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About the Author

Johan Knols
Blogger, safari specialist, professional wildlife guide (Woerden, Netherlands)

Johan Knols is the owner of the planyoursafari blog. He studied tourism in the Netherlands and has been working in the African tourism industry for nearly 15 years. Starting as lodge manager in the Serengeti in Tanzania, he eventually owned his own mobile safari company in Botswana. Johan received his professional wildlife- guides licence in 1998 and was awarded the title of Honorary Wildlife Officer with the Botswana Wildlife and National Parks authority in 2005. During his time in Africa he has managed upmarket safari lodges and has done overland trips in the luxury and semi-luxury sector. At the moment he is a full-time blogger giving tips and advices on everything related to African safaris.


Should Maasai Dance For Tourists?

Published 12th May 2010 - 35 comments - 10491 views -

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.



  • Lara Smallman on 12th May 2010:

    Great to develop this debate further. I remember it being mentioned a few weeks back. I’m still not sure if its worth risking preservation of culture, if they lose it, can they ever reclaim it?

  • Giedre Steikunaite on 12th May 2010:

    Great as ever, Johan. Raises a lot of questions.

    As for whether the Maasai want to change their culture because of tourists - well, I think it’s not so much of a will, it’s rather secretly and indirectly forced (globalisation, finances, money, tourism itself in existence…). Faced with a decision to either be left alone (impossible?) or earn some cash, in the world of today the latter is more seducing.

    Is it not selfish to ‘protect’ indigenous people so WE can enjoy their way of life in decennia to come? I believe it is. But again, maybe that is better than leading them to extinction…

  • Johan Knols on 13th May 2010:


    About losing culture in general: Don’t you think that in our day and age we have collected enough knowledge to bring cultures back if the need arises? It would also be interesting to find a reason to bring cultures back…. Got one?

  • David Dugmore on 13th May 2010:

    Hey Johan,
    Consider that the UK tourism industry is perhaps generated by the Royal Family, their history and traditions, though they perhaps don’t like it all the time, know that its good economic value based on demand.  Whats the difference between them and Maasai history and traditions, aside from the obvious and geography? 

    If Africa doesn’t encourage all opportunities in tourism then we risk losing a precious natural resource - the wildlife and their habitats.  The key factor is that tourism must always be sustainable for the environment and that includes people.  I am constantly dealing with African tradition/tourism culture clashes to maintain the standards expected of tourists, at the same time giving the benefit of the doubt to local cultures.  Not easy by any means as they are almost complete opposites.  It is imperative that we in tourism put more effort into working with African culture, after all that is what tourists expect of this continent! 

    Developed world tourists ought to be reminded why colonialism did not work in Africa, don’t ignore them as tourism developes with great potential for the whole continent. 

    So, let them dance and make fire with rubbing sticks, if thats what they want to do to live in a safe house with lights and clean water, when the tourists are asleep!

  • Robert Stefanicki on 13th May 2010:

    The question in a title of the post - as well as whole debate - seems purely rhetorical to me. If they want to dance, they’re gonna dance, regardless of our opinions. Without going Mao way, we can not influence such cultural changes like, another example, wearing Western/Made-in-China clothes by indigenous people. If one day Maasai will find another source of business, they will stop dancing at all - that’s what happen with lots of traditional crafts in the West.

    But I agree with your point, Johan.

  • Johan Knols on 13th May 2010:


    The Maasai won’t be led into extinction (as they will multiply just as everybody else) but their culture might.


    I agree totally with you that every opportunity should be seized to safeguard people as well as wildlife. Even when this means that some part of the culture changes faster than without tourism.

  • Tiziana Cauli on 13th May 2010:

    The first time I saw one of such displays of local traditions - in that case it was zulu dances - in the South African Gauteng province - it did look very fake to me, but, hey, nobody was forcing me to attend and I did pay money to be there. In the same fake zulu village, I saw a very cute little girl - she must have been 3 or 4 - dancing for tourists who gave her cash. I somehow found that disturbing, especially as the girl, a great dancer, looked very irritated and sad, just as any child who’s forced to pose for pics or sing a song for relatives who come visit. In the end though, I thought if this could mean good money for the girl’s household, maybe it’s not that wrong.

    Years later, in Inner Mongolia, I saw some older kids dancing in a village. They did it for the tourists, of course, but at the same time I was intrigued by their enthusiasm. I mean, they were working in a village in the middle of nowhere, sleeping in tents, just for our entertainment and still they seemed to enjoy what they where doing. I guess not many teenagers in the Chinese Mongolia can afford following a passion for any artistic or traditional activity unless it is financially supported from foreigners. So let them use this opportunity as long as it’s there.

