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Abstract and Figures

African cultural tourism is expanding, thriving on the idea that this is the moment to explore the last people untouched by civilization. At the same time, globalization has given indigenous peoples worldwide a growing opportunity to take the exploitation of the image that exists of them into their own hands. Regarded as ultimate ‘noble savages’ since colonial times, Maasai of the Masai Mara area have become quite successful. When tourists visit, they hide their mobile phones between folds of their traditional dress, and leave their laptop behind to stage ‘authentic’ performances as advertised on their websites. I show some of the effects that tourism related commodifications and transactions have upon local people’s conceptualizations of their culture and images of themselves. Many locals who skillfully engage themselves in tourism manage feelings of pride as well as shame and anger, as their movements and translations between two worlds often lead to experiences of conflicting identities and belongings.
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Almost all descriptions in coffee-table books and travel
guides on the African continent assume the opposition
between two essentialised entities: the ‘West’ (the
familiar, European, ‘us,’ modern) and the ‘Other’ (the
strange, African, ‘them,’ pre-modern). The binary oppo-
sition between these two reified concepts is an ideo-
logical construction resulting from political and
economic incentives as well as from people’s need to
define themselves in opposition to others (Carrier 1992;
Said 1978). For want of better terms, in this article I
will refer to thoughts and people coming from Europe
and to a lesser extent the United States and Japan as
‘western,’ while the huge variety of countries and
cultures on the African continent will be encompassed
in the concept ‘Africa,’ even though the boundaries of
what these concepts encompass are in fact not rigid.
In the West, Africa has often been seen as the place
that is most different, and Africans have been imagined
as the ultimate Other (Palmberg 2001). Drawing on
faulty notions of evolution, since their first encounter
Europeans have imagined ‘the African’ as a savage, a
person who lives in a pure state of nature, a human
Cosmopolitan Savages
The Challenging Art of Selling African Culture to Tourists
Vanessa Wijngaarden
Bayreuth International Graduate School of
African Studies (bigsas)
Etnofoor, Imitation, volume 22, issue 2, 2010, pp. 98-125
being in its original state, living devoid of civilisation
(Nederveen Pieterse 1990). The concept of the noble
savage, which glorifies the savage way of being, is still
often attributed to Rousseau.1 It has evolved as an
opposite to changes in European societies in the 17th
and 18th century and has maintained its romantic
attractiveness to this day. It is the philosophical
thought-experiment of what it would be like to live
outside modernity or civilisation, away from commer-
cialisation, estrangement and the complex and oppres-
sive laws of society, in a complete, beautiful, innocent,
uncorrupted and uncomplicated natural state. The
noble savage concept generally reveals more about
social issues and discussions in the West, than about
supposedly savage societies (Nederveen Pieterse 1990).
The savage exists only in the human imagination, and
therefore the concept can never justly be attributed to
people. Nevertheless, the imagery continues to influ-
ence the daily lives of African people, like Maasai in
Kenya and Tanzania.
The image of Maasai that is sketched in the quote
at the start of this article fits perfectly with the western
idea of the noble savage. It depicts a beautiful, proud,
illiterate people who live in an ancient, traditional and
unchanging way, in perfect harmony with nature. The
words were, however, not written by a Westerner, but
by a Maasai. Tepilit Ole Saitoti grew up in a small
village on the savannah of Tanzania. Representing his
people in a National Geographic documentary led him
to study in Europe and the United States, after which
he became a writer (Ole Saitoti 1986).2 He writes in
English, in a way that is congruent with western imag-
inations of African ‘savages’ as the ultimate Other. His
words, and the photographs that accompany them in
his books, speak to the fascinations, fears and fantasies
that people from western ‘civilisation’ commonly asso-
ciate with the African continent. Ole Saitoti is able to
construct his story in a way that speaks to Westerners,
precisely because he has learned their language and is
able to grasp their imaginations.
When Ole Saitoti left his country in the early 1970s,
he was an exception, but these days cosmopolitan life-
styles are common for an increasing number of Kenyan
and Tanzanian Maasai, especially young men who have
become involved in the tourism industry. With the
steady growth of overseas tourism in developing coun-
tries, and especially with the rise of ecotourism and
ethnic tourism during the last decades, non-western
peoples increasingly come into contact with Europeans,
Americans and Japanese. In Africa, Maasai have slowly
started to take the production of themselves as a tourist
attraction into their own hands.3 They have become
tourist guides, they organise safari holidays, build
cultural manyattas (Desmond 1999) and larger cultural
centres where tourists can experience and photograph
the Maasai way of life.4
What is new is that Maasai are not only actors in
the ‘staged authenticity (MacCannell 1973) of tourism
encounters, but that they increasingly own, orchestrate,
contextualise and sell the performance themselves
(Bruner 2001). Nowadays, young Maasai men design
websites on which they advertise themselves according
to the popular savage imagery, as isolated people, who
have had little or no contact with civilisation and there-
fore embody an authenticity that Westerners suppos-
edly lost as a result of modernity.5 They make use of the
continued fascination and imagination Westerners
have with the classical savage, to live cosmopolitan lives
that encompass communication technologies and a
level of international contacts and global mobility that
are exceptional for most Maasai and non-Maasai
people in Kenya and Tanzania.
The young Maasai men who are the focus of this
article are cosmopolitans, yet their success depends on
their performance of the role of primitive men. How
does the savage imagery influence their lives and the
opportunities and challenges they face? To answer this
question I will briefly introduce the context in which
Maasai in the Mara area are living. Then I will explain
how Maasai have come to be seen as noble savages and
describe the ambiguous character of the savage image
in the postcolonial nation-state. I will demonstrate
how young Maasai men working in the tourism
industry make use of this image and explain why they
can be called cosmopolitan. Finally I will describe how
these Maasai deal with the ambiguity of the savage
image in different environments.
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Maasai consist of approximately 850,000 Maa-
speaking people of Nilotic origin, who can be divided
into different sections, traditionally almost all pastoral-
ists. Although their lands were far more widespread
before colonial times, they now live concentrated in the
border region of Kenya and Tanzania, as a result of
forced resettlements. I collected the primary data for
this article mainly during five months of fieldwork in
Kenya, where I stayed in a small village and a tourist
camp in the Mara area. I define the Mara area as all
group ranches surrounding the world-famous Masai
Mara National Reserve, a tourism hot-spot that each
year attracts hundreds of thousands of international
visitors. As Maasai are transnational, however, I also
make some references to Tanzanian history, govern-
mental policies and tourism.
The people who live in small villages dotting the
group ranches adjoining Masai Mara National Reserve
are predominantly Maasai, belonging to the il-Purko
section. Almost all have a herd, which consists of cattle
as well as goats and sheep. The combined herds of the
family form the centre of the villages, not only because
the houses of the polygamic family form a circle round
the central corral where the animals are kept at night,
but also because cattle occupy a central place in daily life,
being the source of continuous activity, conversation and
pride. Nevertheless, per capita livestock holdings in the
Mara area have declined below subsistence levels, which
is partly due to a rapid population growth of 3.4 to 4.4
per cent per year (Lamprey and Reid 2004; Thompson
n.d.). As the group ranches have become subdivided and
allocated, many Maasai own the legal rights to one or
several pieces of land, and have started to fence and build
more permanent houses. However, poverty in the Mara
area is higher than average in Kenya, and people have
diversified their livelihoods by cultivating crops such as
maize, beans and grain, although crop destruction by
wildlife presents problems. An alternative to herding or
cultivating is to earn a livelihood through tourism.6
Local il-Purko Maasai, but also Maasai from other
sections and regions as well as some non-Maasai who
have migrated into the area, try to earn money through
commercial activities that have sprouted up in the wake
of tourism. They live mainly in the shantytown-like
settlements that have evolved at the gates of the
National Reserve. A number of local families obtain
some income by sub-letting part of their land to a
wildlife conservancy or tourist camp. Most families
have at least one member employed in the tourism
industry as a wage-labourer. These are mostly men,
who reside at the staff quarters of the luxury tourist
camps that border the Reserve for extended periods of
time, only visiting their families in the village for a
limited number of short periods per year. They may
work as cleaners, souvenir salesmen or guards, and a
few of them obtain management positions. The job of
tourist guide is very popular, and is generally performed
by Maasai men in their twenties or thirties, who,
dressed in their traditional attire, give tourists explana-
tions about the Reserve, its wildlife and Maasai culture.
