Saturday, November 26, 2011

Maasai Meets the United States

My high school created a program in the 1990s called Global Week, in which the students forget about learning by books and lectures and instead, during the first week back from winter break, turn to speakers, performances, documentaries, and “Global Investigator” trips to China and India. Throughout my three years at the school, we welcomed eye-opening experiences over the years that greatly broadened our horizons, including a talk by Pulitzer Prize winner Nicholas Kristof, a performance by Peking acrobats, a film “Made in LA,” and, of course, a trip to China for 10 days to understand a first-hand account of women migrant workers. However, the most memorable event of all came in my senior year when I least expected it.

Tuesday of Global Week I was enchanted by Nicholas Kristof. Global Week usually has one star of the show every year—before I came to the school Al Gore and Jane Goodall were the token stars of previous years. I could tell Nicholas Kristof was the big star of my last Global Week, and I soaked it in. The subsequent speakers were informative and interesting, but not moving to the extent of Kristof, and I didn’t expect them to be. On the last day, the classes broke off to do different activities. As the last event, I was prepared for a low-key project, or maybe a local speaker who would guide us in helping the global community in some way. Instead, a man who physically resembled a flagpole dressed in traditional Maasai clothing walked through the door.

Students and teachers were in awe -- the visitor provided a shock to all. The speakers we were accustomed to were scholars, journalists, photojournalists, film directors, and leaders. The moment he walked into the room, nobody said a word. There were no whispers. Nobody looked around. He introduced himself as a regular member of the Maasai people and a governmental representative within his more immediate group in Kenya, explaining why he made the unusual trip to the United States.

He began his talk, or informal getting-to-know-you session, with a warrior jumping dance and chant. (Tourist bloggers' account of the same visual.) Tall stick in hand, lion skin strewn across his back, and beaded necklaces all moved with him in a completely vertical, basketball-star worthy succession of jumps. As he danced, he sang a warrior song that he explained varies from group to group. He continued to tell us about their coming-of-age rituals in which young boys cannot show any sign of pain while someone pulls out several of their teeth. Boys are also only considered men when they kill their first lion—the group can help wound it, but the boy must deliver the final blow. The people primarily survive off of a diet of blood and milk from a cow. They do not kill their cattle for meat, but instead milk the cows and delicately extract blood from their veins. Occasionally they will eat meat from the animals they hunt and eat whatever grains they can grow in their regions. Families or small tribes will cluster together and serve as a central unit similar to the way in which a town might function here. His tribe owns one car that would make one trip to the capital once a week. Additional technology they capitalize on is cell phones. Hunting becomes much less dangerous and more synchronized when members of the hunting group can encircle the animal and call each other to go in for the kill.

I left that day knowing I would always have a vivid movie reel of the tall Maasai warrior in my mind because he surprised me. The juxtaposition of Maasai and Silicon Valley was irreconcilable. Hearing about sweatshop labor, human trafficking, and tens of other tragic problems the world faces today is heart-wrenching and moving, but somewhat expected and already percolating in our minds. We rarely have the chance to simply learn about another culture in its pure form. Sometimes I think back and reflect upon that day to recapture the feeling of utter surprise at a cultural difference I never knew existed. Sometimes I mention the day in relevant conversation to see people’s reactions to, “at least our toughest assignment is a paper or an exam – a man who lives in Kenya told me in his culture you have to endure lion hunting and having your teeth pulled out as a coming-of-age experience.” However, I lacked the tools and understanding to put this one man’s account into a larger social account and narrative, and, therefore, my thoughts never reached beyond those two points.

In the context of this course, the man’s presentation reinforces the idea that the West views Africa as both a place of origins and stuck in the past. In no way was the school trying to degrade the culture – in fact, they were trying to enhance our knowledge and promote acceptance and understanding of different cultures. Though the way the information was presented unintentionally treated the man and Maasai as a novelty.