    I’m not sure the same concept applies to the South African child dancer. She will probably develop such a rejection for zulu traditions by the time she’s 10 that she will never dance again. But if this can help her parents give her a more comfortable life now, why not? Let tourists spend money to take pictures of a cute child in a little fake zulu outfit as long as this makes them happy.

  • Sandy Salle on 13th May 2010:

    Although dancing rituals are highly rewarding to witness, I think one of the most culturally enlightening experiences happens at socially sustainable lodges, such as Olarro Lodge in Kenya. There, the Maasai do more than perform dance rituals, they guide and interact with the visitors. AND, at accommodations such as Olarro Lodge, you’re not getting tourists who only care about the animals, you’re getting travelers who are interested in the entire scope Africa has to offer. If you’re only in Africa for the animals, you probably wouldn’t stay at an accommodation that prides itself on its cultural and local influence.

  • Stefan May on 13th May 2010:

    “That we have a feeling that we are watching something not authentic is just bad luck.”
    A nice sentence. What most people don’t understand in my opinion is that ‘authenticity’ is always just a feeling, a romantic attachement to something actually very ordinary. Maasai culture is not more or less ‘authentic’ than Dutch one, it’s just stuff people do when in groups. And this changed all the time in history, is this fact in itself good or bad? I think this is posing the wrong question, let’s ask rather (as Johan did) does it help the people, does it make them happy, healthy and fed, is it fair? If yes than it’s good, if not it’s obviously bad. Otherwise you get to something like ‘just because it is old it’s good’.

    There is this brilliant sketch by Monty Python about traditions “beyond good and evil”:

  • Iris Cecilia Gonzales on 14th May 2010:

    Thanks for this post Johan. It’s the first time I heard of the Maasai people and I found their story interesting. You raised a lot of valid questions. We also experience this dilemma in the Philippines. I think tourism should not be done in a way that “prostitutes” one’s culture and heritage. But that is almost impossible

  • Clare Herbert on 14th May 2010:

    Also, am loving the YouTube clip. smile

  • Johan Knols on 14th May 2010:

    Hi Sandy,

    I couldn’t agree with you more. As long as locals will be involved in a ‘total tourism experience’ their culture will survive. Yet, by being exposed to (rich) foreigners, their wants and needs will start to change over time. The same as the tourist will get influenced by being exposed to poverty.

  • Johan Knols on 15th May 2010:


    Thanks for commenting.
    Interesting what you have to say about ‘authenticity’ being a feeling.
    Let’s take ‘the nightwatch’ from Rembrandt. The painting was damaged several years back and we can therefore say that the painting is not authentic any more, since specialists have been repairing and mending the painting. In my opinion that has nothing to do with a ‘feeling’ or romantic attachment. The painting is just not original any more.
    Back to the Maasai and the cheese carriers.
    When a Moran (Maasai warrior) wants to marry a lady, he and his family pay a price in the form of cows. Let’s assume that the cows are being replaced by money. Does this then mean that the authenticiy of the culture has decreased?
    The same goes for the cheese carriers. Those guys only keep the cheesemarket alive purely for tourism. Can we therefore say that the market is keep authenticity alive?

  • Stefan May on 15th May 2010:

    A frequent visitor to exhibitions of paintings of the old masters knows that those changed over time simply by their materials ageing, they get darker or their colours fade. So the painting doesn’t even need to be damaged, but when this happened is it still the same painting? If no, when exactly is the point that it starts to be something else? If yes, how can you say so when it doesn’t look exactly as it did when Rembrandt finished it and when obviously it’s chemistry/material make-up changed because of natural entropy? What about those changes over the centuries that our ancestors who didn’t know the original thought as intrinsic quality of the picture? They thought the painting was ‘authentic’ with all the dust and mold that, suppose, changed the dark blue-green sky into black and thus made it appear different to them than just one generation before.
    Restaurateurs now could do different things, for one they can try to ‘restore’ it by trying to reverse some of the chemical processes of decay, analysing what colour exactly belongs where and change it back to the way they think it comes closest to the authors intent. Certainly it’s a different artwork now and sometimes one probably should add the name of the restaurateur to the original artist. Nowadays efforts are usually done to ‘just’ conserve the artwork to prevent further decay, exactly to not destroy the ‘leftovers’ of the original and rather document everything.