Maasai who engage in the types of tourism work
that require direct contact with tourists generally have
some formal education. All speak English and most
have studied to attain a guiding certificate, while some
even have a university degree in tourism or conserva-
tion. Some of the Maasai men who have gained experi-
ence while working at tourist camps have set up tourism
businesses of their own, with which they hope to
increase their income, personal freedom and the
amount of time they can spend with their families.
They start a campsite on their land, establish a travel
agency that manages Maasai or East African safaris,
cooperate with other Maasai to start a wildlife conserv-
ancy that tourists can visit, or build a cultural village or
centre where they provide tourists with performances
of, and information on, Maasai culture and the oppor-
tunity to buy souvenirs. This article is about Maasai
men in their twenties and thirties who deal directly
with tourists as they work as guides and/or small busi-
nessmen in the East African tourism industry.
Since Europeans first encountered them, Maasai have
been portrayed as primitive, noble, wild, aristocratic
and proud, ‘their images replicating the types and stere-
otypes of Euroamerican cultural understandings’ (Kratz
and Gordon 2002: 251) based on the noble savage
ideal. To many Westerners they represent ‘a global
image of African tribesmen’ (Bruner 2001: 893). Maasai
are often seen as the symbol of an Africa that has
remained static and devoid of civilisation (Hodgson
2001). In the Garden of Eden, as Africa has been
envisaged since colonial times, the Maasai is the
‘untouched African primitive’ (Bruner 2001: 889) who
simply blends into the landscape.
Maasai and Zulu were among the first African
people who were specified and named in mass-
produced European images
(Sobania 2002: 314), and
Maasai became especially
popular in Germany because
present-day Tanzania was a
German colony (Kratz and
Gordon 2002: 250).7 During the 19th and 20th century
their images featured prominently in magic lanterns
and stereoscopic shows, while they themselves were
physically present during popular ethnographic shows
and human exhibitions (Corbey 1993). Popularity
spread beyond Europe when Maasai were featured in
illustrated travelogues such as ex-President Teddy
Roosevelt’s African Game Trails (1910). This book,
according to Kratz and Gordon, ‘may have done
more to propagate popular stereotypes about the
Maasai than any other single book, at least in the
United States’ (2002: 255).
The warrior (ilmurran, often anglicised as ‘moran’)
age-grade is only one of four age-grades Maasai men
pass through during their lives, and the Maasai as a
lion-hunting warrior was just one of the several ways in
which early explorers described Maasai. However, this
image was repeated and elaborated on as it fitted neatly
into the existing conceptual scheme: a teleological
theory of social evolution from primitive ‘natural man’
to civilised European. The warrior image, along with
the theory of social evolution, have been used to support
and justify colonial policies as well as postcolonial
development initiatives in Kenya and Tanzania (Kratz
and Gordon 2002; Nederveen Pieterse 1990; Sobania
Today, Europeans still like to experience Maasai
‘live.’ Instead of bringing Maasai to Europe as part of
an exhibition, Europeans now travel to Africa as
tourists, visiting Maasai as part of East African wildlife
safaris (Ritsma and Ongaro 2002). On the African
savannah they enjoy the performances and stories of
Maasai, who reflect the primitive, red-clad, spear-
carrying, lion-hunting image that is expected of them.
In the sociology of tourism it has been argued that
‘people living in industrial societies tend to experience
their life as heavily commercialised, emptied of its
earlier, unique cultural content and distinctly lacking in
exoticism’ (Cohen and Kennedy 2007: 295). Maasai are
popular because their image fits well into modern
tourists’ yearning for authenticity, ‘realness’ and spiritu-
ality that only traditional societies supposedly maintain
(Cohen and Kennedy 2007: 295; MacCannell 1973,
1976). Many Westerners see Maasai as the embodi-
ment of authentic existence that continues to speak to
their imagination. Consequently, as Spear’s well-known
book on Maasai starts,
[e]veryone ‘knows’ the Maasai. Men wearing red
capes while balancing on one leg and a long spear,
gazing out over the semi-arid plains stretching
endlessly to the horizon, or women heavily bedecked
in beads, stare out at us from countless coffee-table
books and tourists’ snapshots. Uncowed by their
neighbours, colonial conquest or modernization,
they stand in proud mute testimony to a vanishing
African world. (Spear 1993: 1)
However, most of the characteristics that are described
here and seen as ‘typically Maasai, such as their
Kenyan/Tanzanian savannah heritage, pure pasto-
ralism, red blankets and beaded ornaments, form part
of an image that evolved and has been designed through
interaction with Europe and Europeans.
Maasai’s timeless pastoral existence round Kiliman-
jaro and Mount Kenya is a myth. Maasai moved to
Kenya and Tanzania relatively recently, coming from
Sudan during the first millennium AD, and grew
sorghum and millet besides holding livestock. Waller
(1993: 292) has concluded that ‘the “pure pastoral”
tradition has not been the only one in Maasailand nor,
in the long term, has it necessarily been the dominant
mode.’ Maasai have systematically relied on products of
farmers and hunters, practising pure pastoralism only
during a short period of time in the 18th and 19th centu-
ries. Before and after this period most Maasai engaged
in non-pastoralist modes of production, and a consid-
erable number of the heterogeneous collection of Maa-
speaking people who call themselves Maasai today do
not engage in pastoralism at all, but farm, hunt and
gather (Spear and Waller 1993), or have found tourism-
related work.
Furthermore, the material for Maasai ornaments
and dress are relatively modern and certainly not indig-
enous African. Beadwork, such a strong symbol of the
Maasai ethnic ‘character,’ is a relatively recent acquisi-
tion. Glass beads, which are imported from India and
parts of Europe, predominantly from the Czech
Republic, became popular as decoration only when, at
the end of the 19th century, colonial pacification prohib-
ited Maasai warriors from wearing their weapons in
public. Different Maasai age-sets who used to paint
their shields to distinguish themselves (Ole Saitoti and
Beckwith 1980) now started using large numbers of
beads for this purpose. The entire repertoire of orna-
ments used and photographed so much today was
developed within a period of twenty years at the end of
the 19th century (Vierke 2009). The red blankets that
further define the Maasai warrior image are, to the
disappointment of the tourists who discover this,
imported from Scotland.
Maasai cultural heritage, including ways of dressing
and modes of income generation, consist of some tradi-
tions that have survived over many years and adapted to
changing social and cultural circumstances, while others
have been invented relatively recently (Hobsbawm and
Ranger 1983). The image of Maasai as a timeless,
untouched people is a projected and idealised imagina-
tive, like the noble savage ideal itself. Both are illusory
constructions which have been designed and have
evolved in interplay with European conceptions.
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Traditionally-clad Maasai have not been treated
favourably in all environments. The positive noble
savage Maasai image has a negative counterpart.
Historically, savages have been imagined not only as
noble objects of desire and glorification, but also as
ignoble, dirty, backward and dangerously violent beings
who live in chaos and need to be civilised or controlled
(Nederveen Pieterse 1990). Modernity in Europe was
experienced with ambivalence, as a development
producing progress as well as estrangement. Conse-
quently the idea of the savage to which European
‘civilisation’ was contrasted, has also been ambiguous
(Eriksson Baaz 2001).
European explorers, soldiers and administrators
described Maasai not only as ‘noble’ and ‘aristocratic’ but
also as ‘terrible’ and ‘warlike people with a ‘thirst for
blood’ (Neumann 1995). These descriptions were a
result of the ambiguous associations with modernity as
well as the German and British incentives to appropriate
the land where Maasai were living. Maasai were cele-
brated as noble savages, but at the same time treated as
citizens of the lowest order. The Tanzanian (then
Tanganyikan) colonial administration, for example,
forced Maasai to travel on a special back bench on public
buses, separated from the rest of the bus by a wall. The
rationale given for this was that Maasai would smell
bad, were often naked and carried weapons (Talle 1999).
