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Benjamin Gardner '93 writes about his time as an undergraduate student living with the Maasai, a semi-nomadic people inhabiting southern Kenya and northern Tanzania.
By Benjamin Gardner '93
I spent my first day walking around Loliondo town. The place was a curious mix of people who had moved to the district headquarters and established homes and small farms in the high-altitude plains. By May, the maize fields were tall and green, awaiting the end of the rains in June for harvesting in July or August. Maize fields were a common sight across Tanzania. But not, I knew, in Maasai villages. Unlike most peasant farmers, who lived on beans, maize and a variety of green leafy vegetables, tomatoes and onions, the Maasai lived primarily on milk and occasionally meat.
Loliondo town fascinated me, but I couldn’t help but feel that I had yet to arrive in the “real Africa” I had been imagining. I did not have to wait much longer.
In the middle of my second night, loud knocking and shouting awakened me. Maasai people throughout the district and the country knew Lazaro Parkipuny as the go-to leader for pastoralists, especially when it came to handling trouble with state authorities. On this night, Maasai from the villages of Ololosokwan and Soitsambu came seeking his assistance. I heard the group of men speaking to Parkipuny in the room next to me. After several minutes of animated conversations, of which I understood not a word, Parkipuny knocked on my door.
I later piled into the back of Parkipuny’s personal vehicle, a short-chassis Land Rover. For most of the ride, I sat quietly taking in the scene. These six men had walked through the night over 25 kilometers to find Parkipuny. They were clearly upset and spoke rapidly in the Maasai language, Maa. After about 15 minutes of driving, Parkipuny explained to me what was going on. Serengeti National Park rangers had detained two young boys. He was going to help the elders and village officers get the boys released. Traditional and elected leaders had been seeking Parkipuny’s assistance for years to mediate and resolve disputes. Not only did he speak Swahili and English fluently, having been the district’s member of parliament, but he had a particular gravitas when it came to dealing with state officials. During his time in office, he had grown all too familiar with the accepted contempt and lack of respect for pastoralists and pastoralism as an acceptable way of life in Tanzania.
That it was pitch black only seemed to encourage Parkipuny’s desire for speed. The Land Rover careened across the red dirt roads, frequently hitting bumps that would send the little vehicle into the air and then forcefully back down again. I was only partially reassured, as the other passengers did not seem particularly afraid. My fear of dying was mitigated by my excitement at getting a lift to a real Maasai village. During the 40-minute drive, Parkipuny broke off his conversations twice to speak to me. “This land,” he told me, “is Maasailand. The government tried to take this from us and turn it into a barley farm in the 1980s, but they failed. We took them to court and we won. This land is ours now, and people are afraid of us here in Loliondo. They know they can’t take our land.”
Parkipuny turned off the dirt road. Without reducing speed, he wove across the plains, avoiding trees, dry riverbeds, and occasionally zebra, gazelle and wildebeest standing motionless in the open grasslands between scattered homesteads. We eventually stopped in front of a thorn fence enclosure. Parkipuny told me to get out here. “The boy next to you is Marcus Nalang’o. He speaks English and will be your host for the next four weeks. I will pick you up here at the end of the month.”
With that, I followed Marcus out the back door of the Land Rover. During the ride Marcus had not spoken a word to me. Although younger than the other men in the car, he resembled them, wrapped in a red-hued blanket with a staid expression on his face. For no good reason, I had assumed that he spoke only the Maasai language, Maa. A young man of about my own age of 22 clearly hadn’t come to Loliondo that evening to pick up a Mzungu (white person of European ancestry) visitor. As it turned out, I could not have asked for a more gracious host; Marcus would become a close friend, collaborator and research assistant for many years following our month together.
After about 20 minutes, three young boys from Marcus’ enkang’ (Maasai homestead) managed to remove the thick thorn-strewn branches acting as a barrier for the small entrance in the otherwise tightly wrapped enclosure. The design of these elaborate living fences varied across pastoral communities in Tanzania. The exceedingly strong weave of this fence was a sign that threats from predators like lions, hyenas and wild dogs were very real. Hundreds of cows, sheep and goats slept in the paddock in the middle of the homestead, which Marcus’ father shared with his three adult sons and their families. As a member of a polygamous society, Marcus’ father had three wives, and each woman had her own enkaji (Maasai house) within the family compound.
After we contorted our bodies to pass through the small opening, I followed Marcus along a muddy pathway that ran outside the central animal enclosure and then into his house. Marcus cleared his throat with a deep guttural sound. He helped me maneuver around the wooden posts that held the roof up, avoiding the kid goats and lambs that slept inside to keep warm in the cold high-plateau climate. I sat next to Marcus on the “men’s bed.” The bed, which doubled as a sitting and sleeping place, was made of dried and cured cattle skins stretched over an elaborate gathering of sticks. Marcus and his brothers, as well as any male visitors, slept here.
On the other side of the home, across from a fire pit, was his mom’s bed. Upon our arrival, she awoke and quickly began to relight the fire, which provided both heat and light. Blowing on the end of a metal pipe, she slowly and deliberately restarted the flame on a dormant log. She added dry wood from her extensive collection, meticulously stored in the walls of her house.