    So when I said ‘authenticity is a feeling’ I meant that it is an immaterial property that people attribute to things, but that those things do not possess it ‘in itself’ - it just exists in the peoples heads as a form of prejudice or value-judgement.
    The difference between the ‘authenticity’ of social institutions and artworks is now that ‘social authenticity’ is part of a political argument and not just about aesthetics. Certain traditions are attributed to be ‘holy’ or more authentic than others to shield them from change because this change would disturb certain power relations. Now there can be good reasons to keep traditions, but I think to attribute them ‘authenticity’ simply serves to shield them from rational examination - questions like: “Is it good that we still do it this way?”.
    If you look at it from a historians perspective you might realise that there is no ‘original’ apart from constant change, and claims of ‘authenticity’ are usually made to preserve institutions that have no other legitimate reason, that are “dead” (so are actually the opposite of authentic in the original sense of the word). So it’s no wonder to me that those turn into pure entertainment or commerce, in short that people stop believing in them.

    That would be my answer to the question about the Moran-problem: why should money instead of cows be in any way less ‘authentic’ if this is what the people do and feel to be the right thing in that moment. The mistake lies already in ascribing more ‘authenticity’ to the older custom of paying the dowry in cows. Isn’t it actually much more ‘authentic’ to pay it in goats anyway (assuming those where the animals they cultivated before the cows) if you put it that way? Or stone-axes? Or Jeeps? And who can decide what is authentic or not? Some chief? Some tourist? Or some anthropologist?

    About the cheese carriers: I don’t believe they keep it alive purely for tourism, they also seem to have a good time. I simply think those who think that as an ‘authentic’ tradition are a bit foolish, as authenticity is nothing that can be staged or ‘kept alive’ out of the aforementioned reasons. I rather think that they stage a spectacle that gives the people the feeling to be traditional because this is what those expect and pay money for, this is in a way also ‘authentic’ but in a different way they think (one could say it’s an authentic way of doing commerce by staging a spectacle with traditionalist elements etc., again what is the qualitative difference to customs in Africa or in the past?).
    I’d rather just observe the Maasai dancers as well as the Cheese carriers for the fun of it, for the experience, without deluding myself to experience something ‘authentic’ traditional. That’s my way of living an authentic life.  wink

  • Johan Knols on 16th May 2010:

    Hi Stefan,

    I now understand what you mean when you spoke about authenticity being a feeling. And I agree with you that it is a perception. I also think I have found another example that explains my previous comments better than the Rembrandt painting. How about ancient coins that are sometimes being found. Not exposed to sunlight and oxygen. Are these not authentic?
    But we should stick to the MDG’s and the preservation of cultures. It was my aim to indicate through my article that cultures can not be preserved as they are subject to external influences (just like the light on Rembrandt’s painting) and are therefore in itself automatically changing. And if the changes come from within a society (Maasai dancing for tourists rather then for themselves) it is something we have to accept.

  • Stefan May on 16th May 2010:

    Hi Johan,
    we agree than, ‘cultures’ are not endangered species that can and should be preserved. About authenticity I have my own little theory based on something Walter Benjamin wrote in the thirties about the ‘aura’ of a work of art. Maybe I’ll do an essay when I’ve time (got exams coming up - but thanks for the inspiration) and put it on my blog ‘tuscanyfaction’ I currently don’t know how to connect it to the MDGs, as I know no examples like you about the Maasai etc.
    My point about the coins would be again to think what do we mean by the word ‘authentic’. If we just mean it in the sense of ‘echt’ (I know the word exists in Dutch) than we have to ask a historian and if he says it is really from that epoch this doesn’t change with patina or without, it’s ‘authentic’ or rather ‘real’ as opposed to ‘fake’. Now does the coin have ‘meaning’ beyond that? I think this is up to us as individuals and society. The fact that there are collectors and museums that try to acquire them shows us that there is something to it, and if you have a ‘feeling’ for this kind of things you might like to have one of those as well (I for sure would, just to contemplate about the people that held those in their hands such a long time ago while moving it between my fingers…), others might like it to ‘show off’ because society rewards this kind of behaviour or out of a combination of those and other motivations (commercial or numismatic f.e.). So again, authenticity is ‘produced’ by us in interaction with the object but not an intrinsic quality of it. To assume that an object has this quality independently from individual or society I’d say would mean to make the mistake of ‘fetishism’. I however don’t want to say that this ‘feelings’ do not exist, they obviously do and constitute an important part of social reality, or that we don’t ‘need’ them in various ways, on the contrary, I just think we need to stay realistic.