The colonial history, during which Maasai were
both celebrated and placed on the bottom of the evolu-
tionary ladder, strongly resonate in the double associa-
tions and imaginations Maasai have evoked in the
postcolonial nation-state to this day. I will give two
examples. The first example describes some of the stig-
matising practices (post)colonial Tanzania has inflicted
upon Maasai. This situation is contrasted with the
celebration of Maasai culture as an object of tourism by
the Tanzanian state. The second example comes from
Kenya and contrasts the current negative attitude many
Kenyan citizens have towards Maasai with the celebra-
tion of Maasai symbols on the national flag. Both
examples provide some historical context to the ways in
which Maasai are regarded and treated today.
Shortly after independence, Tanzania became a
socialist nation. Focusing on the construction of a
national Tanzanian culture, the country did not rely
strongly on the ethnic or cultural signifiers of specific
groups to construct its postcolonial identity (Kirke-
gaard 2001). However, during socialist times Maasai
were used as symbols by the Tanzanian state, as they
suited the national cultural policys main objective of
decolonising Tanzanian culture and reinvoking the
African roots that supposedly had remained untouched
by colonisation.8 The image of a young Maasai warrior
carrying a spear was featured on the hundred-shilling
note, which was given out by the nationalised Tanza-
nian banks until 1969.
Overall however, the socialist Tanzanian govern-
ment continued to fuel the image of Maasai as a symbol
of backwardness, as they did not fit its idea of develop-
ment, modernity and national unity. In the 1960s it
started a development campaign called ‘Operation
Dress-Up.’ The campaign focused on Maasai’s
perceived poor, dirty and uncivilised way of being, and
was meant to induce them to wear ‘modern’ clothes
instead of their traditional attire.9 Traditionally-clad
Maasai were prohibited from entering public facilities
such as medical institutions. The Tanzanian state
portrayed the campaign as anti-imperialist and anti-
colonial, although it took ‘western’ conceptions of
modernity as a starting point. Supposedly based upon
the objective rationale of hygiene, the campaign actually
had more to do with a vision of development and
modern man. By proclaiming its presuppositions as
universal, technocratic and neutral, the Tanzanian state
effectively silenced and delegitimised resistance.
During the 1970s the Tanzanian government still
denied Maasai access to bars, restaurants and public
transport, and threatened to deny medical care, to
Maasai who were dressed ‘improperly (Schneider
2006; Talle 1999).
Today, the Tanzanian state glorifies Maasai tradi-
tion in its tourist advertisements, and the official site of
the Tanzanian Tourist Board features photos of Maasai
in their traditional attire. The nation is proud of what
they call their ‘best known tribe,’ stating that its other
127 ethnic groups are ‘perhaps not asvisuallycolourful
as the red-robed, spear-carrying Maasai war riors.’10
There is a celebration of Maasai (inspired) beadwork,
which can be found in abundance in souvenir stalls, at
airports and at tourist markets such as the Arusha
Maasai market, where it is sold as a symbol by which to
remember the Tanzanian nation.
My second example focuses on Kenya and demon-
strates the same contradiction between Maasai people
as a symbol of backwardness and a symbol of national
pride. It further underlines that Maasai images are used
not only to represent the nation to outsiders such as
tourists, but also internally to its own citizens. As in
Tanzania, Kenya’s Ministry of Tourism website creates
an image of the country by showing pictures of its
landscape and the wildlife living in it, supplemented by
pictures of Maasai, including smiling children covered
in red ochre and beads, and a leaping, traditionally clad
warrior. According to the noble savage imagery, Maasai
are here presented as one part of the natural beauty that
Kenya has to offer. Internally, however, Maasai symbols
are also used as images of culture: the Kenyan national
flag features a shield and spears which are commonly
regarded as a traditional Maasai shield and spears.11
The Kenyan national coat of arms also features a shield
and spears that have the shape of traditional Maasai
artifacts, and are generally identified as such.
This prominent use of Maasai symbols to represent
the nation is the result of the resistance Maasai put up
against modernity and the distance they took from the
West, especially during colonial and early postcolonial
times. More than other ethnic groups, Maasai resisted
colonial pressures to ‘modernise,’ as they had no interest
in giving up their semi-nomadic lifestyle, starting culti-
vation, dressing in western clothing, or sending their
children to school. Their resistance has predominantly
been passive. When Maasai were displaced from most
of their land during the massive 1904 and 1911
displacements, armed resistance was absent. This was
to the surprise of the colonial forces who, as a result of
the bloodthirsty image of the Maasai, expected explo-
sive situations. Maasai warriors confronted the British
violently on only a few occasions, and always as a result
of modernising incentives. Non-passive resistance took
place, for example, in 1918, against the British forced
recruitment of Maasai children for school, in 1922
when the colonisers wanted to reduce the length of
time Maasai served as warriors, and in 1935 when
Maasai resisted the construction of a road in Maasai-
land (Neckebrouck 1993).
Like the colonial regime in Tanganyika, the British
regarded Maasai as very primitive people, placing them
at the bottom of the evolutionary hierarchy in which
‘civilised’ Europeans formed the pinnacle. When the
country became independent, this hierarchical order
flipped. As in négritude writings and other instances of
cultural nationalism in Africa (Eriksson Baaz 2001),
the cultural values and characteristics that had been
projected as negatives by the colonisers became the
object of pride and celebration. Colonial forces had
always described Africans generally, and Maasai specif-
ically, as savages, who had very little culture, or no
culture at all (Palmberg 2001; Nederveen Pieterse
1990). As a reaction to this, after independence African
leaders emphasised the existence and value of African
culture(s) (Marschall 2004). As Maasai culture was
associated with resistance to the colonial forces and
had remained relatively devoid of the modern in a very
visible way, it became a symbol of local African tradi-
tion, strength, and an identity independent from the
West. As a result, the Maasai spears and shields were
chosen as the main symbols for the national flag.
Maasai remained disinterested in a western way of
living and education of their children for some time
after independence. The Kenyan nation and most of its
citizens have, however, increasingly directed themselves
towards modernisation, following a western lead.
Contemporary Kenyans often label Maasai in a negative
way, as conservative people who reject or even fiercely
resist the gifts of civilisation. In the day to day context of
life in the city and the villages, being ‘non-contemporary’
or ‘behind’ is looked down on, and Maasai are mostly
regarded negatively. When during my interactions with
other ethnic groups in Kenya in 2007 I mentioned my
research with Maasai, people often reacted by making
an ugly face, pulling up their nose as if something
smelled bad, telling me they could not imagine I would
want to live with these people. When I would ask why,
they would tell me that Maasai do not wash themselves,
that they eat dirty food and are dishonest and violent.
My Kenyan host parents in the Taita area warned me
about the supposedly highly unhygienic, very poor and
even dangerous environment I would be in while in
Maasailand, and worried about my plans.
However, when I stayed in the Maasai village, I lived
in a house that was at least as nice as the one in the
Taita area, and except for the availability of water, the
general challenges I faced were of the same level in
both environments. Nevertheless, even years later when
I am having a hard time with studying or travelling and
send my Taita brother a text message, he replies: ‘Do
not worry about this hardship, you can overcome
anything, you are so strong: you survived with Maasai!’
Despite their negative attitude towards Maasai, it is not
unusual for non-Maasai Kenyans to wear Maasai
(inspired) beadwork, which often depicts the national
flag. In Kenya today, there is the paradoxical situation
in which Kenyans generally look down upon Maasai,
but are proud of their national symbols.
Although the Kenyan and Tanzanian cases are
different due to their specific political histories, they
both show strong references to the (ig)noble savage
imagery, and are characterised by an overall ambivalent
attitude towards Maasai. The ambiguity of the first
European descriptions has lived on in both countries.
The socialist postcolonial Tanzanian government used
the image of a traditionally clad Maasai on its banknotes
during the same period that it was strongly stigmatising
this way of dressing through Operation Dress-Up.
Maasai have been discriminated against and looked
down on in Kenya and Tanzania by governments and
citizens alike, while at the same time these govern-
ments and citizens have used Maasai symbols, objects,
colours and images as representations of their nations.
To Kenyans and Tanzanians, Maasai culture under-
lines African resistance to and distinction from
European culture. This distinction and resistance is
exactly what makes Maasai images so suitable for use in
the tourism industry, as tourists are attracted to their
‘strangeness.’ A good example is that Maasai were
denied access to public facilities because their bead
jewellery did not fit the image of modern man, while
the association of beadwork with the primitive is exactly
what makes it so popular with tourists. Tourism is one
of the most important foreign-exchange earners for
both Kenya and Tanzania, and the wealth, opinions and
visits of Westerners have come to be regarded highly as
these nations are now following a western lead.
