Anthropology 258: African Societies
November 28, 2003
The Maasai are Maa-speaking, pastoral groups spread throughout the Rift Valley in Kenya and Tanzania. The Maasai have been subject of numerous scholastic inquiries and critical analyses that challenge the theoretical assumptions underlying the expressions “The Maasai”, “Maasai are”, “Maa-speaking”, “pastoral” and “groups” from the previous sentence. Some of these challenges will form part of several arguments in this paper.
This paper links two fields of research normally carried out under the divisions of “ethnicity” and “tourism”. My central claim is that intensive and prolonged encounter with the West through tourism and a series of dialectic dialogues following such relationships has shaped in the present a certain notion of identity among the Maasai themselves that affirms the very existence of the Maasai as a group vis-à-vis a subject of the tourist industry – the person at the other side of the camera.
Theoretically, this task relies on the arguments carried forward by Galaty, Appiah, and Bruner. Through Galaty, ethnic identity is recognized as a flexible concept. Appiah challenges modernist accounts of culture as an alternative to race by noting the illusion of ethnohistoricity and arguing that discourse of culture is a continuation from the discourse of race. Bruner identifies cultural authenticity as a key theme underlying the tourist discourse. My contribution is in putting the three theorists in a conversation and establishing a parallel between cultural authenticity and racial affirmation.
Ethnographic material supporting this thesis consists of three books written by Western-educated Maasai about their own groups. Saitoti’s two books, Maasai and The Worlds of a Maasai Warrior, reflect a transition period where the claim to an ethnic identity shifts from that of resistance against intruding political forces – British and Kenyan – to that of affirmation of authenticity. A comparison of Satitoti’s perspective with Lekuton’s autobiography, Facing the Lion, reveals the complex and multilayered response to an emerging discourse of the tourist industry, where authenticity is endorsed as a renewed substitute to the traditional. In other words, being traditional is not enough, for the tourist wants the “real” tradition, an authentic one.
Is this new paradigm of ethnic identity among the Maasai a form of resistance? – Is it subordination to the global political economy embodied in tourism? Whatever it may be, the Maasai perform it most excellently.