  • Johan Knols on 17th May 2010:

    Hello Stefan,

    Fetishism: A fetish (from the French fétiche; which comes from the Portuguese feitiço; and this in turn from Latin facticius, “artificial” and facere, “to make”) is an object believed to have supernatural powers, or in particular, a man-made object that has power over others. Essentially, fetishism is the attribution of inherent value or powers to an object.(Source Wikipedia).

    The attribution of inherent value to an object is therefore a perception made by people. So this would be dependent on individuals and a society. Is this not contrary on what you are saying?

  • Stefan May on 17th May 2010:

    Hi Johan,
    isn’t it exactly what I was saying? I think people believing that an object has the magical power of ‘authenticity’ are fetishists. I’m saying that there is nothing magical about the object, it’s not the object that has this ‘power’ it’s actually people using make-believe or (self-)deception.

  • Johan Knols on 17th May 2010:

    Hi Stefan,

    We are on one line!

  • Hussam Hussein on 18th May 2010:

    Hi Johan! Thanks for rising this issue! It reminds me of when I was in Uganda, and some local groups were waiting for the tourists to sing and dance for few coins… Actually, as you said, I also felt a bit uncofortable and wondered whether was that the type of tourist I wanted to be…

  • Johan Knols on 18th May 2010:

    Hi Hussam,

    I know what you mean. Although for me it has more to do with the fact that hordes of tourists are watching and not so much the performance itself. Try to describe to me the tourist ‘that you felt like’?

  • Hussam Hussein on 18th May 2010:

    I know what you mean… in my case, it was more being a tourist.. because myself usually I’m not into touristic tours groups.. I prefer to explore by myself the cities and the countries, booking only the flights. I’m into discovering different cultures simply living with and talking to the local populations, local communities. Well, in that case, I felt myself like a tourist because they started to dance for me only to have some money, and it was everything organized waiting for the tourists… I would have prefered going to their village, talking to them, and then participating in a traditional event not organized for me.. you know what I mean?

  • Johan Knols on 19th May 2010:

    Are you now referring to the difference between a traveler and a tourist? And what makes one superior (if I can call it that way) to the other?

  • Elsje Fourie on 19th May 2010:

    Wow Johan, that’s a lot of discussion you’ve generated!  Thanks for the post - I agree very much.  In fact, I think displays of culture of the kind you mention might be one of the better compromises we can reach between total destruction of traditional culture on the one hand, and total inability to allow a culture to change, on the other.  The one thing I would say is that I think it’s important for children not to have their entire cultural identity mediated in this way, ie through tourists—mainly because it can foster dependency.  So hopefully these children receive some exposure to the culture of their parents (even if that culture is changing) away from the eyes of tourists ?  I know that’s definitely the case with the Zulus, but have never met Maasai, so not sure in their case?

  • Johan Knols on 20th May 2010:

    Thanks for your comment Elsje,

    Dependency is something that is unfortunately the dark side of tourism. One bomb, one killed tourist or another coup can change the whole perception of a country, with economic downturn as a result.
    I wouldn’t worry too much about he kids living in rural areas, as the Maasai seem to be a proud bunch and stick to their traditions.

  • Judith Stegeman on 20th May 2010:

    yesterday I sat with approximately 40 Wazees (Maasai elder men) under a big acacia three, just in the middle of the bush somewhere near Lake Manyara. Because we have employed 5 boys of their village and we helped them out during the destroying dry season of 2009/2010 we were invited to their village meeting…. We sat down and listened and we were surprised how democratic this meeting was lead and also structured, no interverence and no external disturbance. After the meeting we drank some soda’s, ate mbuzi (goat) and the whole group (at the end of the day the women also joined) started dancing and singing. Not because we were there, just because it is what they like to do the most. It is not only within their tradition but it is also in their blood. Maasai people are proud of who they are and it is their pleasure to show you their tradition.
    I agree at some places you will find the commercial Maasai boma, just tell your driver/guide that you really would like to see a genuine boma and if it is a good guide he will easily bring you their and if you can not find it, it would be my pleasure to personally escort you.
    Luckaly some Maasai can get education nowadays, so they can provide an income for their family and they will. Some earn a lot of money and live in the city during weekdays, wearing western clothes.. But in the weekends they take their car, buy a lot of soda’s and return in their Maasai Shuka’s (traditional clothes and yes they do not wear underwear) to their boma and live like they like most.
    I really hope the Maasai will continue respecting their traditions and rites. Come and see yourselve!

