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.
The ancestors of the group currently recognized as Maasai are thought to have come from the southern Sudan during the first millennium, although the precise time varies considerably.<a href="#_ftn3" name="_ftnref3"  According to the oral tradition, the Maasai made their way into the Rift Valley and expelled many Bantu-speaking tribes, such as the Gikuyu and Changa.
Earliest written accounts from the European side of the world on the Maasai come from Krapf’s travels through East Africa (1860) and Thompson’s exploration to the Masailand (1887). Throughout history, the Maasai have been studied consistently and in considerable volumes. Colonial intervention followed swiftly, culminating in a series of land session treaties between 1904 and 1912. 
Near independence, the Maasai formed a political coalition, KANU, along with the Kalenjin and other tribes, which opposed the Gikuyu-Luo led party. Today, while most Maasai maintain a style of life regarded as traditional, they intermingle it with income produced by tourism or leave the pastoral life in search of more stable occupations.
Maasai identity is presently a highly malleable concept. Indeed, ethnicity in general has oft been the converging point of particular political and economic interest groups, dwindling to one side or another. In the case of the Maasai, its particular historical development has constructed a certain pattern of life recognized as the ideal pastoralist, which came to constitute the core of Maasai ethnic identity.
Southall warns of the term “ethnicity” being easily abused by overlooking the careful articulation of previous generations of theorists who constantly strive to make the fine distinction between oversimplification and group pattern distinction.
Galaty shows how multilayered and disputed the appropriation of a nominal recognition of being Maasai can be in the resource-scarce Rift Valley. Maasai identity at one level, Galaty argues, separates those Maa speakers who practice pastoralism and those who don’t (hunters and agriculturalists).
Posession of cattle not only shows great wealth but also stands for Maasainess. A well-known oral tradition explains this difference in terms of those who climbed a hill and those who failed to do so. Since then, Saitoti explains,“They [The Maasai] live as they always have, nomads…”
Identity is also integrative of the different marginal groups cohabiting Masailand. Kisongo or Turkana, all become “Maasai” when confronting outsiders.
Deeper into the Maasai society proper, the division of labor will cause additional distinction in the usage of the term “Maasai”, depending upon specific contexts in which the term is invoked. Some Maasai are diviners, and some are blacksmiths.
A clear historical instance of identity redefinition for the purposes of economic benefit may be seen in the case of the Il-Chamus, for whom the aggressive grazing style of the Maasai coupled with the colonial permissions implicitly granted by the British administration signified a large benefit to joining the Maasai. Because both groups already shared some linguistic links, the Il-Chamus were successful in incorporating their identity along with Maasai’s own.
Identity as Resistance
From early stages of british colonialism, the Maasai clung to their traditions as a way of establishing autonomy. Part of the situation of colonial administration in Kenya involved Gikuyu settlers escaping competition from the highlands into Maasailand. To protect grazing lands, Maasai cooperated with the British government and succeed in establishing a protected area where no other tribes, nor the British could enter. In order to enforce rules immigration control into Maasailand, a set of identifiers, not always corresponding to each other, were established to determine who “were the Maasai” and who “were not”. Some of those criteria, such as pastoralism, still dominate the discourse of identity among Maasai today, and are identified in the previous section by Galaty.
Other instances of strive for autonomy involved a more direct confrontation with the British administration. Arguing through the principle of indirect rule for their interests, Maasai claimed that the only Maasai themselves had the right to administer Maasailand. 
This trend continued during the land struggle periods of Gikuyu-dominated Kenyan government. As one of the ways of settling the Maasai, the Kenyan government stablished laws that required each Maasai household to send at least one child to school. Maasai openly complained that learning the western ways eroded the traditional way of life.
What is important is that in these direct confrontations, ethnic identity was a tool of resisting outside intervention and the veracity of a particular identity and the different versions of what was regarded traditional was seldom questioned.
Tourism and Authenticity
Tourism is a quickly growing industry in Kenya. As the government has taken more land from the Maasai or has reduced the herds small enough so that a drought may render families unable to sustain themselves, more Maasai may head to the cities in search of income producing jobs, or participate in a most attractive field: the marketing of one’s everyday life.
Wildlife tourism, most of which occurs in Masailand, accounts for 40 per cent of Kenya’s earning from tourism. Tourists come to see wild animals, enjoy the beautiful scenery, visit a Maasai village, and leave huge payments behind. To reap off benefits from tourism, however, its agents “must follow the script [of the tourist industry]”.
Tourist discourse is fundamentally a discourse from the outside. It acts on the interest of the multinational group of tourists. It seeks to provide “the ultimate tourist commodity – experience”. In an account of the Mayers Ranch, a private attraction located in the heart of Masai Mara, Bruner observes three prototypical features of tourist industry.