Only after the orange flames illuminated the room did Marcus’ mother set her eyes on me. Although she never said so, Marcus assured me that I was the first Mzungu to stay in her home. She looked at me closely and then at Marcus. It was the middle of the night, and although I can’t be certain, I think she assumed she was hallucinating. She boiled a pot of water to which she added tea leaves, sugar and milk.
As an enthusiastic 22-year-old, I was thrilled to spend time with the Maasai in what appeared to me at the time as their “authentic landscape.” The Maasai in Loliondo lived in dispersed homesteads spread out across several registered villages. Despite their relatively stable attachment to a specific location within a village area, the Maasai continued to rely heavily on seasonal movement of their livestock. Young men would take their families’ herds far from their homesteads and establish ronjos (temporary cattle camps) to take advantage of unpredictable rain patterns and availability of necessary grasses and minerals.
Over the next month, I traveled around Marcus’ village of Soitsambu as well as the neighboring villages of Ololosokwan to the north and Oloipiri to the south. I helped herd cattle, visited Marcus’ friends, went to the monthly market in Soitsambu, attended church and crossed the invisible boundaries separating Tanzania and Kenya to the north and Maasai villages from Serengeti National Park to the east. I conducted interviews with people about the history of the area and their experiences with tourism.
It took me many years and several return visits working with civil-society groups and as a researcher to appreciate that Maasai villages were not a feature of some timeless Maasai society. Rather, villages were created quite recently, formed in the mid-1970s as part of Tanzania’s rural socialist strategy. But since that first visit and initial research, I have closely followed the efforts of tour operators, conservation NGOs, state officials, and Maasai leaders and groups to create tourism opportunities, and how these political and economic relationships have influenced pastoralist land rights and livelihoods. Over that time my research focus shifted from the policy prescriptions of designing tourism projects that would benefit communities to asking how tourism projects shape Maasai culture and influence Maasai political ideas and tactics.
Much of my understanding of conservation in the early 1990s was based on a commonsense Western belief that conservation was inherently good. As an eager student, I thought that informed and well-meaning experts, the kind I might one day become, could resolve environmental conflicts by educating the different groups with better knowledge about the problems. Achieving conservation seemed an obvious win-win scenario to me at the time. I learned many things that month in Loliondo. One of the biggest lessons was that the Maasai saw conservation up to that point in their history primarily as a national and international agenda designed to dispossess them of their land. They had nothing against wild animals per se; in fact they are one of the few groups with strict taboos against hunting and eating wild animals. But the common methods of achieving conservation in Tanzania, modeled after the national parks system in the U.S., reproduced a strict separation of people and nature, denying the possibility of people sharing the land with wildlife as a viable practice. According to many Maasai I interviewed, the inevitable result of conservation policies has been the complete enclosure of Maasailand. Understanding and promoting tourism and conservation were clearly more complicated than I had first assumed.
In my book, I discuss how a U.S.-based tourism company purchased the former barley farm Parkipuny pointed out to me that day in the middle of three Maasai villages to establish a nature refuge and promote ecotourism. The company met considerable resistance from Maasai residents, who claimed that it had received the land illegally and the refuge would dispossess them of essential grazing land that they had used for well over a century.
The tour company gained access to the land through a long-term lease agreement for $1.2 million. The project justification and rationale relied on a universal claim that ownership of African nature is granted to those who can best take care of the land. Implicit in this narrative is the commonsense idea that the primary value of this land, in the general vicinity of the Serengeti, is for conservation.
For many, including a number of my undergraduate and graduate students, this statement appears to make a lot of sense. The framing of a philanthropic-oriented company from the U.S. that wants to use its economic power to promote conservation, tourism and community empowerment in Africa was seen to deliver the promise of development that many of my students wanted to help foster themselves. But the more we examined the origin stories and histories on which these claims were being made, the clearer it became that the company was drawing on a discourse of African conservation that relies on the implicit idea that foreigners are in a better position to care for African nature than are the African residents of that place, in this case the Maasai.
Tourism in the Serengeti is more than the enjoyment or appreciation of African nature. It is a critical activity where cultural, political and economic ideas and practices shape the experiences and encounters among tourists, tour companies, state agencies, local communities, as well as the wildlife and scenery. Tourism is commonly framed as a way to add value to a place, where visitors will pay simply to passively enjoy the environment. Such narratives pay scant attention to how that environment is framed and preserved or to how prioritizing a certain kind of experience actually shapes the landscape in question.
Benjamin Gardner ’93 is associate professor of global, cultural and environmental studies at the University of Washington Bothell and chair of the African Studies Program at the University of Washington. His interest in African studies was sparked and nurtured as an anthropology major at Connecticut College, working with faculty like the late professor of anthropology John Burton. In Selling the Serengeti, he tries to understand how safari tourism has changed the meanings and geographies of places and people living in the greater Serengeti region of northern Tanzania.