New Clear Vision

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Reconstructed Ethnicities

April 22, 2013 By: NCVeditor Category: Culture, Ecology, Economy, Guest Author

Faces of Eco-Tourism in the Rift Valley

by Charlene R. Apok

Post colonization, some of the most valuable lands of vast Rift Valley have been enclosed as private ‘protected reserves’. This has led to intense conflicts over the future of these lands and their rightful heirs, the indigenous Maasai people. A contentious debate has photo by Charlene Apokintensified with the growth of tourism and, especially, eco-tourism, which has become deeply entangled with this region. Anthropologists and other social scientists have joined the debate. Honey (2009) looked at so-called community eco-tourism at the national level and reveals numerous shortcomings, but is still in favor of the promotion of tourism and seeks equitable distribution of economic assets to more directly benefit the indigenous communities.

Summitt (2002) explores the dynamics of education, Christianity, technology and tourism among the Maasai in Tanzania. This work touches on the diverse perspectives among the Maasai and claims to examine how they envision themselves while their local world continues to meet and grate up against globalization. Though not specific to the Maasai people, Rodriguez (1990) provides an examination of Ethnic Reconstruction in Contemporary Taos. The article moves through decades of changing tourism in this region and how ethnic identity becomes compromised and reconstructed; her approach has been useful to my late theoretical reflections. Wangui (2008) uses a gendered perspective to understand the implications of changing pastoral roles for livelihood of the Maasai.

In McRae’s (2003) article, tourism is critiqued through space, time and movement as being foundationally unstable. This work uses Edward Said’s framework in Orientalism as a catalyst. Farrell and Runyan (1991) write that eco-tourism, which is built around natural surroundings, still needs to account for the ecology and impacts of ecological degradation of the industry and its rather large footprint. Farrell and Runyan call for the recognition of human beings as interactive and part of the ecosystem especially as seen through the lens of tourism. This, as I will argue, amounts to an insidious form of ‘museumization’ of living cultures.

In another study published in the Annals of Tourism Research, Graburn and Jafari (1991) provide a brief social science overview of the development of global tourism and today’s more interdisciplinary scholarly understanding. And finally, Nash and Smith (1991) consider an anthropological perspective on tourism, which introduces the concerns of culture contacts, third-world [sic] vulnerability between the hosts and clients, and what obligations and impacts are at stake.  I have drawn in a critical manner from these sources to present my ethnographic reflections on eco-tourism and the Maasai.

The people of the Rift Valley: An Overview

The semi-nomadic and pastoral Maasai have mastered a sustainable form of subsistence livelihood in the Great Rift Valley for thousands of years. Their resilient subsistence economy is organized around finding and moving across grazing lands for their cattle, goats and sheep along with the unfettered access to scarce water resources. The relationship of humans to the land is for indigenous people, including Maasai, a link that informs all ways of knowing – what the anthropologists like to call ‘traditional environmental knowledge’ or TEK. This capacity to make a direct culture and living from the land provides milk, meat, and cow blood for physical nutrients but also the basis for emotional and spiritual wellbeing. The colonization periods drove a wedge into this landscape, creating a political border transecting the Rift Valley that today separates Tanzania and Kenya and that the Maasai must now negotiate to continue existing as an autonomous native people.

In addition to the division with borders, layers of colonization also brought privatization of land, which had once been considered communally shared land. The privatization, of course, has also led to land loss, greatly reducing the spaces of Maasai grazing and associated ceremonies and lifeways.

Grouped by age sets, the Maasai are known to be fierce warriors. Young men, in particular, transition into leadership through ceremonial practices, which prepare them for the role of warrior and hunter. Traditionally, this included lion hunting. These skills would provide protection for the villages. Age sets and gender contribute interdependently in moving together to provide all needs for one another. The villages, also known as bomas, are constructed communal spaces. The practices of each age set are especially notable when confronting the severing of ties between the Maasai and land.

Westernized education, religion, and technology, built around globalization and capitalism, have penetrated Africa, including the Maasai lands. For the half a million plus Maasai, indigenous living has become imbalanced as access to land and others resources has dwindled. The pressure to earn a monetized living is ever-present and is now sought after to supplement the gaps left by these changes whereas care of livestock used to provide for all needs. This dependence of the Maasai on monetized income is where tourism enters.

