In Northern Tanzania and Kenya one can find the tribe of the Maasai, tall people that still cling to their ancient old traditions and culture.
The establishment of national parks and an increase in populations of Tanzania and Kenya have restricted their semi nomadic movements and although they still have cattle, more and more emphasis is nowadays on their lives around the tourism reserves and the farming of crops, resulting in human-wildlife conflict.
Many of them have found a way of income generation by displaying their culture in the form of dances that they perform for overseas tourists at, or nearby, wildlife lodges.
Personally I always found this display of culture slightly embarrassing, even when I sat with the bushmen of Botswana and watched them make fire with sticks. During the Maasai performances rich westerners sip their gin and tonic, brag about the wildlife they have seen during the day and hardly pay attention to (or understand) the rituals being displayed before their eyes. Afterwards the Maasai receive a meager applause.
Are the Maasai casting their cultural pearls before the swine?
A report on Sustainable Tourism and Culture Heritage focuses on the effects that tourism has on the culture of indigenous people. As any good report should include, we find the pro’s and con’s of cultural tourism impact.
Amongst the positive effects of tourism on the culture of indigenous tribes we find vague words like ‘community pride’, community identity’ and revival of traditional crafts. Even ‘broadening horizons’ and the fact that a positive impact could be that ‘there could be an enhanced external support for minority groups and the preservation of their culture’.
Are we saying that these communities lack pride and identity?
The negative consequences of tourism could be a ‘cheapening of culture and traditions and loss of cultural identity’ and an ‘undermining of local traditions’.
All very true, but have we asked what the people in question want? I know, they don’t want to be pampered, they just want more money.
I would like to introduce you to the ‘cheese carriers’ of Holland.
Presently there is only one commercial market left in Woerden (my hometown) and all others are there purely for the sake of tourism. So what do they have in common with the Maasai from East Africa?
One could argue that the cheese carriers live in a developed country and the Maasai performers don’t. I give you that one! Other than that there is no difference.
The cheese carriers are all volunteers and have other jobs that financially support them. They wear suits and jeans when not performing and carry a cellphone in their pockets. The cheese markets are there for the tourists and not because of their commercial value. Trucks have replaced horse and carriage. Wouldn’t you say that it is a cheap way of displaying our culture?
Don’t you think that the Maasai would maybe happily sacrifice a bit of their culture for economic benefit. That they would be happy earning more so they could buy land instead of being chased around?
So why are we, the ones who always seem to write reports as mentioned above, so conscious about cultures disappearing and people losing their traditional way of living? Is it not selfish to ‘protect’ indigenous people so WE can enjoy their way of life in decennia to come? What are we protecting them from? The way we have changed our lives?
I believe that cultural inheritance should be preserved. But only at free will. If indigenous people want to remain the way they are and face difficulties, they have my support and should be aided. If they want to change due to the influence of tourists, so be it.
The fact that we are more and more living in a global world means that even our own (already changed) cultures are exposed to even further change. We are not stopping those changes, are we?
Since I am sure that you don’t want to go back to a cave and wear a skin, I vow for the Maasai to keep performing their dances. Even when this means that their traditional way of living changes.
That we have a feeling that we are watching something not authentic is just bad luck.