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Koinet is a 26-year-old il-Purko Maasai who lives with
his wife and young son in the village of his father, his
father’s brother and their wives and children, not far
from the Masai Mara National Reserve.!" He is a small-
businessman working in the tourism industry. He speaks
English fluently and is aware of the image that tourists
expect of Maasai. Like other informants he tells me how
important education is for Maasai today. During colo-
nial times Maasai hid their children from the authori-
ties, and it was a common belief that if parents sent a
child to school they did not love that child, because
sending a Maasai child to school was like losing it. These
days, many Maasai value education and lament the lack
of educational infrastructure in the areas where they live,
believing that other ethnic groups such as Kikuyu have
more opportunities to secure jobs and a good living
because of their higher levels of education.!# In Koinet’s
words: ‘Now is the time of the pen, not of the spear.’!$
The spear, however, is still present, and still neces-
sary. Not only to keep wildlife at a distance in the
villages, but also to secure a livelihood in the ‘time of
the pen.’ Most Maasai with a good education find work
in the tourism industry, while some work with overseas
ngos. Speaking English and having learned about
Westerners and their fascination with Maasai, they
have come to understand how important the spear and
traditional ways of dressing and living remain for
Maasai, in order to be successful in these sectors.
Koinet and his Maasai friend Legishon worked as
wage-labourers in the tourism industry, but gave up
their relatively well-paid jobs. Together, sometimes in
collaboration with overseas ngos and other young
Maasai men from the area, they have started several
small tourism-related businesses, with a series of objec-
tives. Without doubt, personal income generation is
important for the Maasai involved, but they also
dedicate themselves to projects to develop the wider
Maasai community, for instance through better waste
disposal, schooling and medical practices. To them,
their personal and local development does not clash
with their third main objective, which is promoting the
survival of what they feel are their cultural traditions,
which they perceive as being in danger of disappearing
under the influences of the modern world. In fact, they
believe that Maasai traditions can only have a future
when Maasai extend their wealth and education and
consciously shelter these traditions. They try to achieve
these three objectives simultaneously through tourism:
from performing cultural dances and setting up cultural
centres to hosting and guiding tourists and organising
entire safari holidays.
As is not uncommon in the area, Koinet has built a
house with cement walls and a corrugated-iron roof
next to the smaller traditional houses of his village. The
‘modern’ house sacrifices some of the conveniences of
Maasai houses made out of mud and cow dung, such as
the ability to heat the house while cooking on a fire and
the possibility of locking young livestock away.
However, it also has many conveniences: it is light and
well-ventilated, unlike the dark and smoky Maasai
huts, and it does not leak or need fresh plastering when
it rains. It is more spacious, with furnished separate
rooms and a concrete floor that does not get muddy.
Cooking takes place on a gas burner, while the roof
allows the catchment of valuable clean rainwater, which
is collected in large reservoirs at the house’s side. This
saves women the time-consuming and heavy duties of
finding and carrying firewood and (dirty) river water to
their home.
However, in several areas not far from Koinet’s
house, government officials have prohibited people
from building modern houses.15 The Kenyan govern-
ment hinders improvements in the situation of local
people when it feels these developments would clash
with the ‘authentic’ African image they wish to produce
round well-visited national parks. This is also one of
the reasons why there is still only a dirt road leading
into the Mara area from Narok town. The road is regu-
larly washed away during the rainy season and greatly
decreases the mobility and business opportunities for
local people year round, as travelling it takes a lot of
time and effort. Transportation by (mini)bus is very
limited around the Mara. If Koinet needs to travel, he
must get up at five in the morning, and be wary of
elephants and other wildlife while walking to the
nearest town, hoping that there will be a vehicle avail-
able. Tourists, in their reliable four-wheel-drive
vehicles, love the idea of the red unpaved track, because
it fits with their image of true African wilderness.
Many overseas visitors do not even travel it, as they
simply land on the airstrip next to the Mara Reserve.
The Kenyan state wishes to cater to the mental
picture that is deeply rooted in colonial times, in which
Africa forms, simultaneously, a contrast to and a
measure of western civilisation. According to this
image, Africa consists of ‘landscapes in which its people
have to blend … huts with thatched roofs and African
women with water buckets on their head [sic],’
excluding images of cosmopolitan cities with high-rise
buildings as ‘not the real Africa’ (Wels 2002: 55). In the
eyes of most tourists, a Maasai working behind a
computer in western-style clothing is not a ‘real’ Maasai,
as he does not correspond to their image of Maasai as
savages. Some tourists do not even accept Maasai as
‘real’ if they do not look poor and covered in dust. On
their internet blog a Dutch couple, for example,
describes how a boy invites them into a cultural village.
They consider the boy an ‘imitation Masai (my trans-
lation) because he looks very clean and has nice clothes.
Angry and disappointed because of this, they decide
not to visit the village.16
Koinet is familiar with the expectations most
overseas visitors have of Kenya and their encounter
with Maasai. When a group of Japanese tourists
comes to film in his village, he therefore finds it self-
evident that they want to encounter and shoot footage
of traditional houses and Maasai in red blankets and
beads. Before the tourists arrive, he thus summons
the members of his extended family to change the
T-shirts and other western-style clothing that some
of them are wearing for their traditional garments
and large quantities of beads, so that the Japanese can
have what they feel is a ‘genuine’ experience of the
Maasai world.
Koinet told me that he does not invest the money
earned from these visitors into cattle, as would be the
traditional incentive. Like most Maasai in the area, he
has a herd that he loves, but he leaves its daily care
mostly to his family members, since he is often away
for his work. Instead of more cattle, he wants to buy a
Land Rover and a laptop to enhance his business. He
knows how to use his mobile phone as a modem and
can thus access the internet from his home village, even
though to charge the phone and laptop he has to walk
an hour to a neighbouring town to connect it to a
generator running on diesel, as there is no other source
of electricity. Making clever use of the limited infra-
structure available, he and his friends have, however,
developed several websites to advertise the tourism-
related organisations and businesses they have set up.
As a result of all the investments he has made,
insights he has gained and skills he has acquired, Koinet
has managed to attract this group of Japanese people to
his village. His professionalism, and his knowledge of
sophisticated technology as well as people from foreign
cultures, leads him to stand in front of the Japanese
cameras, his body covered in a red blanket and bedecked
with colourful beads, modelling a version of Maasai
traditional life to suit his visitors.
Working in the tourism industry is one of the only
ways for young Maasai men to penetrate cosmopolitan
environments. Their chance to obtain the good income,
international contacts, good education, modern tech-
nologies and travel opportunities they desire, depend
on the savage role they are willing to take on. In order
to appeal to western tourists, Maasai have to carefully
manage their appearance and behaviour to fit the
projection of the primitive natural man who stands far
from civilisation, but who is in danger of being margin-
alised or even overrun by it. For many of them, ‘playing
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the primitive’ is the only likely way to attain a more
cosmopolitan lifestyle. Koinet knows what Maasai Ole
Kantai understood decades earlier, that Maasai are ‘the
ideal mental conceptualization of the Western
European idea of an African “noble savage”’ (Ole
Kantai 1971: vii). Like many Maasai in the Mara area,
Koinet sells this image of himself in order to be able to
live a cosmopolitan life.
Cosmopolitanism encompasses an openness to the
world, cultural sensitivity and the transcendence of
ethnic and cultural differences. It is commonly associ-
ated with the international, elitist, enlightened,
modernist and universalist (Werbner 1999, 2006).
Hannerz (1992: 252) has described cosmopolitanism
‘first of all, as a willingness to engage with the Other.’
Cosmopolitans can be distinguished from transna-
tionals, who despite travelling remain largely enclosed
in their own cultural world, taking their safe encapsula-
tion with them wherever they go. ‘Cosmopolitans, by
contrast, familiarise themselves with other cultures and
know how to move easily between cultures’ (Werbner
1999: 20).