Reflections on Constructed Experiences

In January 2012, I traveled to Kenya among Environmental Science scholars. As an American Ethnic Studies major, this science-geared travel provided constant enriching experiences that were enhanced by new surroundings. Having an alternative lens, which defaults to cultural attentiveness and belonging to an indigenous community myself, meant creating meanings that weren’t always shared by the other travelers. While they enjoyed their bit as tourists, I constantly felt alienated and struggle to feel comfortable in this role. I could not ‘gaze’ upon other indigenous people without feeling and sharing their sense of displacement. This rang true during our stay at Maasai Mara, a reserve in the Great Rift Valley, which safaris near the Tanzanian border on the legendary and ever popular Serengeti Plains. This ultimate landscape of over five hundred square miles (Maasai Mara only) with diverse wildlife is the dispossessed ancestral lands that the Maasai have been banned from grazing on or even entering. It is now a reserve, and the land and game are nationally ‘protected’. The nearby camps accommodate those is search of Western comforts despite the continuous drought faced by the locals. For an additional fee, visitors can pay extra for a ‘Cultural Visit’.

Our small group met up with the senior boy age set, those who would be the next leaders of their tribe. We were led to an area outside of the encircled boma and presented with song and dance. The songs sung are related to major life events such as circumcision and subsistence practices including hunting or the care and grazing of cattle, and deeply spiritual ties to land and water. An especially notable song and dance is the one performed by this age set to attract partners. This involves competitive dancing where the higher one can jump the more attention and attraction is created.

Following the dance, we were invited into the boma, which is encircled by handcrafted thorn fencing that serves to keep livestock within and potential harm out. When entering, we were welcomed by Maasai women of all age sets; they were also singing and dancing. Next, we were shown fire stick and tool making. We were also informed what was being made in front of us could be purchased.

Because this age set is a composition of warriors who have undergone initiation, the future chief was among the young men who were hosting our group. In order to gain this status among his peers, this young man of seventeen to nineteen years old, had exhibited great bravery in solo lion hunting. The Maasai are known for lion hunting. However, the longstanding relationship of Maasai and lion often has been misunderstood. The Maasai must take all measures to protect their livestock, especially the cattle, for this is survival for everyone. Any attacks from predators must be revenged so that they do not fall into continuous prey leading to the demise of the people or the lions. When the lone warrior successfully hunts a lion first in his age group this exhibition of bravery sets the tone for future leadership. The head of the lion including the face and mane are made into an honorary headpiece. In our visit we met the young leader and they brought the headpiece for us to view.

Further, the headpiece was put on us visitors so that pictures could be taken. I recall abhorring the thought of participating in something that is meant for honoring life achievements. It was this exact moment in which awareness of the cost to the Maasai was apparent. Our presence and demand for this experience contaminated their authenticity and the sacred relationship they have shared with lions for millennia. However, the pictures (Note: Photography has long been a cultural taboo which many Maasai still; remain wary of today) continued to be taken and we finished the ‘Cultural Visit’ with a tour of crafts by the women who expected us to bargain and so many of us did, down to the lowest prices in order to take a souvenir home; a fragment of that ‘preserved culture’ home. It is a banality unseen and unfelt by most of the participants who clung to their ‘cheap’ crafts with glee.

Behind Binoculars and Safari Hats

Tourism rests on a ‘directed’ or ‘centered’ form of otherness. It requires imagining nostalgias and paying to experience them. In the current global community, the West dominates as the sender of clients and the people and cultures of the ‘third world’ or Global South are the hosts. The hosts ‘commodify’ their cultures out of an absolute need for survival. This relationship involves a paradox in which tourist consumption is based on the sale of experiences that are born of ethnic and indigenous cultures that are may actually be in direct opposition or at least contrast to the values of that same Western culture. The historical legacy of colonialism frames tourism in a way that is based on an economy in which the host culture continues to be extracted. Culture tourism is a new form of extractive resource colonialism. The host is put on a pedestal and often ‘exoticized’. This otherness prepares the client/visitor to expect an experience that is opposite of how the West is viewed. This is especially true of indigenous cultures.

