Understanding the Masai and Tourism

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If you haven’t guessed it already yes, I spent my third week in Tanzania at yet again a different place. This week I got the opportunity to go on Safari game drives at Ngorongoro National Park and Serengeti National Park, as well as learn more about the Masai. The Masai are an indigenous ethnic group in Africa of semi-nomadic people that originated from the lower Nile Valley and settled in Kenya and northern Tanzania. The Masai are very influential in Tanzania. Almost anywhere we have been to in Tanzania people would talk about the Masai, even sell souvenirs that represent them such as wood carvings of Masai people, paintings and replicas of their jewelry.

In an effort to know and understand more about the Masai people, my study abroad program had an organized visit with the Masai who live near the Ngorongoro Crater National Park. I was excited for our visit yet nervous at the same time. Why nervous? Simply because I did not know what to expect at all. The visit ended up being an emotional roller coaster for me…

When we first arrived, we were welcomed with singing and a traditional dance. The men dance with the men and women dance separately with the other women. The men and the women have distinct dance moves they do. We then followed them inside their compound and the singing and dancing continued. This time they invited some of us students to dance with them. I was grabbed by the hand and directed to join the women. An elderly Masai woman placed one of their traditional neck pieces on me and directed me to hold hands and dance with the other younger women. I felt welcomed and felt genuinely happy to be there dancing with them (although I did a terrible job at dancing…).

After that we followed the Chief to the compound’s preschool. The purpose of these preschools is to help the Masai children learn basics in English such as counting and the alphabet. This is done in order to prevent Masai children from falling behind once they start attending grade school which is taught in English.

The preschool was a small hut-like structure, at most the size of a 12 by 12-foot room. Immediately I felt the sudden urge to cry because I was overcome with my emotions. This wasn’t because I felt sorry for the Masai or wished to help them or anything of that nature because I understand this is their traditional way of life and many of them CHOOSE to continue to live this traditional lifestyle.

I began to feel the way I did because this is what I had imagined my parents’ grade school classrooms to look like. My parents both grew up in rural areas of the State of Mexico where they had no electricity or running water. They grew up farming and raising livestock, living off what they had. But unlike the Masai this was not by choice but rather because of pure poverty and lack of opportunities to be able to get out of this poverty cycle.

We crowded inside the preschool and I couldn’t help but notice how scared and uncomfortable the children looked. This is when the visit started going really South for me. The children then started singing “the jambo song” for us guest. Right then and there I began feeling uncomfortable myself and started asking myself questions.

Do they have school today or were they just placed in the classroom to put on this “show” for us?  How long did it take them to learn this? Did they want to learn this? I hate to say it and hate that everything always has to come back to this for me, but it just felt so odd to have a group of colored children “performing” for a predominantly white student group, considering we paid for this visit. As another student from my group put it, it felt like a human zoo.

As the visit continued and we were showed the inside of their homes and encouraged to buy from their souvenir shop, my visit did not get any better. Instead I left their feeling odd. Later that day to my comfort, when I opened up to several of my classmates about these feelings, I found that I was not the only one that felt the way I felt.

Many people also felt odd about the visit and agreed that the visit started going downhill as soon as we stepped into that preschool. What this taught me is that perhaps there are better ways to learn about the culture of others. Ways that are less intrusive and more respectful.  Sometimes the tourist options are not the best because it feels so forced. If we think about it, when anthropologists want to learn more about certain groups of people, they integrate into their lifestyles not merely take tours. I believe that’s the most valuable part of a study abroad program, one that allows you to integrate as much into the lifestyle as possible.

Masai men
Masai women
Before heading out for a safari day.
Zebras in the Ngorongoro Crater National Park.