  • Johan Knols on 20th May 2010:

    Thanks for commenting Judith,

    Do they feel uncomfortable to wear their traditional clothes during the week and if yes, does that mean that they start to feel uncomfortable with their culture and that slowly but surely it will start to erode?

  • Aija Vanaga on 20th May 2010:

    Haven’t followed comments, but culture is something we have time changes it with change in environment, but some parts still stays, if people want them to stay there.

  • Johan Knols on 21st May 2010:

    Hi Aija,

    “..if people want it to stay”: that is the whole debate. Of course the Maasai want to cling onto their culture. The question is whether that culture will change when tourists and money get involved.

  • Isa Barini on 08th June 2010:

    Isa Barini Hi Johan, I went to read your articles, Very deep and right. But in my 6 years spent in Turkana as a owner and manager of the most remote Lodge of Kenya, I had the friends and tribesmen of Turkana, Samburu, Gabbra…coming to dance inside the compound , tourist not allowed to take pictures, just admire and see the REAL thing..And my staff was ... proud of it, of showing what the were doing outside anyway every night, near the maniattas. What is sad is the town people with Maasailike wigs…I lived in symbiosis with the 5 tribes of that area, and learned from them!!!Never ‘told’ them what is right for us: we EXCHANGED stories, talked about our cultures. The tourists were never put first. It can be done if you love the African culture. ..and the environment that we don t want to be destroyed

  • Johan Knols on 08th June 2010:

    Hello Isa,

    I am happy to hear that at some places they the Maasai (and others)are treated with dignity.
    I have been to Turkana a long time ago (1989) and visited the El Molo tribe.
    I would like to know from you in which areas people pretend to be Maasai by wearing wigs (new to me).
    Thanks for commenting.

  • Isa Barini on 09th June 2010:

    yes, that s where I was..From 1977 to 1984, Oasis Lodge was mine, and my home…My staff, my family : Samburus, Turkanas, Rendille, Gabbra, Borana and El Molo.I had formed the Wazee Committee, and they were my advisors, my ‘unions’, they controlled the young of own tribe. I followed tradition, and that s why it was successful and happy experience. Behind me I could hear them discussing ” mama she is a Samburu…!”...“No way she is a Turkana..!”. That was making me so proud. I learned more than teaching. They were fantastic workers, and thought me so much about life, respect of nature, even Religion ( monotheists with a fantastic dialogue with God.
    After I was back in Kenya for more than 16 years.., but never had the courage to go back there; to see my place no more mine, and the changes they told me happened. Nomads not moving because the food comes from the sky by plain. There were cheetah, lions, eland, kudu on the Kulal, hippos, ostriches,... the overpopulation has taken its toll. Right was the appendix to the book ‘Eyelids of the Morning’ by Alistair Graham and Peter Beard,  expressing the fear about the future there.
    That s why I am so passionate and fearful about the Serengeti.
    ...and yes, fake Maasai with wigs in many Hotels, and markets, and Mombasa Beach..leave alone the ones in many movies..
    So sad!

    Why we want to destroy the beauty of that part of the world??

  • Johan Knols on 09th June 2010:

    Thanks for commenting.
    It is great to hear that the Maasai have not yet changed their traditions for those of the big city. What might have a big impact though is the future building of a highway straight through their homelands:

    I notice that you speak with passion and that you had a different approach from helping the people in the Turkana region. By forming the Wazee (old men) committee, you basically gave them the tool to help themselves. Something that is often lacking in modern aid.
    You also mention Mombasa Beach and I thought you might be interested in a post about sex-tourism on Kenya’s beaches:

  • Isa Barini on 11th June 2010:

    oh my…It is so sad…, how did the world change in the last years….There was nothing like this when I was there ( than in Nairobi, but this is an other story…). My staff was RUNNING AWAY and coming to me for help when a tourist was trying to go near to them! They always told me “women not circumsized are not interesting..”.
    There was a writer who wanted to have an ‘experience’ with a moran…, he did not succeed and was worned not to insist…or..!
    But seems that WE SPOILED THEM NOW…, yes WE! I was not in Mombasa, maybe there it was different…, but upc ountry I am sure of what I am saying!!!A tourist came with a Maasai ( one in 6 years…), my staff was disgusted…, and the laundry man more than the others ” he will sleep on the white pillow???!...
    As I sayd in an other case ( Serengeti…), I am happy that I lived that Country WHEN IT WAS STILL unspoiled!!! SAD SAD SAD!!

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