With our iPhones in hand, we saw the man to be somewhat primitive, a way in which we could study what “Africa,” already a blanket term and gross generalization, might have been in the past and how it is now. (Our teachers had warned us to be sensitive to their deep-rooted, traditional culture, suggesting they lived by traditions that have been unchanged over hundreds of years. In our minds, the only difference between them then and now is their cell phones and one Jeep.) However, makes a point that, “On their migratory route South, Maasai, who are dreaded for their warlike tendency and reputation, forcibly displaced tribes that they encountered on their migration South.” This one piece of history we never received already disproves this preconceived notion we accepted when we absorbed this man’s culture out of context. Maasai today, spanning a vast region of East Africa from Kenya to Tanzania, did not originate from those areas. They moved south from Northern Africa and settled by the seventeenth century. Already we see a battle between fact and Western notions that Africa is “unchanging.”

The idea that our visitor was viewed as a novelty stems from the stark contrast of our environment and the man’s lack of context. In the heart of Silicon Valley, it’s easy to assume not many people like him in the world exist today. That is a completely false assumption, to say the least. In fact, there are about 1.5 million Maasai in Kenya and Tanzania. However, Maasai are aware of the Western idea that they are extraordinary and a rarity. In an article entitled, “Maasai and the Lion King,” Bruner explains there are several vacationing destinations run by Maasai to cater to the West’s image of them. In a description of three different resorts and vacationing spots, Bruner states, “To summarize thus far, Mayers presented the tourist image of the African primitive, Bomas presents the preservation of a disappearing Kenyan tradition, and the Sun-downer an American pop-culture image of Africa” (Bruner). Surprisingly, Maasai do not aim to downplay the assumptions that they are in any way “stuck in the past” or have some “primitive” qualities. Instead, they use their image in the West’s mind to create a portion of their economy, an act in itself that disproves the West’s assumptions in the first place.

Bruner describes in more detail:

“The Maasai, of course, are well aware of the discrepancy between their own life-styles and their tourist image, and they manipulate it, but there are many complexities in the situation. Some Maasai, who have in effect become performers in the tourism industry, display themselves for tourists, to be observed and photographed, and if asked, they reply that they do it for the money. They play the primitive, for profit, and have become what MacCannell (1992) calls the ex-primitive. This is the case for per-formers at all three sites, at Mayers, Bomas, and the Sundowner. Tourism for them is their livelihood, a source of income. On the other hand, I knew one Maasai business executive who assumed "ethnic" Maasai traits only during his nonworking hours. He dressed in Western clothing with shirt and tie during the work week in Nairobi, where he spoke English, but on most weekends, wearing jeans and a T-shirt, and speaking Maasai, he would return to his native village to become a pastoralist to attend to his extensive herd of livestock” (Bruner).

There certainly is tension between outside pressures, ties to tradition, and a natural progression of change and development within Maasai culture. As mentioned in the Bruner article, some Maasai do not strictly adhere to traditional culture, exemplified by what we call “casual Friday” weekend dress. On the other side of the spectrum, many of the coming-of-age traditions are still prevalent and a cornerstone of being Maasai. However, there’s an interesting blend with the example of our school visitor. One of his main activities revolves around hunting, performing hunting rituals, and wearing traditional hunting clothes. Though this is grounded in the traditional men’s role in his society, they use cell phones to enhance their hunting experience. Some traditions are more important to certain Maasai than others, but many of their experiences and ways of life today point to a clear departure from the West’s idea that they are unchanging and demonstrate instead their progression.

My school experience and further reflection raises the question: Can cultural education serve not to enhance our perspective but only put us more in the dark? If that’s true, how can we avoid this hard realization?


The Maasai and the Lion King: Authenticity, Nationalism, and Globalization in African Tourism
Edward M. Bruner American Ethnologist
Vol. 28, No. 4 (Nov., 2001), pp. 881-908 Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of the American Anthropological Association Stable URL:


  1. There's an article I read a while ago called "the myth of development" ... this link is sort of a summary of what it was talking about, maybe you might find it interesting...

  2. Molleigh this is a really thoughtful and stimulating post. I particularly liked the way you juxtaposed your earlier experiences with what you've taken away from the class.

    A couple of comments - perhaps you could embed a link to the Bruner article in the text of the post (as well as at the end). Also I thought it was interesting that you finished by noting that placing the Maasi into the context of the present day demonstrates their progression - as we've seen 'progress' is itself a loaded term, revealing how difficult it is to talk and think about these questions within the framework that we've inherited in North America and Europe.

    I like the question you ended with and thought that your blog began to think through an answer to it. Nice job. zoe