Foremost among such features is the presentation of the Maasai lifestyle as an authentic original. The Mayers Ranch is at the same time a mini resort as well as an open theater. Several Maasai men are hired by the Mayers to perform Maasai dances and rituals for the tourists. It is important that the Maasai do not carry anything that may give them away as adapting into the political economy of Kenya, such as the modern artifacts of western clothing, watches, and the like. The tourists come to the Mayers Ranch expecting to see traditional Maasai life, and fulfilling such expectations is directly linked with the survival of the Mayers Ranch as an agent in the tourist industry, and also to the daily pay of the performing Maasai men.
A second requirement of tourist discourse is the clear division between the tourist and the tourist subject. In the case of the Mayers Ranch, the division occurs between performers and spectators. There are Maasai men working as truck drivers bringing supplies in the Maasai Ranch, but they are not to be touristed, and taking camera pictures at them constitutes an
offense. Elsewhere in Kenya, the Bomas of Kenya, a national dance troupe performing traditional ethnic dances, including Maasai dances, provides a division between the tourist and tourist subject in terms of modernity. The theater in which the performance takes place, and the facilities there provided, all fashion the commodities that a modernized, urban Kenya can provide to its nationals. The dances therein presented are decontextualized in such a setting, where a key feeling of spectators upon leaving the place is that of “having learned of one’s roots”. Because the Maasai are thought to be nomadic peoples not subject to government regulation, a satisfaction of this expectation can come in the presentation of Maasai as nationaless people, as people who transcend borders – this is done by not mentioning the country to which the particular Maasai dance belongs.
The last requirement is affordability, both financial and psychological. The Mayers Ranch, for example, constitute also a social gathering place for other white settlers in the area, for whom the entrance fees are discounted. (The discount applies to all residents in the area). In he Bomas of Kenya, Kenyan nationals pay lower rates. A touristic assembly’s chief purpose is to perform, but no performance may be successful if it does not generate the critical amount of income backed by a standing flow of tourists who may afford the viewing fees. A tourist representation may be as authentic as it wishes, or as dichotomical as it could, but it needs always to belong to the context of the global economy, since it is a product of human labor.
Tourists also need to feel psychological comfort. The presentation must be exotic enough to look authentic, but cannot be too wild as to make the tourists unsafe in their visit. In the Mayers Ranch, a Maasai woman who was “making too much eye contact” with the tourists was fired. At the Mayers Ranch, the tourists are first led to seat in an English-style lawn drinking tea and chatting with the Mayers. After their excursion to Maasai villages, tourists return to the familiar and comfortable lawn. Maasai are not allowed into the lawn, as to mark the boundaries between rest place and wild adventure.
Within the realm of tourist imagination, assurance of the first feature, authenticity, is essential. The tourist may question: “Are these real Maasai?”, by real demanding an account how other Maasai, not present in the performance, may have been pictured. Often the production has been modified to accommodate needs for visitors – for, I should reiterate, a tourist production is one for the tourists, not for the tourist subject. Bruner is unusual in this aspect in having included the anthropologist into the scene, as the anthropologists, especially if they are conducting research in the tourist site, may visit the place but then come back with questions. The producer of the touristic construction may not feel at ease with such visitors, for anthropologists are thought in the popular imagination as experts who can attest for the veracity of a production – a potential menace to the reproduction of tourist discourse.
“I am a real Maasai” (answering an inquiry on whether she knows a certain place that Maasais ought not to know)
From Saitoti to Lekuton: the shift from Resistance to Authenticity
Tepelit Ole Saitoti, a Maasai man educated in Germany and United States who returned at a later age to Tanzania to be ceremonially integrated to the family, published in 1980 a book about the traditional lifestyle of the Maasai, with huge 15’ x 20’ high quality color pictures covering half of the book. The book, titled Maasai, details the customary rites of the Maasai through the different age-sets of childhood, warriorhood, and elderhood. In the last chapter, Saitoti openly warns the Kenyan government against encroaching the Maasai deeper in Masailand and making the Maasai lose their traditions, in a manner significantly reminiscent of Kenyatta’s Facing Mount Kenya. The book seems to have been enormously successful: six years after its publication, Saitoti published an autobiography, The Worlds of a Maasai Warrior, which has received spotlight twice in New York Times.
Joseph Lemasolei Lekuton has followed steps strikingly similar to Saitoti, except he did so twenty years later. In 2003, he published the book Growing up Maasai, an autobiography highlighting similar facets of life as Saitoti did. However, the emphases differ. Lekuton underlines more a search for identity from within Masailand, while also incorporating the encounter with the British and the people from the U.S. as part of his natural experience of growing up Maasai. In contrast to this, Saitoti marks a clear distinction following the Maasai and following the ways of the Watermen.
