, accessible land and resources are continuously shrinking due to corruption and exploitation carried out by wealthier members of group ranches and the migration of non-Maasai people to the area. Who often partake in agricultural, small-scale businesses, and/or trading practices. So as a result of this shift from a pastoral-based economy to the constructed capitalistic ‘market’ (and other factors such as westernization, globalization and tourism) Maasai lifestyle is rapidly changing.
We contemplated these changes during our visit, particularly in terms of the pastoral, agricultural, land, tourism, and education sectors. Through various interviews and two home visits we began to better understand the individual experiences of farmers, people involved with the cultural manyatta, members of the KuKu group ranch, and those apart of the boma we visited. We were able to take what we have learned from scholarship and theory, and saw the implications for the actual, everyday person. So why yes, it is unjust for globalized and westernized systems to encroach upon Maasai cultural practices, people are typically trying to live the best they can in national and international institutions that favor the elite.
First stop: interviews with farmers. Ever struggle with socializing? Well walking up to complete strangers and asking if they’d be willing to chat, is a great way to overcome this. Jackson, who took on the role of culture broker, often translated and helped to break that strangeness of some mzungus and students bopping around with pens and notepads. We met with people who identified as groups such as Kamba and Kikuyu. Here we began to observe first-hand how non-Maasai people have taken up agricultural practices in areas originally used by pastoralists. As Maasai lost land to outsiders, their livestock began to decrease. However, in a group discussion Sinnary explained while a great deal of land used for agriculture is no longer owned by Maasai people, there are those who do own the land and choose to lease it out. Due to the expansion of the agriculture sector, swamps and rivers have dried up. Many rivers categorized as permeant are now seasonal, both farmers and pastoralists are experiencing water shortages. This decline in a resource needed to grow crops and ensure the survival of livestock has led to disputes between these two groups.
Following the interviews, we drove down the long and bumpy road to our hotel. We could see groups of people gathered in traditional Maasai dress near what appeared to be homesteads. What was surprising however was the few safari vehicles that frequented them. We later came to learn that these were Cultural Manyattas, a place where tourists may learn about and experience Maasai culture. When we visited the cultural manyatta later that day, men and women took us by hand and led us into a circle where we sang and danced together. The women placed beaded necklaces on us, and the men were encouraged to participate in the jumping contest. We were then able to learn about traditional Maasai medicine and visit inside the homes made of cow dung and mud.
Next, we had a chance to buy crafts, mostly jewelry, sold by the women. Lastly, we were able to conduct interviews with different groups of the manyatta: the elders, the young men, and the women. Our interviews seemed to spark more questions than they answered. The members stated to live on the manyatta, yet the insides were nearly empty with no cooking materials or personal possessions. Many of the answers we received painted an image of a group that was fully immersed in a traditional way of life and were challenged by our observations. It is more important however, to understand why such discrepancies exist. Many tourists travel to Kenya, and Africa in general, to observe the Maasai people, bringing along stereotypical notions of the group produced by the media and colonial pursuits. Out of demand and desire to please tourists, manyattas sometimes exaggerate the traditional nature of their current lifestyles.
The question of “who is exploiting who?” then arises. Are the Maasai people exploiting tourists and their lack of knowledge or are the tourists exploiting the Maasai to gain access to their culture? I’m not sure if I have a finite answer to this question. Throughout our experiences and discussions however, I have come to conclude that I don’t believe that the Maasai are exploiting tourists in any way. While they may not be producing entirely accurate notions of how they live in 2021, cultural manyattas are a way for this ethnic group to preserve their culture in an area which is developing and modernizing at rapid rates. Furthermore, stereotypes which are sometimes harmful of the Maasai that are produced in Hollywood and the media spread much more rapidly than by the relatively small number of tourists who may visit and make posts about them. Additionally, many of the people who participate in cultural manyatta depend on the income for their livelihood which has been challenged repeatedly throughout history by colonial efforts. If tourists wanted an authentic and modern day Maasai experience they most likely have the resources to put in the work ahead of time to be able to come to similar conclusions.
The inconsistencies between how the Maasai people told us they live and how most modern day Maasai people live was further exemplified upon our visit to a real Maasai homestead. Here, some of the houses were visibly modernized being made of sheet metal so they need not be repaired after every rain. The people we were able to meet with here wore modern clothing and had a borehole to retrieve their water. While this contrasting set of observations justified our suspicions about the cultural manyatta’s true nature, it more importantly gave us an accurate image of contemporary life for the Masai people living in the Amboseli region.
Rounding out the week we had the opportunity to talk with various members of the KuKu group ranch “traditional” and “educated” women,