In the encounter between Maasai and western
tourists, Maasai hosts are often more cosmopolitan
than their guests. Tourists largely remain encapsulated
within the ‘tourist bubble,’ which consists of tourist
infrastructure and facilities that are based on, or adapted
to, western standards. As in many developing countries,
the tourist realm in Africa is almost completely sepa-
rated from local daily life. There are very few inde-
pendent travellers, and the tourists who arrive through
packaged holidays spend their time almost exclusively
at tourist attractions, in luxury hotels, air-conditioned
buses and souvenir shops, surrounded by the languages,
jokes, foods and even the images they are familiar with
(Van Beek and Schmidt fc.). As a result, although they
physically cross national boundaries, these tourists
remain for a considerable part encapsulated in their
own cultural worlds, and are sometimes more transna-
tional than cosmopolitan.17
Maasai who work in the tourism industry also deal
with the tourist infrastructure as a mediating factor
between them and the visitors, but for them to be
successful as a guide or organiser of safaris or perform-
ances, they have to be quite sensitive to the culture of
their visitors (Wijngaarden fc.). In Van den Berghe and
Keyes’ (1984) terminology, these days Maasai are not
only tourees (hosts or performers) who dress up and
passively let tourists take pictures; they have also
become middlemen (mediators or brokers) in the tour-
istic drama. They actively attract and facilitate for
tourists, communicating directly with them. Maasai
now guide tourists through the Maasai experience
themselves, providing them with contexts, explanations
and meanings for what they see, hear and feel. As
Cohen (1989) has argued, in the staging of tourism
encounters, the ‘communicative presentation is often
more important than the actual manipulation of what
is experienced. To be able to fulfil the role of middlemen,
it is essential that Maasai are thoroughly familiar with
the global discourses and western ideological represen-
tations of Otherness that are required to successfully
sell their culture as authentic in the eyes of tourists
(Salazar 2006).
Their ‘willingness to engage with the Other’ is thus
considerable, as their income and future opportunities
depend on their ability to familiarise themselves with
the expectations, views, needs and wants of their
visitors, transcending and smoothing cultural differ-
ences. It is their goal to make the tourists’ experience
interesting as well as comfortable, exciting as well as
relaxing, facilitating the balance between strangeness
and familiarity that tourists are searching for (Cohen
1972). Many Maasai strive to make personal connec-
tions with the tourists to create networks, as tourists
could support their business and future opportunities.
Tourists can promote them to new clients, sponsor a
child’s school fees, contribute medication for the local
clinic, or provide invitations to visit or study in Europe,
the United States or Japan. Many Maasai working in
the tourism industry move between local Maasai,
broader Kenyan, and European, American and Japanese
cultures with the ease of experienced cosmopolitans,
knowing how to dress and what to say, as they are
familiar with the detailed habits, jokes and forms of
expression that are relevant to the specific groups.
The association of Maasai with the noble savage
imagery gives them more possibilities than the average
East African citizen to stay in localities that are gener-
ally reserved for western tourists and to travel to
western countries. Take the example of Sironka, who
was a tourist guide in his twenties when I met him in
2007. He obtained his guiding certificate at a guiding
school, which caters specifically to Maasai, and worked
as one of the traditionally clad guides at Mto camp, a
luxury ecotourism camp situated on the border of the
Mara Reserve.18 He felt the camp had provided him
with opportunities, including his training as a tourist
guide, and often expressed his admiration for the
wealth and lifestyle of the tourists who visited the
camp. One day he stated that it was remarkable that
boys herding cows – in another Maasai’s words, coming
from the mud or knowing nothing – were trained to
become tourist guides, driving overseas guests around
and telling them everything about the wild animals.
This illustrates the sense of hierarchy Sironka experi-
enced between different cultures and activities. Several
minutes later, however, he suddenly and violently inter-
rupted his eulogy of western culture, tourism and
tourists with the very critical, almost angry statement
that ‘tourism is exploiting us, tourism is drinking our
blood, tourism is killing us, a sentiment about the
Maasai-tourism relationship that he repeated several
times on different occasions.19
Sironka’s feelings towards Westerners, and the
image they have of Maasai, are ambivalent. But his
determined yet patient and complaisant attitude
towards tourists has paid off. After a sponsorship from
the tourist camp enabled him to finish his Bachelor’s
degree at a Kenyan university, now, with the help of
the contacts he made with visiting tourists, he has
moved to the United States. He emailed me how he
has a big house’ and ‘South Carolina is a very beautiful
place, the people are friendly, plenty of food and other
sorts of drinks. I have new and old friends here and
other parts of the US and life here is very good.20 He
is studying for his Master’s degree in Parks, Recreation
and Tourism Management, majoring in Sustainable/
Eco tourism and Natural Resource Management at
Clemson University, with a fieldwork project that
concerns Maasai of the Mara area.
Sironka still adopts the role of the savage now that
he is studying in the United States While working at
Mto camp he pointed out to me that in Kenya gener-
ally, Maasai traditional attire is associated with the
little-respected jobs of entertainer or guard. In the
United States, however, he wears his Maasai clothes
with pride. At cultural events in the United States,
Sironka has represented the Kenyan nation dressed in
his Maasai garments and beaded ornaments. He
enthusiastically describes how the Americans love to
see him like this. He has become a celebrity at univer-
sity, and proudly emails an article written about him in
the Clemson University newsletter to his friends. The
article shows a portrait of his smiling painted face, his
head and neck bedecked with beads, the spear at his
side. The editors introduce him as ‘the first Maasai
tribe member to come to the United States to earn his
Master’s degree in Tourism Management.’ At formal
academic occasions – for instance, when he presents a
paper at a conference – he wears his full Maasai outfit
and harvests the same success. Although he has not yet
completed his Master’s degree, he has already been
offered a PhD position at Clemson. I believe that the
extraordinary leap his academic career has made in the
United States is owed in part to the way in which he
vocally and visibly represents his people.
Another example of how staging the savage can give
access to cosmopolitan lifestyles is the Maasai Buffalo
Dance and Cultural Change Group, founded in 2005
by Koinet, Legishon and their friend Kapalei."! The
group is officially registered at the National Depart-
ment of Culture and gives performances in Maasai
song and dance, with the mission of promoting Maasai
culture through education and tourism. It includes over
25 Maasai men and women, typically aged between 20
and 35. The members of the Maasai Buffalo Dance and
Cultural Change Group and their families generally
live in conditions that most Kenyan citizens would
despise: inhabiting houses made of mud and cow dung,
without electricity, clean water or toilet, without proper
medical infrastructure and with scant means of trans-
portation. Yet they undertake activities and visit places
most Kenyans can only dream of. A delegation of the
Buffalo Dancers has travelled to Japan as well as to the
United States to perform, while many Kenyans can
only dream of travelling overseas. Most Kenyans adore
the United States, which is worshipped as the symbol
of western wealth. It is seen as a place without poverty
or shortages, where consumption, opportunities,
wisdom, honesty, civilisation and democracy prevail;
T-shirts sporting the text ‘Proud to be an American’ are
quite popular.
Also when in Kenya, the Buffalo Dancers often
frequent spaces that are considered cosmopolitan. Most
cosmopolitan spaces in Kenya are relatively wealthy
environments, where modern technologies and overseas
products are used and Westerners and Africans from a
variety of nationalities come together. The Buffalo
Dancers have worked with several international ngos,
the Permanent Presidential Music Commission, the
Ministry of Culture and Kenya Tourist Board for state
concerts and other events including unep programmes,
receiving the certificate of Ambassadors of Change
from usaid. When they are in Nairobi or in the touristy
parts of the Mara area they use the lobbies of expensive
hotels as places to gather, drink, talk and store their
bags, although these environments are normally only
used by white tourists and, at times, privileged rich
When several of the Buffalo Dancers and I entered
the lobby of one of the expensive Masai Mara hotels
one day, I felt the eyes of the personnel burning upon
us. The young Maasai men stood out with their black
skin and bright red traditional garments. Wearing
rough sandals instead of shoes and shukas instead of
trousers, it seemed inappropriate for them to sit in the
luxurious leather chairs in the lounge, which were
almost all occupied by white tourists.22 I had spent
quite some time living in simple villages, but I am
familiar with European standards and have stayed in
what are considered luxury ecotourism camps. However,
even to my eyes these tourists looked affluent: many
were dressed in classy outfits, and the women wore
expensive jewellery. I felt uncomfortable in my old
clothes even though I knew that in touristy environ-
ments in East Africa white people are generally excused
if they are dressed poorly.