I think that the differences between these two authors are paradigmatic of a shift in self-presentation of Maasai to the world in the 20 years laid across them. I speculate here that along with the prospering of tourism industry, a new popular rhetoric incorporating tourism into Maasai people’s daily lives arose. While Saitoti’s account lies in the midst of a transition period from older uses of tradition as an instrument of resistance to the rising affirmation of tourism, in Lekuton I can read the new paradigmatic trends.
My reading of Saitoti and Lekuton departs from a touristic standpoint – I have tried to read the three books as tour agency pamphlets, as Maasai actively marketing themselves. And in the process of self-marketing, the highlighted items are expected to be those that are thought by the authors to be of most value in the global market of tourist exchange.
In Maasai, it seems as if Saitoti’s purpose was twofold: one, to define and endorse a traditional Maasai life. Two, to complain in front of the world of the Kenyan government’s infringement upon Maasai’s indigenous rights to land. Maasai’s push for a traditional identity was largely successful. Today, “Everyone ‘knows’ the Maasai. Men wearing red capes while balancing on one leg and a long spear…”. Nowadays Gikuyu, for example, are in general not considered “indigenous”.
I do not know how effective the documentary was as a political pressure valve, but given the wide circulation of the book, I could expect it to be one. In his second book, The Worlds of a Maasai Warrior, the perspective becomes multidirectional. There are some instances of orientalism, where Saitoti’s sexuality may be overtly stated (“[We were in the Kraal while it rained, when the woman changed to old clothes to fill the leaks].. and my thing stood up!”) or certain rites, such as the welcoming back of warriors to the village after killing a lion, may be claimed to be of utmost importance.
In Growing up Maasai, Lekuton remarks certain rites as traditional. Saitoti mostly stated the things he did in his life without explanations, for it is assumed that those things are traditional, and occasionally also stated that they were part of tradition. Lekuton, on the other hand, needs to specify further: “everything in our culture was about [given tradition]” Sometimes, he feels customs he describes belongs to nomadic people in general, and not just the Maasai: “I was a little nomadic kid who played in the trees”. Often he feels being completely (traditional) Maasai is not adequate in Kenya anymore: “That’s how I had my first interview: smelling of dung”. In Saitoti, the main concern is on how to defend the already existing customs in the face of invasive western ideology. “Do not be brainwashed with the water man’s ways” says Saitoti’s father.
I am attributing this shift in talk to the rise of the tourism industry. Because tourists want an authentic experience, and are always requesting for accurate depiction of what traditional Maasai look like and live like, tourist agents are compelled to inquiry further into what a real Maasai life is as opposed to one stained by the modern ways. Tourist complexes such as the Mayers Ranch arise out of this need. This close process of inquiry between tourist agents and the Maasai population may raise awareness among the Maasai of the commodity of defining an image of traditional Maasai and keeping it separate from other images in order to maintain a price for quality when negotiating with tourist agents.
Indeed, Lekuton’s account markedly presents all three features of a tourist discourse. There is an emphasis on him being a real Maasai, on the grounds that he finished all the ceremonial rituals. This call for authenticity is closely intertwined with a division between tourist and subject. In the middle of the book, Lekuton presents a picture of himself clothed in traditional Maasai decorations and describing the picture “Here I am, a traditional Maasai warrior”, inviting the reader to look into the fine details of his necklace, beadwork, and the ocher daubed on his body. Furthermore, items that may cause confusion as to whether the Maasai at hand is really a subject of tourism, such as the mention of country names, has been removed. Psychological comfort is also at stake. Over sexual commentary, as Saitoti’s account of his loss of virginity at the age of nine to an eleven year old girl, are removed as to not disturb the varying sensibilities of the readership.
On the one hand, the differenciated style between the two authors is purposeful; Lekuton has written with middle school children in mind, while Saitoti’s writing was a response to the demand of readership in wanting to know more of his life. It may seem natural that Lekuton’s account takes the turn it does; however, I would like to claim that this is precisely what was made possible by the shift of emphasis from resistance to authenticity, because when talking about resistance it’s quite useless to claim it in front of schoolchildren.
To summarize, resistance from the early 20th century into the 1970s in the form of cultural conservatism has assumed a pre-existing tradition which merely needs to be claimed, while the rise of the tourist industry has created a need to verify this tradition in the form of authenticity. Saitoti shares bits and pieces from both discourses, while Lekuton is recurring more heavily on claims of authenticity.
Recourses to tradition or authenticity are not mutually exclusive. There is a need to focus on authenticity as claims to tradition become common, but too much questioning of authenticity could lead the utility of identity astray.
