Spread across Kenya and Tanzania, the Maasai community is arguably the most famous and well-known tribe in East Africa. They have traditionally lived as semi-nomadic pastoralists around the Masai Mara and Serengeti National Parks on both sides of the border. For decades, foreigners have visited Maasai villages as part of safari packages and the tribe has perhaps one of the longest running relationships with the tourism industry.
This relationship has been beneficial for the Maasai, but also contributed to many challenges, as whilst tourism can provide a sustainable alternative livelihood for villages, it can equally be damaging if not carried out in a culturally appropriate way.
Before you decide to head to Kenya or Tanzania and visit a Maasai community, there are a few things to consider and bear in mind as you embark upon your adventure. Here are eight things you need to know.
Avoid stereotypes and leave your misconceptions at home
There are a lot of misconceptions surrounding the Maasai, and it’s easy to revert to stereotypes. We have all seen photos of the women wearing colourful beads around their necks and the tall, slim men jumping metres into the air. However, there is much more to the Maasai culture than the aspects made famous by tourism posters and National Geographic covers.
The best thing you can do when visiting the Maasai, or any other tribal community in East Africa, is keep an open mind. We shouldn’t be bound by stereotypes that we have seen in the media, especially in tourist publications, which often reduces the Maasai culture to a few recognisable features (such as beaded jewellery and athleticism) when in fact there is so much more to the complex traditions and history of the tribe.
Be willing to learn new things. You might find that some of your misconceptions are challenged or even changed as a result of the experience.
Why it is important to travel with an ethical and responsible tour operator
The most difficult decision when visiting a traditional tribe is picking an ethical and responsible travel company. Tourism is not a new concept for the Maasai community - in fact, they have been open to tourism for many decades thanks to their close proximity to the Maasai Mara and Serengeti National Park: the continent’s big safari game parks.
For a long time, Maasai communities have seen the benefit of allowing visitors into their villages as a way to diversify their livelihoods beyond pastoralism and subsistence. Tourism represents a huge boost in income and opportunities for many remote communities, however some travel companies have gone on to exploit the Maasai for their own commercial gain: sometimes the money is not given back fairly to the community and often specific demands are placed on the villages in order to please tourists.
You should always ask the company you choose to travel with about their sustainable practice, and the policies and projects they have put in place to protect the heritage of the community to ensure that tourism is mutually beneficial for everyone involved.
Be aware of ‘display’ or fake villages
One major impact of tourism in the Maasai areas around safari national parks has been the setting up of fake villages: villages built for show. Many safari packages take tourists to such places, where additional money is required to enter and exploits the tourists themselves as well as the Maasai people, who are in turn forced to portray a certain stylised show for visitors.
By visiting the Maasai tribes using a responsible travel company you will not only have a more genuine experience at a legitimate village, but be sure that the community itself will also benefit from a more authentic connection with the tourists.
Respect the Maasai traditions
The Maasai are a very proud and traditional tribe that have maintained many of their ceremonies and ways of life for generations. This is perhaps the main appeal for us as outsiders to visit their communities and learn about the relationship they have cultivated and nurtured with the land in which they live, however it also means we need to be respectful of their practices not dismiss something as ‘wrong’ just because it is not something we would do in our own lives.
For example, the Maasai are traditionally warriors — morans — and, in many of the remote communities, boys are still sent away for training to become a moran. This training involves hunting and surviving in the bush for weeks at a time, something we might consider cruel but is in fact an essential part of their tribal identity. It’s important we acknowledge and respect these different cultural practices and traditions.
Show an interest in their culture
One of the other key reasons people are interested in visiting the Maasai is to learn about the proud traditions of this fascinating tribe. Rather than simply using your short visit to take a few photographs, be curious and use your time proactively by asking respectful questions.
The Maasai are very proud people and appreciate the chance to share their culture with foreigners. Take the time to ask them about how they live and perhaps think of questions that show you can relate to them. After all, travel is all about the cross-cultural connections and the sharing of knowledge and stories between people.
Ask before taking photos or videos
Taking a photograph to capture a memory is often an instinctive reaction when travelling. Although lots of of the Maasai communities are well accustomed to this, with many villages having a long-standing relationship with the tourism industry, you should still always ask permission before taking photos or shooting video footage: imagine if someone entered into your town and began taking photographs of your home, family and way of life without asking.
It’s particularly important to ask the permission of parents before taking photographs of children, however as a general rule you should ask before taking anybody’s photograph.
The Maasai are generally very friendly and most will be happy to oblige, especially if they’re dressed in traditional clothing, as this is an enormous source of pride for them. However, you should remember that older members of the community may not appreciate this, and it’s important to respect any villager’s decision to decline a photograph.
You should also be aware that for the Maasai people their livestock is the backbone of their livelihoods and that traditionally, rearing cattle has been how they have survived. As a result, a family’s livestock is very sacred to them and taking a photograph of their animals can be seen as disrespectful or threatening, so always ask before lifting your camera.
Don’t offer money or gifts
One of the major concerns raised by the introduction of tourism into remote communities is the perception that foreigners are simply visiting for charity purposes. As we’ve mentioned, tourism can be a major force for a more sustainable and diversified livelihood for many communities, however the act of handing out money or gifts, although well-intentioned, can actually do more harm than good.
One of the most valuable things about travelling is the ability to interact and exchange stories and knowledge across different cultures, and this can be lost when tourists take the opportunity to hand out sweets or money. Although you may feel compelled to give something, especially to children, this can promote begging and confirm the notion that foreigners are there for this sole purpose of charity.
The best way you can give back to the communities that you visit is simply by being there and making sure that the travel company you choose to go with is doing the right thing in supporting the livelihood of the community. You can also help in other ways, such as purchasing local handmade goods which may support a family as well as the local economy.
Be prepared for an adventure
Many of the Maasai communities live in harsh, arid landscapes that are often quite far from large urban settlements, and you may notice that the villages don’t have access to many of the basic needs and privileges you take for granted. It’s okay to be a little confronted by what you see, however it’s important to do your research in advance so you are prepared for the adventure you’re signing up for.
There might be certain things that you can’t fully prepare for, but it’s important to try where you can, and to be as adventurous as possible when you’re there. For example, one of the staples of the traditional Maasai diet is the blood and milk of a cow. As semi-nomadic pastoralists, this is how they have survived in harsh landscapes and it is often still an important part of their culture, especially when animals are slaughtered ceremoniously.
This is likely to be troubling, even distressing for some outsiders, but by being as open minded and respectful as possible it will put both yourself and them at ease. It might mean stepping out of your comfort zone, but that’s often what travelling is all about.
Elisha Donkin is an Australian freelance writer and photographer, having written for Lonely Planet, Remote Lands, Matador Network and Travel Play Live magazine. You’ll usually find her in offbeat places, wherever there are mountains and always with a camera in hand. She also documents her journey on her blog, Going Somewhere.
Going Somewhere blog
Plan your trip checking out the Maasai in our Tribes section. Nomadic Tribe offers an ethical and sustainable experience to visit the Maasai helping protect their heritage and ensuring a mutually beneficial experience for both the tribe and the visitors.
Photos credit: Elisha Donkin