None of us wanted to be the first to sit down. We
discussed our feelings of discomfort and whether we
were even supposed to have a drink there at all. While
we talked about the odds of being turned away, one of
the Maasai guys let himself drop into a fauteuil and
stated that we should be able to take our places, as we
are paying for the drinks like everyone else. Taking their
cue to sit down, the men started debating whom among
the personnel they knew at this camp, and how the hotel
should be grateful to them for bringing clients there.
When the waiter came to us, I worried that he would
tell us to leave, but instead he simply took our order.
Normally in this environment, all other tourism-
related personnel below management level – whether
employees of the fancy hotel itself or guides bringing
clients there to spend the night – would not be allowed
to have a drink in the lobby, even if they dressed nicely.
However, the Buffalo Dancers, so obviously Maasai in
their traditional garments, were treated as special guests
and served their drinks, because in the explicitly
cosmopolitan environment of a posh hotel lobby that is
filled with wealthy tourists, traditionally-clad Maasai
are associated with the noble savage imagery.
Outside such cosmopolitan environments, however,
Maasai traditional ways of dressing and living are
mostly seen as too shamefully ‘primitive’ and ‘backward’
to be part of the postcolonial African nation-state
whose citizens long for a modern identity and status.
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In contemporary Kenya, cosmopolitan and non-
cosmopolitan environments often exist in close prox-
imity to each other, and Maasai working in the tourism
industry deal with the ambiguity of the savage image in
both environments. The following case exemplifies the
complex situations this can lead to.
In September 2007, the Maasai Buffalo Dance and
Cultural Change Group was invited to give a perform-
ance in Nairobi during the Tourism Board Conference.
In the days leading up to the conference, the members
of the group arrived one by one in the capital, coming
from various locations. On the day of the performance,
the male members of the group wore their traditional
attire and made their way through the city in groups of
between three and nine people to run various errands,
meeting up with each other at small restaurants around
the centre of Nairobi to discuss business as well as
private matters, and I accompanied them.
While we walked down the streets we certainly
attracted some attention. Some people stared at us, but
most were slightly cautious and did not stare too overtly.
Normally when I move through the streets of the centre
of Nairobi during the day, I constantly make physical
contact with others in order to be able to move forward,
as the streets are full of people. If I walk together with
other people in a group, all members take care not to
become separated, waiting for those who did not manage
to make their way through the mass of people as quickly.
I noticed, however, that the group of Maasai guys and I
were able to make progress quite swiftly, as people kept
a slightly greater distance than they would normally.
This is because Maasai are not only looked down on
by many Kenyan citizens, but are also feared. The
caution that the citizens of Nairobi feel towards Maasai
might have something to do with the fact that, as the
young men told me, Maasai are the only people who
are allowed to wear their weapons in public, and people
expect them to carry a sword or club among their
garments. Although a couple of the Buffalo Dancers
had left the warrior age-grade years ago and were
actually junior elders, to the Nairobi citizens the group
of red-clad young Maasai men was perceived as a
troupe of warriors, who have a reputation of being not
only primitive and backward but also fierce, fearless
fighters. Koinet told me that he and his friends some-
times even wear the Maasai shukas specifically because
they provide them with increased security in dangerous
areas at night.
In the evening, all the men and women of the
Maasai Buffalo Dance and Cultural Change Group
who had come to Nairobi met at the Comesa Grounds.
They dressed up in their most eye-catching traditional
Maasai garments, were covered in beaded ornaments
and carried traditional items such as a colobus monkey
leg piece and a kudu horn to play on. They told me that
they felt honoured to be invited to perform during this
official event at the distinguished Kenyatta Interna-
tional Conference Centre, which overlooks the Kenyan
Parliament, and to represent their culture as well as the
Kenyan nation to the national and international guests
of the Tourism Board. Their performance was received
with enthusiasm, and subsequently the dancers mixed
and chatted with the visitors, who were provided with
snacks and fancy drinks. In this cosmopolitan environ-
ment with international guests and government offi-
cials, the Buffalo Dancers stood out as exotic, and
several of the international guests commented to me
how much they loved and admired Maasai culture. The
senior members of the Buffalo Dancers were in constant
conversation with guests and officials who approached
them, making contacts for future performances and
handing out their business cards.
When we left the Kenyatta International Confer-
ence Centre, the Buffalo Dancers split up. Koinet
wanted to take me to a bar but insisted that we should
go to the hotel to change first. He explained that he felt
he would attract too much attention walking with me
through the night-time city in his traditional clothes.
Due to the popularity of Maasai sex-tourism on the
Kenyan coast, most Kenyans who see a white girl and a
Maasai man walking together through the night would
suspect a controversial sexual relationship. Koinet
explained, however, that even when he walks alone
through the city in his traditional attire, his appearance
causes Nairobi citizens to ask a lot of questions and
make remarks, because they assume he is a deeply
cultural person from the rural areas. He believes they
react in this way because some of them regret that they
have lost their own traditions and appreciate him for
displaying his; others however have a more negative
attitude because they believe he should wear ‘normal’
western clothes when on the street. After Koinet had
changed, he walked through the city with me at a much
slower pace, behaving in a more relaxed way. We entered
the bar without anyone looking up, and, self-assured,
he placed an order for drinks.
There are considerable contrasts in the way Maasai
are treated in different environments. At one moment
the traditionally clad Maasai Buffalo Dancers who
represent their ethnic group can be heroes of the
Kenyan nation, admired by, and interacting with, an
international collection of respected guests at what is
called ‘Africa’s premier meeting venue’ in Nairobi.
When they walk through the city that same day,
however, they are feared and risk provoking disdain in
their fellow citizens. While inside explicitly cosmo-
politan environments Maasai are celebrated and
admired according to the noble savage imagery, outside
these environments they are generally associated with
the more negative ignoble savage image. In most envi-
ronments it is easier not to stand out as a traditional
Maasai, except maybe for reasons of safety. Yet in
explicitly cosmopolitan contexts Maasai are admired
and highly regarded only when they visibly present
themselves ‘as people who have resisted the onslaught
of Western civilization’ (Kratz and Gordon 2002: 255)
and have continued to live according to traditions that
are in line with the savage image.
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In the influential book Being Maasai, Waller (1993)
describes how Maasai people have been involved in a
long process of re-examining and reformulating their
ethnic identity. They have pragmatically shifted their
focus depending on the circumstances, sometimes
turning inwards to a remembered and imagined past,
sometimes looking outwards to encompass the variety
of modern experiences and resources necessary for
survival. He concludes with a dilemma for contempo-
rary Maasai: they can tap the resources of development
aid in order to survive – and I would like to add to this
the resources of tourism. However, gaining access to
these resources means that education and modernisa-
tion will change their lives. Waller fears that if Maasai
adapt successfully, they will lose the interest of the West
and the resources and opportunities that come with it,
because ‘[o]ne requirement of survival on western terms
is that “natives” should be “disappearing” or failing to
survive in their own world (Waller 1993: 301).
Maasai men in their twenties and thirties who work
in the tourism industry in the Mara area in Kenya have
overcome this dilemma. Through education and expe-
rience in the tourism industry they have become thor-
oughly familiar with the western idea of the noble
savage. They use this to stage, advertise, orchestrate and
contextualise a version of their culture that tourists
perceive as ‘authentic.’ Their objectives are personal
income generation and the development of the wider
Maasai community, but also the survival of Maasai
traditions. Like most tourists, these Maasai feel that
Maasai traditions are in danger of being overrun by
modernity. However, in contrast to tourists, who
perceive hybridity as treacherous and modern influ-
ences as tragic, they believe the only way to secure the
continued existence of their traditions is by increasing
the wealth, education and quality of life of their people
through modern means. In their eyes, this will lead
Maasai consciously to shelter their traditions, because
modernisation is inevitable – in fact, it is already part of
their lives.
Undoubtedly both their compatriots and visiting
tourists have an impact on how Maasai perceive their
cultural heritage, as what is presented successfully to
outsiders as the dominant image of a culture influences
locals’ perceptions of who they are (Simpson 1993).