Culture as Race
In order to understand the emerging consensus of Maasai as a cultural group in terms of identity, Appiah’s refutation of Du Bois’s Pan-Africanism is helpful.
Du Bois’s theory stems as a counter reaction to 19th century European racism. Leading race theorists insisted that physiognomic differences led to a difference in physical and mental capacities. The black race was naturally suited to serve the white race. Du Bois denied the physical race but did not want to discard the fraternal Pan-Africanism of blacks across the atlantic. He circumvented the question of physiology (a central challenge of racialism) by endorsing a racial identity through shared sociohistoric narrative of slavery. This history, Du Bois argued, brought African Americans and Africans together in a common aim (to add: what was the aim, was it the return to motherland or fighting racism?
Appiah points out an element of racialism, the view that identifies innate differences among races, in Du Bois’s discourse. Why should the historian look for precisely the common aspects in the history of African Americans and Africans, while ignoring shared histories with other peoples? The answer is that a common history is sought between groups of the same race. But this race, which precedes the common history, needs to be based in grounds other than a shared history. This is the circularity that Appiah identified as an anti-racist racialism.
Michaels argues that pluralism in the United States has not been successful of ridding race from popular rhetoric, and it has not been able to do so precisely because racism is a prevalent phenomenon in society. In the present conditions, Michaels argues, culture, as understood by popular rhetoric, is merely a continuation of race, a conception that presents all the aspects traditionally identified in race.
Because race has been through history widely understood as a vehicle of identity, a recognition of culture as race allows the deconstruction of the tourist discourse as a racially essentialist one. Through the promotion of culture by touristic artifacts, race is dignified, wrapped in the gloss of cultural pluralism, and offered at discount prices to the world political economy. Saitoti proudly cites a European visitor, who praises the Maasai race: “Physically… handsomest of humankind, with slender bones, narrow hips and shoulders…”
Maasai re-appropriation of the Touristic Discourse
Lekuton’s account of the Maasai shows multiple instances of an interest conflict between the Maasai and tourists. Tourists may come and “picture the scenery”, trying to skip fees usually paid to the Maasai who appear in photographs, but Lekuton catches them in the cold, since he speaks English. An English-speaking, traditionally clothed Maasai! Incredible! He is surrounded by inquiring tourists. The inquiry does not come in the form of “How are you traditional and yet speak english?” but “Where are you from?”. Lekuton responds that he lived in Brooks. He does not feel a need to explain his appearance.
Footit shows how the Maasai are gradually getting their share in the tourism industry.
Berger points out that several eco-tourism initiatives are already taking place to entrust the care of wildlife in the hands of the Maasai, who for being pastoralists, are best suited for this work..
However, material appropriation of the tourist industry inevitably entails adoption of the ideology of tourism, at the cost of succeeding in the thriving business. Maasai must actively market themselves as authentic. This is the reason for my reading of Saitoti and mostly Lekuton as a tour agency pamphlet.
Identity as a Subject of Tourism
In this paper, I have shown how a Maasai discourse that assumes a pre-established tradition has shifted to one that continuously seeks authenticating itself as a result of the challenges posed by the rising tourist industry. This shift in emphasis occurs through Saitoti and then Lekuton. Beneath this change underlies the transformation of a discourse of identity from a claim to tradition for resistance to that of a touristic cultural authenticity.
Because culture in popular rhetoric is a continuation of the notion of race, talking of cultural authenticity is tantamount in form to affirming racial authenticity. Since race has been traditionally held as a prime device of identity, a discourse about cultural authenticity is also about identity. Given that the need for a cultural authenticity arose from the competitive market of tourism,I argue that contemporary Maasai identity is being carved up as a Subject of Tourism. It not an Object of Tourism, for Maasai exercise some agency in the process, and not the Tourist Subject, for the Maasai are not the tourists.
Comparing the two authors, Saitoti and Lekuton, has not been quite as helpful in fleshing out a paradigmatic change in the self description of Maasai from the 1980s to the 2000s. While this ambiguity may be excused on the grounds that the shifting process is still taking place, my hope is that with time, more markedly touristic rhetoric will arise amid Maasai-produced literature.
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 Following common use, the term “Maasai” has been spelled with two a’s when referring to the ethnic group (derived from the Maa language family) and with one a when referring to Masai Mara, or Masailand, a proper name (British spelling from the colonial period). Spellings brought from other authors have been preserved.
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 Sometimes, it seems as if this was another rising phenomenon. The Maasai observe and analyze tourists, engage in commercial exchange with them, and question their perspectives. (Bruner 1994, 465) But it is hard to claim a reciprocal exchange is occurring when the Maasai are not participating in the tourism industry by paying fees nor contracting foreign performers.