The Double-Edged Sword of Cultural Tourism

By Katie Hartin (Staff Writer)

During my summer field research, I traveled to the Maasai Mara, the Kenyan half of the incredible Serengeti-Mara ecosystem, and the home of the Maasai ethnic group. Picture prides of lions hidden in tall green savannah grasses, and herds of zebra, wildebeest, and gazelles grazing amongst the acacia trees. Alongside them, the Maasai herders wearing brightly coloured robes whistle and click their tongues as they walk with their cows, sheep and goats from their mud-and-thatch huts. For many of us, this probably evokes a sense of timelessness, and a society untouched by the ‘evils of modernity’. It is also one that many National Geographic documentaries and glossy tourist brochures continue to perpetuate. However, it is but a small sliver of the reality there, like looking at one pixel of an entire photograph; beautiful, perhaps, but incomplete. 

Much of my time as an anthropologist living with Maasai communities in East Africa has been spent trying to differentiate myself from tourists or well-wishers, or in one area, from government officials. This is for practical and social reasons, as people tend to be more forthcoming when they do not expect donations and are not afraid of being arrested. As anthropologists, however, we sometimes give ourselves privileged positions on the grounds that we speak local languages or abide by customs when tourists remain unaware. Nevertheless, there are still moments when you feel your ‘Other-ness’ quite acutely. 

As a researcher aligned with a development organisation, I found myself in the odd space between undertaking ‘objective’ research, and trying to create positive change in the community, The Olare Orok and Motorogi Trust is involved with distributing funds for various projects, such as providing school bursaries, building school dormitories, installing rainwater harvesting tanks and finding markets for women’s beadwork. The organisation depends to some extent on tourist donations to help fund specific endeavours, but also relies on bed-night fees from tourism camps. Tourism is essentially the only viable industry in the area, and thus provides the most immediately available means for development. But if the main driver of tourism is the ‘untouched’ and ‘pristine’ Maasai Mara, what are its implications for development? Are these two visions compatible?

In Mara, pockets of the ‘traditional’ are interspersed with the contemporary, all to provide the tourist that sense of ‘getting away.’ If the locals rely so heavily on tourism, why do I find this so perverse? I think in some ways, these images start to become reality, and actually perpetuate certain circumstances that are not aligned with what local people would like for themselves. 

For example, I often found, to my embarrassment, that I did not recognise individuals I had spoken with before. When I interviewed people at their homes or in town, the men would wear shirts and trousers, while ladies wore jumpers and skirts. When I interviewed managers at tourism camps, I would see the same individuals from before, but now dressed in their work uniform of colourful robes. They greeted me warmly while I stood there with a confused expression. I thought, “who are you?” 

Tourists can also visit a ‘cultural boma.’ These are enclosed family settlements where tourists can watch women and girls as they bead, or see the young men sing and jump to get a taste of the ‘local culture’ before the ever-persistent flies drive them back to their five-star luxury camps with electricity, running water and WiFi. Occasionally, these visits will inspire tourists to donate money to support these families, a highly-coveted prospect amongst locals. In order to qualify, a family cannot cause any problems with the wildlife, and they must have at least some mud huts in the family’s settlement. While I was there, one family was using donations from a previous year to construct a new house with wooden posts and corrugated iron sheets. Some families of tour guides, who earn a relatively high salary, have concrete homes with satellite dishes and their own 4 x 4 vehicles. However, these types of upgrades often prevent families from being considered for tourist visits in the future. 

Does having a nice home made of sturdy materials that do not require constant maintenance during the rainy season somehow make you less local or less Maasai? Not according to the Maasai themselves. Although learning building techniques provides a social space for younger and older women, and is an important part of women’s duties, women are hardly begging for additional chores or labour. Elite Maasai men have been constructing these nyumba bora (improved houses) for many decades, so why do certain perceptions of local people stick, and what is their effect?

When I talk to Maasai from areas that are less dependent on tourism, they often describe how surprised they are to see how little development there is in Mara. As one female community development worker told me, she was shocked that early and forced marriages, as well as female circumcision, still occur,. She figured that with all the wazungu (lit. Europeans, or more colloquially, any white person) involved with development projects, it must be a big town. However, it was still very rural. 

I began to see that tourism brings both advantages and disadvantages. It is currently the only industry in Maasai Mara (and possibly the only one compatible with wildlife), meaning it is the only source of income and formal employment. The tourism industry provides many less-educated people with wage labour or semi-permanent employment, but also provides less incentive for people to stay in school. It gives them enough money to meet their needs without sacrificing any of their livestock herds, but it does not enable them to earn enough money to own their own camps or go on five-star holidays themselves. 

Dorothy Hodgson [1]  writes of how colonisers actually equated Maasai ethnicity and identity with male activities, thus producing a society that was more gendered than prior to European intervention. Power subsequently consolidated into the hands of men, while women lost some of their autonomy. Today, men embody and defend their roles in these positions as part of their long-standing culture, but historical evidence indicates that these gender dynamics are as much a product of interactions with outsiders than anything indigenous. In a similar way, the Maasai of Mara mold themselves to fit these global images of the ‘noble savage’ and it is hard to say whether or not it helps them in the long term. 

Imagine a solitary Maasai man leaning against his walking stick as he grazes his cows through the sprawling grasslands. Tourists take his photo and hand him a couple shillings. Later, he will check his Facebook account on his smartphone, or sing along to the UK Top 40 hits, wearing Nike track pants and a baseball cap. But in that moment he has fashioned himself in a particular way. Is he part of a global system of structural inequality that is perpetuated via the tourism industry, or is he just a man trying to carve out a piece of agency in a place where there are few other options? 

1. Hodgson, D. (1999) Once Intrepid Warriors: Gender, Ethnicity, and the Cultural Politics of Maasai Development. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.