However, over the past centuries, Maasai have followed
their own course despite the celebrations of romantic
nostalgia as well as civilising projects and practices of
exclusion put upon them as a result of the (ig)noble
savage image. I believe they do not let outsiders dictate
which (invented) traditions they will protect.
In the popular imagery of western tourists as well as
that of most Kenyan and Tanzanian nationals, the
realms of the savage and the cosmopolitan are opposed.
To Maasai, however, these realms exist mostly together.
Gaining access to cosmopolitan environments requires
an understanding of the savage image, and thus the
cosmopolitan ability to engage in another cultural
world. In addition, the designed Maasai savage harvests
mostly negative attention outside the cosmopolitan
realm while it is regarded positively in explicitly cosmo-
politan environments. In fact, in these cosmopolitan
contexts Maasai are admired and regarded highly only
when they visibly present themselves according to the
savage imagery.
Hannerz (2004) has noted that people who are not
part of the elite are generally not recognised as cosmo-
politans in their own environments, even though
anthropologists consider them to be living cosmopol-
itan lives. Often, they do not even consider themselves
cosmopolitans. When Ole Saitoti chose a cosmopolitan
life this meant an absolute clash with his roots. The
young Maasai men who are part of this study do not
consider this true for themselves. Some see themselves
as global citizens, and all feel that the cosmopolitan
features of their lives are compatible with their identity
as Maasai.
This research was made possible with funding from the
Schuurman Schimmel – van Outeren Stichting, Stich-
ting Dr Hendrik Muller’s Vaderlandsch Fonds and the
University of Amsterdam Fieldwork Fund, as well as
support from the Kenyan Wildlife Service, Basecamp
Masai Mara, Kecobat, International Livestock Research
Institute and Koiyaki Guiding School. A special thanks
to the local communities, the Kipen family, James
Simeren, Basecamp Masai Mara and the Maasai
Buffalo Dance and Cultural Change Group. I am
indebted to Maude le Corre, Cindy Johnson and the
editors of Etnofoor for their help during the writing
1 The term ‘noble savage’ was probably invented in 1609 by the
French lawyer-ethnographer Marc Lescarbot, who used it as a
concept in comparative law, and was later more famously used
in John Dryden’s 17th-century drama The Conquest of Granada
by the Spaniards (Ellingson 2001). In his Discourse on Inequality
Rousseau does speak about ‘savages’ as ‘men in a state of nature’
(2004 [1754]: 32, 47), lauding their independence and peace-
fulness. In his later work The Social Contract (2005 [1762])
Rousseau explains that the abuses of the civilised condition
degrade civilised men below the state of nature. However, he
writes that in the end the advantages of living in a civilised
state are much greater than living in a state of nature, as civili-
sation transforms a person from ‘a stupid and unimaginative
animal’ to ‘an intelligent being and a man’ (2005 [1762]: 195-
196). Rousseau never used the term noble savage and was less
sentimentally enthusiastic about savages than other thinkers of
his time (Ellingson 2001).
2 Young, R.M. (1972) Man of Serengeti National Geographic
Specials. Columbia Broadcasting System (cbs), David L.
Wolper Productions, National Geographic Society 60 min.
3 Ecotourism is defined by The International Ecotourism Society
(ties) as ‘responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the
environment and improves the well-being of local people’ http://
rism_Society.htm, visited August 19, 2010. Ethnic tourism is
‘tourism wherein the prime attraction is the cultural exoticism of
the local population and its artifacts’ (Van den Berghe and Keyes
1984: 344) and is distinct from cultural tourism, which is ‘the
more diffuse absorption of “local color,” the “taking in” of a whole
exotic scene with emphasis on material objects such as buildings,
clothing, and the like more than on the way of life of a particular
ethnic group’ (Van den Berghe and Keyes 1984: 348).
4 Cultural manyattas are Maasai cultural villages where perfor-
mances of Maasai life, song and dance are given and souvenirs
are sold. Often the village is presented as a genuine Maasai
settlement, not one that has been built for the purpose of tou-
rism. Manyattas is the anglicised plural of the Maa word that
refers to the village where Maasai men live during their warri-
orhood. Dozens of examples can be found on YouTube by
typing ‘Maasai village.’ Cultural centres are larger institutions
that do not primarily focus on performances, such as the Mara
Discovery and Community Empowerment Centre, see http://
5 Only few women are involved in tourism, mainly as (self-)
employed producers and sellers of pearl jewellery. The number
of Maasai women engaged in administrative jobs at tourist
camps or employed as guides is very limited, but growing. In
the Mara area Maasai girls are educated as tourist guides at the
Koiyaki Guiding School, and there is even a Maasai woman in
a management position at one of the camps. Overall, however,
men predominate in tourism-related work, even in housekeep-
ing jobs, and I therefore focus on men in this paper.
6 About half of the Maasai round the Mara live on an income
less than a US dollar (Ksh 70) a day (Reid et al. 2003: 17).
Roads and public services such as transportation, schools and
healthcare are poor. In the latest publication of the Kenya
Human Development Index (hdi) in 2004 it is calculated that
the overall score for Narok district, which encompasses the
Mara area, is below the Kenyan average (undp 2005: 44-45).
The district’s adult literacy index, school enrolment in primary,
secondary and tertiary schools, annual per capita income and
gdp per ppp are all below the national average (undp 2005:
44-45). Even more serious are some of the statistics that figure
in the Human Poverty Index (hpi) of the same year: in Narok
district 22.5 per cent of the children below five years are under-
weight, 52.5 per cent of the people do not have access to safe
drinking water and 71 per cent live with poor access to a qua-
lified doctor, again all performances worse than the Kenyan
average (undp 2005: 48-49).
7 The image of Zulu, also focused on the warrior, is generally
more negative than that of the Maasai. One of the reasons is
that Maasai signed treaties with the British while Zulu chal-
lenged colonial rule (Kratz and Gordon 2002; Sobania 2002).
8 I will explain more about the process that made Maasai culture
attractive to newly independent national identity construction
in the example concerning Kenya, where this development has
been stronger.
9 In Ole Saitoti’s words, the Tanzanian government was ‘trying
to force the Maasai to change their traditional way of dressing
to the European way’ (Ole Saitoti and Beckwith 1980: 274).
tory_of_tanzania/tanzania_today, visited August 19, 2010.
11 Website of the Kenyan embassy in Paris, http://www.keny-, visited July
27, 2010.
12 All names are pseudonyms.
13 Some Maasai mothers in Talek, one of the shantytown-like
commercial centres that have grown near the gates of the Mara
Reserve, have even organised themselves to set up their own
school and hire their own teachers from distant cities, in order
to give their children a good education.
14 Interview Oltorotwa, September 5, 2007.
15 Interview Ekeju-Emutukaa, August 2007. This recalls colonial
prohibitions on the building of types of housing other than
traditional in the Serengeti area in the 1950s (Neumann 1995),
except that now these restrictions apply even outside protected
visited July 25, 2010.
17 Generally, even tourists who are interested in the culture of
Maasai interact only with Masaai who work in the tourism
industry, and generally see the reflection of the image with
which they were already familiar.
18 Like most tourism camps in the Mara area, Mto camp employs
Maasai who walk around in traditional dress and perform
dances. These Maasai are part of the tourist attraction within
the border of the camp. However, at Mto camp as well as other
camps in Maasailand, Maasai men now also perform the role
of middlemen. Still part of the tourist attraction due to their
dress and participation in dances, they are certified guides who
have conversations with the tourists, provide information,
organise (multi-day) trips and take the visitors on wildlife
walks or act as driver guides during their safaris. Like all names
in this article, Mto camp is a pseudonym.
19 Talek, July 15, 2010.
20 Email contact, November 15, 2009.
21 In this article will I refer to the members of the Maasai Buffalo
Dance and Cultural Change Group as the Buffalo Dancers, as
they call themselves.
22 Shukas is the anglicised plural of the Swahili word shuka (sheet
or loin-cloth) and is often used to refer to Maaai traditional
dress, which consists of two pieces of fabric that are knotted
around the shoulders and kept in place with a belt. Women
often wear the shukas together with a Swahili kanga, a piece of
printed cotton fabric popular throughout East-Africa, while
men often add a blanket.
