Ethical Dilemma: Visiting A Maasai Manyatta

Cara Giaimo
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For the second time in our lives, my classmates and I ducked into a Maasai family’s home. Our host, a relatively young man, was already inside. As we dropped onto knee-high stools arranged around the hut’s small cooking fire, I saw him surreptitiously kick something underneath the low bed he was sitting on. I “dropped” my camera, stretched toward the ground to pick it up, and stayed there until the offending item flickered into view. It was a small box of matches, Rhino Kubwa brand, kicked aside after probably starting the very fire that was now making it visible.

Our professors had taken us to Amboseli National Park for a field trip, and had decided to send us through a cultural manyatta, a tourist attraction meant to direct some of the money that pours into Kenya every year from the vacation budgets of Europeans and Americans to the local people; to let them benefit, however indirectly, from the wildlife that simultaneously attracts the foreigners and devastates local farms and herds. It was meant to be an opportunity for us to get a tourist’s-eye view of the local culture, a different kind of educational experience than we ordinarily got as students.

So far, though, it had just been confusing. Earlier that day we’d also been arranged in a circle, this time outside, around a group of Maasai who were trying to start a fire by rubbing a stick against a piece of wood. They tried for about ten minutes before giving up and moving on to a demonstration of medicinal plants. If they had matches, why weren’t they using them? Any other Maasai that we’d met would never have bothered with the sticks in the first place, and if he’d been out of matches, he’d have called a friend in town on his cell phone and asked him to pick some up. Why was it so different here? And why was it making us so uncomfortable?

The original manyatta idea had involved a setup like Old Sturbridge Village or Epcot, a life-sized diorama where Maasai could work as performers and educators during the day before returning home to their real bomas at night. But when you travel on foot in blazing heat, often accompanied by your entire life’s savings in slow-moving cows, any commute at all becomes undesirable. And if you’re a member of a culture that is in the process of transitioning out of a nomadic lifestyle (a lifestyle which has traditionally included scrapping your whole neighborhood as soon as the pasture runs out), keeping up two sets of buildings seems less than sensible.

So the Maasai moved into the dioramas. They built schools near them, and switched to a form of stationary pastoralism within the parks where most of the manyattas were based. They made tit-for-tat arrangements with tour drivers – “you bring your tourists to our manyatta, we’ll give you a cut of the proceeds” – and suddenly their livelihoods depended on how much tourists liked what they saw. If there was something those tourists might not like, under the bed it went.

We had to learn all of this from our professors, and from papers – I wish I could say our host had corroborated it, but when we tried to ask him how he felt about all of it, his previously good English deteriorated instantly. It was the same with the man who explained to us that the Maasai drink cow’s blood, and cure all diseases with native plants despite the presence of a nearby hospital, and are polygamists. Any attempt at asking how these practices were changing was met with a rapid change of subject, or silence, or a reiteration (“Maasai men drink blood and take many wives!”) followed by a pause, as though we were supposed to be impressed, or repelled, or both. As though, having played the part of the strange native, they were waiting for us to play ours – to be the Westerners, willing to pay money to be both disgusted and titillated by people different than us.

Many of us did feel repelled, but it had nothing to do with the differences between us and the manyatta Maasai, and everything to do with differences between these Maasai and others we had met earlier, in a different context. Our camp was located in the middle of a Maasai group ranch, and one jetlagged day, very early in the semester, we had gone to meet our neighbors. As newcomers, we were nervous for all sorts of reasons. As hosts, they were too. We dressed in our least dusty clothes (a distinction that still meant something at that point during our stay), and the mamas and warriors draped themselves in innumerable beads. Both parties performed – the Maasai showed us a few traditional greeting songs, and we replied with a version of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” that we’d choreographed and remixed (as is currently the American way). They showed us their machetes; we showed them our cameras. They touched our strange mzungu hair and we touched their strange colorful robes. Everyone shook every hand.

That day was the first time we all ducked into a hut together. It was pitch dark, and we were beckoned in by a mama who pushed us down onto the knee-high stools and began animatedly showing off her hand-hollowed gourd calabash and her factory-made plastic cutlery with equal gusto. Matches sat in plain view, unabashed. There was something hidden under the bed that time, too, although we didn’t notice it until it began nibbling on our shoelaces. When, after insisting for several minutes that there was nothing under there, our hostess finally reached down and pulled out a baby goat, we all laughed and stared and laughed, we at her and her at us, until it wasn’t really “at” anymore but more like “with”, and that “with” was more important than “us” or “them” or any other distinguishing pronouns.