The client/visitor holds the lens of western ideals, which are perceived to be progressive, leading in technology, developed, modernizing and changing. In contrast, and erroneously of course, indigenous cultures are viewed as traditional, unchanging, static, non-progressive, and even backwards or primitive. Because of this binary construct, the members of the host culture have expectations of what they must do to present/perform themselves to be in order to sell ‘authentic’ experiences. This is where an identity becomes recreated in order to be (re)presented to the outsider. This façade requires rehearsed knowing and performing that will validate Western ideologies. Additionally, the client comes prepared with her own expectations and the framing is ready to consume what has already been imagined, so as to be satisfied through this presumably authentic experience. Though seemingly fair in exchanging a visit for payment, the real costs are held by the people of the host culture because of their vulnerability in being dependent on tourism for income.

The costs exist because the imagined state of static and unchanging indigenous cultures is entirely false. The reality is that cultures such as the Maasai are in fact quite dynamic. The Maasai have long had to change and adapt to new challenges faced as their land was taken and livelihoods threatened. They have had to change for thousands years; I wonder: Will the US empire survive into a third century?

The privatization of Maasai land brought changes in access to water resources and impacted cattle herds, which are dwindling as ancestral grazing ranges are enclosed or destroyed. This has also meant the imposition of regulations on the hunting of animals such as lions and the creation of false boundaries, built with fencing and other barriers, that also changed the lions’ living patterns and reproductive success. All are forced together in smaller spaces and this has undeniably meant detrimental change for all.

It should also be noted that among the Maasai there is diversity with sixteen subgroups spread across Kenya and Tanzania. Most recently, with a globalized economy and ease of transportation, tourism has expanded and new forms like ecotourism have become popular. Where resources have been cut and made inaccessible, tourism has become the only alternative to supplement subsistence needs.  The Maasai and other indigenous peoples have long practiced resistance, which is, in fact, about remaining active and making conscious choices and decisions that protect their way of life and identity. This is a far cry from being static or unchanging.  In a region like the Great Rift Valley where reserves are numerous and are marked by rich savanna and ecological systems unlike any on Earth, eco-tourism has made an lasting impression.

The concept of tourism that helps to conserve and protect the environment is much more tricky and problematic than is typically acknowledged. Few seem to truly recognize the enormous potential for serious ecological and cultural degradation. The eco-tourists certainly seem clueless, perhaps willfully so. This capacity to continue devastating the environmental and impinging on local cultures is a critique of all tourism and resorts.

There is a vivid and painful irony in this: The class was there to study and support the reserved lands that had been taken from the indigenous people who were responsible for the healthy state of the ecosystems through centuries of unique stewardship. Now, these ‘inspirational’ people had been removed because their livelihoods had suddenly been deemed a threat to the environment and biodiversity. We were contributing to the reduction of a way of life to museum relics, feigned performances, and handicrafts cheapened by our consumptive demands. This banal system rejoices the people of the ‘Cultural Visit’ then rejects the same people when they demand to remain an autonomous living culture. This, makes apparent the dependency and vulnerability for those who must reconstruct and perform their ethnic identity in order to survive.

The push and pull of this dependency is clear through an examination of almost anything: Cattle breed and herd size, family structure, diet, ownership of land, travel patterns, education and especially dress. In an isolated Maasai area, one can see the contrasts of those wearing jeans or skirts with collared button up shirts or tops with logos against the distinct plaid patterns and bright colors of the immaculate nearly hidden beading. There is hardly an in between to these. Instead, the stark contrasts are glaring for those of us willing to see past the veneers of a post colony. Using the lens of a decolonial anthropology to evaluate the losses faced by the host culture to have undertaken the experience with the client/visitor, I learned that consumption of another’s culture is not equalizing wealth but is instead upholding and exacerbating disparities.


Shortly after this trip, while sharing my witnessing of the Maasai culture transitions, I was asked what I thought this meant for the Maasai in the future. I didn’t really know how to answer that then and I cannot speak for others then or now. However, what I can say now is that this inquiry was misshapen in that people from the western standpoint only ask what are they (the Maasai) going to do? Not, what are we going to do? By this I mean we place the responsibility of negotiating Western ideology, capitalism, and globalization on those who remain in the realm of otherness. This is not to deny their agency, but to pass on our own with respect to obligations to other peoples. It has not led to another question, of our responsibility to critically analyze the ways in which we interact with the rest of the world and yet remain stubbornly ethnocentric.

