Wed 14 Sep 2011 - Thu 15 Sep 2011
Perhaps it was true, before I was born, that Africa was still wild. Tribes of nomadic aboriginal people spent their lives living off the land, in simple ways with simple tools. That certainly is the image projected about Africa and African people.
Today, we live in the world of the mobile phone, the iPod, the jumbo jet and the internet. Is it possible, or desirable, to live a simple life, even in Africa?
Often touted as the only authentic tribe remaining in Eastern Africa, the Masai people have been encouraged by their government to maintain their tribal traditions. They are given exemptions to rules that have developed out of a modern 21st century, like the need for passports to cross country borders, the need to own land for one’s animals to graze upon, and the need to protect endangered species from hunters.
It is a challenge for a tourist to have a real experience with a Masai, one that has not been touched by tourism. The government of Kenya realized that visitors were drawn to the foreign aspect of these tribes, and created economic opportunities for them to interact. Driving through Kenya, one sees artificial Masai villages, often with a big welcome sign for busloads of tourists. The Masai men sell souvenirs in touristy areas of Kenya, making additional money when the tourist inevitably wants to have their photo taken with the red-robed men. So when our company, Intrepid, put a visit to a Masai village on our itinerary, I was both delighted and skeptical.
Our experience was not the first time this village in Loita Hills had interacted with foreigners. In fact, an educated, Anglophone leader was pre-appointed as our guide. We were told that Intrepid limits visits to this particular village to a few a month. We pitched our tents in an area used for grazing cattle, and side-stepped their “deposits”. While we were the only group in the area, a concrete drop toilet and a cooking structure had been permanently erected. An elder in the village was appointed to be our guard for the night, and he took his post by a newly-made fire.
During our stay in Loita Hills we were shown around the village. Our visit opened with a welcome dance by the ladies, followed by a chat in the cattle enclosure, complete with hundreds of buzzing flies, a gender-segregated Q and A in the guide’s mud hut, and another talk around the campfire after dinner. We awoke for the optional (read: pay extra) Masai warrior dance and jumping competition, and concluded with an opportunity to buy products that the Masai women had made or bought.
I am not disappointed that the interaction was obviously an economic decision that gave the Masai village some income and gave us that “tribal” experience we were after. And I had no illusions that the Masai people haven’t changed after all these years. Our guide had a mobile phone and a truck. His daughter attends college in the closest city. His admission that they occasionally supplement their traditional diet of milk, blood and beef with beans and corn came as no surprise either. I suppose that what I felt was awkward, that the groups of Western tourists desire that the Masai keep their rudimentary existence so badly that they feel they have to fake it to make it. The fact is that cell phones, new diets, and shoes that are not made from tires are viewed as a failure, in a way, and development, education and re-thinking values are detrimental to the Masai way of life. An adamant adherence to a traditional way of life is one thing, but being pressured by government and the tourism machine to avoid change is another. I’m not sure on which side of the line the Masai currently tread.