The differences between us, as individuals and as representatives of separate cultures, were still there, but so were the similarities. The differences no longer seemed insurmountable, but there also didn’t seem to be any particular need to surmount most of them – they were, after all, interesting and enlightening and hilarious.

Of course, there’s a rather large gulf between being invited to someone’s home and paying to get in. Each situation cultivates its own social atmosphere, one of which is, understandably, much more conducive to laughter and surprise and moments of potential mutual cultural understanding. Tourists visit manyattas because they’re curious – they’ve heard about the Maasai and they want an inside scoop. The manyatta model, although seemingly the most direct route to that (what could be more “inside” than being led through someone’s door?) ends up necessarily creating distance, largely because of its purported closeness. For one thing, despite all the welcome dances, Maasai and tourists are strangers. Manyattas dissolve the physical barrier between the tourists and the Maasai’s homes, so the Maasai obviously throw other walls up. Of course our tour guide faked a language barrier when we asked him about his feelings, and of course he didn’t want us to see what his house really looked like. Everyone needs some measure of privacy. We’d paid to enter his home, but we hadn’t earned access to his actual life. It makes sense that, with strangers coming through every day, he’d want to keep those two things very separate.

For another, tourists come into the manyattas with expectations of “authenticity,” which often have less to do with reality and more to do with images from old National Geographics. The manyatta workers are businesspeople, and they shape their product to fit that construct. They’re filling an order – your average tourist expects blood-drinking and no matchboxes, so that’s what everyone gets. Cell phones, slang, baseball caps, and complexity come out only after the customers leave. Stereotypes are in demand, so as Maasai culture modernizes and evolves (partly as a result of tourists’ presence), the manyattas root themselves in a romanticized past.

This dramatization might not be such a problem for me if it was more apparent, or if it was advertised as a dramatization. The original manyatta idea, of a for-show boma staffed by paid actors, at least contains an implied disclaimer – “this is a performance” – that would free it from the burden of being “real.” An Iraqw manyatta I attended in Tanzania was like this – a man had built a presentation space and traditional house next to the house he actually lived in, and gave tours of the traditional house for a fee. This idea also avoids the first problem, of paying to be invited into someone’s home, and all the implications that go along with it – should that kind of invitation be something you can put a price tag on? What about the children in the manyattas, or others who haven’t necessarily consented to strangers always coming in? Does anyone want to live here, or are there just no better alternatives?

I wish I had been able to ask these questions at the manyatta. I hope someone somewhere is asking them. Many of the national park lodges and other large-scale tourism enterprises in East Africa are owned by foreigners. These businesses often make a point of including the local community, but only in very specific ways – for example, the Serena Hotel chain’s corporate responsibility statement dedicates a paragraph to the importance of “protecting and sustaining the lifestyle of [local] groups and showcasing and promoting their individual cultural heritage” by selling local handicrafts in the giftshop, including traditional art in the hotel’s design concept, and holding culturally-themed “theatrical displays,” among other things.

Serena owns the most prominent lodges in all of the parks I visited; the company’s size and popularity means that it helps to dictate the rules of cultural tourism by default. If the Maasai want to be involved in the industry, they either cooperate with the lodges or places like them, by involving themselves in the displays, or they compete with them, in the manyattas or in curio shops and other places of business. Either way, the expected product has already been constructed by the lodges, who want above all for their guests to be comfortable and entertained (which means keeping things in a familiar headspace), and to set up a model that will work in each of their diverse locations (Serena has hotels everywhere from Afghanistan to Uganda). What the locals want doesn’t seem to be a concern. There is a growing local tourism movement – one place I found in Tanzania offers homestays and locally guided walking and bicycle tours, and although it was started by a Dutch company it’s now staffed and run entirely by Tanzanians – but places like that are an exception. Maybe there’s a way, legally or just by setting an ethical precedent, to make it so that local input is necessary before corporations come in and make the rules.

Or maybe it would be better to build more museums, or memorials – places that are tourist-friendly, but aren’t just for tourists. Maasai could design and staff them, and locals could get in for free, and everyone could rub elbows on more neutral ground. There are places like this already – I came away from visits to the Lamu Museum and the Takwa Ruins (on Manda Island in Lamu) feeling like I’d learned things and given money to the people who need it without filtering it through an institution that seems harmful. I’ve heard that Meserani Snake Park in Arusha, Tanzania, has a Maasai museum; I hope I can get there someday.

But if I end up there, and happen to make friends with a Maasai fellow visitor, and get invited back to a boma, I’m going to get out of the museum and go. I’ll just make sure to check under the bed.



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