Although knowledge sharing is one key for the practice of an indigenous way of life, tourism does not promote or lend itself to genuine cross-cultural understanding. Tourism and eco-tourism hold limitations within binary systems. This is true for the Maasai and other indigenous cultures. From an environmental justice vantage point, it can be seen that the cycle of land loss and displacement continues to work itself through the advent of the tourist industry that still leaves indigenous cultures reconstructing their ethnicity for outsiders as a means to survival. The use of protected reserves for game and ecosystem conservation efforts seldom serves the local ecology since outsiders tend to ignore the indigenous peoples who have lived there for so long and accounted for the resilient relationship human beings have within the ecological system.

Environmental justice seeks to make tourism and tourism studies recognize the host situation and how current frameworks of collaboration uphold Western ideologies and privileges while keeping indigenous cultures dependent on satisfying the ‘other’ identity. This reproduces points of romanticized, tokenized and exoticized (re)presentations. The tourist industry cannot connect those who seek to have authentic experiences with cultures that are being ‘othered’ because the identity is being commodified, appropriated, and sold for consumption. The reconstructed ethnicity presented is harmful to the host because it imposes the cost of maintaining an identity that must at once remain ‘fixed’ and yet needs to be validated and authenticated by those very same outsiders.

As global indigenous communities negotiate and navigate ever-changing and treacherous political and economic surroundings, their agency in and through the land and their struggles for autonomy and environmental justice must be tread carefully. Exercising critical analysis in judging whether or not to collaborate with the tourist industry is a necessity. There is a need for indigenous communities to reevaluate their alterNative ways of living to avoid losing their sense of self to tourism. Just as importantly, the Western tourist visitors must come to understand what they are collaborating in by participating in ‘Cultural Visits’. They must be held responsible for making informed choices about where they go and how they establish relationships with communities different than their own. These relationships and experiences form points of knowing and can make for meaningful intercultural exchanges for all involved. It is time that tourism reevaluates itself by becoming cognizant of and taking responsibility for the obligations the visitors are held to if we abide by environmental justice principles and acknowledge the indigenous right to a self-determined livelihood, that may come to refuse to engage with us. We need to learn to accept that. This will also require a major change in the global economy away from privatization and toward what Professor Devon Peña calls the ‘re-commons’, which is an idea shared by the Maasai who envision a future return to their unfenced communal range.


Farrell, Bryan H., and Dean Runyan. “Ecology and Tourism.” Annals of Tourism Research 18 (1991): 26–40. Print.

Graburn, Nelson H.H., and Jafar Jafari. “Introduction Tourism and Social Science.” Annals of Tourism Research 18 (1991): 1–11. Print.

Honey, Martha. “Community Conservation and Early Ecotourism Experiments in Kenya.” Environment Magazine 51:1 (2009): 46–57. Print.

McRae, Leanne. “Rethinking Tourism Edward Said and a Politics of Meeting and Movement.” Tourist Studies 3 (2003): 235–251. Print.

Nash, Dennison, and Valene L. Smith. “Anthropology and Tourism.” Annals of Tourism Research 18 (1991): 12–25. Print.

Rodriguez, Sylvia. “Ethnic Reconstruction in Contemporary Taos.” Journal of the Southwest 32:4 (1990): 541–555. Print.

Summitt, April R. “Cell-Phones and Spears: Indigenous Cultural Transition Within the Maasai of East Africa.” Indigenous Nations Studies Journal 3.1 (2002): 53–74. Print.

Wangui, Elizabeth Edna. “Development Interventions, Changing Livlihoods and the Making of the Female Maasai Pastoralist.” Agriculture and Human Values 25:25 (2008): 365–378. Print.

Notes: Due to the later reflection on ethnography done in Kenya, the sum of this study is primarily drawn from personal observations from January 2012 to February 2012.

Charlene R. Apok is an Alaskan Native student at the University of Washington. This essay was prepared for a seminar class on Cultures and Politics of Environmental Justice; it originally appeared on the Environmental and Food Justice blog (moderated by Devon Peña), and is reprinted here by permission.

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