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... It is common knowledge to them that much of contemporary daily life, also in more remote areas, includes objects and practices that have been introduced from outside Maasailand. In fact, beads that carry the label 'made in Czech Republic' are considered original as opposed to Chinese beads, and the dynamic age-set system has spurred many innovations, including beadwork fashions that feature symbols of helicopters, police sirens as well as flags of political parties for generations (Wijngaarden 2010b). ...
... These days, many elders proclaim they were fools for having clung to pastoralism whilst rejecting education and involvement with the state, and increasingly depend on their ilmeék sons for support. The view that the power of the pen has replaced the power of the spear has become common all over Maasailand (Hodgson 1999), as Maasai have widely chosen to actively engage themselves with the modern world, however, emphasizing they are deciding to do so with their culture (Allegretti 2018;Wijngaarden 2010b). ...
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The narrative of evolutionist modernity is a former scientific theory which has fuelled and legitimized deeply harmful imperialist hierarchies, but increasingly influences how Maasai make sense of modernity. Borrowing from narratology and building on twelve years of intermittent ethnography in East-African Maasailand, I respond to recent calls for cognitive justice. Firstly, I contribute to insight in how Maasai, as Indigenous Southern people, conceptualize key scientific concepts such as modernity, as to further the availability of their understandings as partners in the dialogue of theory building. I especially regard continuities and shifts in their uses of nature/culture and Culture/culture dichotomies. Secondly, I disclose, question and deconstruct the continued centralization of Eurocentric narratives and modernist assumptions in academic sense-making, as this unreflexively denies the gradual difference and continued entanglements of scientific, ex-scientific and non-scientific narratives, and the need to include Southern experiences and knowledges to make science a truly global knowledge system.
... Today, though the Maasai represent only one among dozens of distinct ethnic groups in Kenya and their ethnicity is downplayed in Tanzania, both states actively promote tourism by pairing conservation with displays of African "wild" people that satiate "modern tourists" yearning for authenticity and spirituality that only so-called "traditional" peoples who are bound to those spaces supposedly maintain (Hodgson, 2001;Neves and Igoe, 2012: 175;Uddhammer, 2006;Wijngaarden, 2010a: 103). Prior Maasai resistance to "modernizing" their dress has made them attractive to tourists as consumable relics of an "inevitably" disappearing past (Wijngaarden, 2010a). Tourism companies invite guests to tour villages, dance with Maasai warriors, or buy traditional handicrafts in park-adjacent communities, expanding the static temporalities of the reserve beyond its formal borders (Gardner, 2016;Igoe, 2017). ...
Scholars have revived the concept of primitive accumulation to describe how explicit violence is an ongoing and structural, rather than simply historical, tool for capitalist domination. However, the relationship between the logic of capitalism and history of capitalism remains obscured. Capitalism is politically enforced and hegemonic, but ongoing instances of capitalist violence repeatedly appear as though they were breaking new ground or finding new frontiers for capitalist growth. In this paper, I offer a novel framework for understanding how primitive accumulation not only creates a capitalist material order but also a temporal order that motivates and reproduces capitalist violence. Focusing on Maasai conflicts over conservation lands in Kenya and Tanzania, I describe how primitive accumulation imposes the historical narratives that naturalize capitalism, ecological rhythms that suppress competing lifeways, and identity categories that marginalize dispossessed populations by characterizing them as primitive. This account advances key debates about settler-colonialism, racial capitalism, and potential resistance by clarifying how disproportionate harm against particular populations is justified, how those justifications reproduce and naturalize capitalist domination, and how temporality represents not only a site of domination but also political struggle.
... Tall and well-built, donning red robes, swords, clubs and spears, subsisting on their cattle's meat, milk and blood, and reputed for hunting lions as a rite de passage, they are respected by their fellow citizens for their prowess, for holding on to their traditional lifestyle and culture, and for resisting modernity (Presbey, 2000;Hodgson, 2001). 2 The perception of the Maasai as Noble Savages was common among white colonialists, and enthusiastically adopted by the modern tourism industry. Maasai men are iconic representations of "Black Africa", epitomes of black African masculinity and a "must see" attraction for any tourist visiting sub-Saharan East Africa (Akama, 2002;Wijngaarden, 2010;Salazar, 2018). ...
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Thousands of Maasai men have been flocking in recent years to the island of Zanzibar to take part in the burgeoning tourism industry. Many are employed as guards and security personnel. Others roam the beaches, selling souvenirs and touting tourist services, while some are involved in sex-tourism. In this article, we show how these men skillfully employ their traditional materiality: red robes, swords, daggers, clubs, beaded sandals and jewelry, as well as their own muscular bodies, so as to construct an extraordinary image, which they use to attract the attention of tourists and promote their businesses. Concomitantly, their use of modern material objects, such as mobile phones and stylish sunglasses, undermines their extraordinary image, making their presence mundane and even disturbing, to the extent of being accused by some Tanzanians and tourists of faking Maasai identity. We conclude by arguing that material objects and the ways in which they are used may define people as ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. Materiality therefore underlies a complex, dynamic, and ambiguous perception of the extraordinary in contemporary tourism.
... In order to be an attractive object of tourism and achieve a higher standard of living through this industry, a certain amount of primitivism has to be put on stage. 89 While sitting around the campfire with tourists, Maasai of the Mara area underline their distant but harmonious relationship with wildlife. In truth, their coexistence with wild animals is much more intimate and complex. ...
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Maasai beaded ornaments are generally understood as traditional artifacts, but are in fact the result of modern developments. This case study refutes widespread assumptions about Maasai beadwork, showing that modernity cannot be captured accurately by the narrative of binary oppositions it has produced. I describe how the very presence, but also many of the uses and designs of these artifacts are material expressions of the dynamic and complex interactions and relationships between people across continents in modern times. By establishing and reflecting on these connections, I argue that modernity should be approached as a stage in the ongoing, increasingly integrated, humanity-wide cultural dynamic on our earth. This insight takes us out of the impasse in the debate on how to approach the concept of modernity, giving a clear space to the singular concept while simultaneously acknowledging that a variety of modernities have come about as different peoples are influenced by, as well as contribute to, the wider cultural dynamic. Employed so often in daily and scientific sense-making, it is essential to further disentangle understandings of modernity from modernist thinking in simple and absolute dichotomies, and establish it as an emergent and interactive process with semi-permeable boundaries that includes opposing voices.
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The problem of false consciousness and its relationship to the social structure of tourist establishments is analyzed. Accounts of travelers are examined in terms of Erving Goffman's front versus back distinction. It is found that tourists try to enter back regions of the places they visit because these regions are associated with intimacy of relations and authenticity of experiences. It is also found that tourist settings are arrenged to produce the impression that a back region has been entered even when this is not the case. In tourist settings, between the front and the back there is a series of special spaces designed to accommodate tourists and to support their beliefs in the authenticity of their experiences. Goffman's front-back dichotomy is shown to be ideal poles of a continuum, or a variable.
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This paper examines the material and symbolic roles played by national parks in British colonial attempts to impose a particular way of seeing the landscape and to reshape African ways of being. The narrative concerns the history of the establishment of what was meant to be the first national park in British-ruled Africa, Serengeti. It is based almost exclusively on archival documents from the early years of the British mandate to the eve of Tanganyikan (now Tanzania) independence. It highlights and examines the tensions and contradictions which were produced in the recasting of Tanganyikan society and landscape. These tensions and contradictions intersected at Serengeti with the Africans resident there, particularly the Maasai, caught in their net. -from Author
This collection of papers by sociologists and anthropologists focuses on the effect of tourism on the maintenance, transformation, and re-creation of ethnic boundaries. Tourism is seen as a special form of ethnic relations, particularly that form of tourism in which the cultural exoticism of the host population is the principal attraction for the tourist. This type of tourism leads to the formation of three main roles: tourist, touree, and middleman. The authors address different aspects of the marketing of ethnicity, such as the role of the state in the development of ethnic tourism; the modification and recreation of ethnic attributes and consciousness as the result of tourism; the transformation of art forms through the tourist trade; the role of the tourist agent; and the formation of ethnic stereotypes in tourist interactions.RésuméIntroduction: le tourisme et l'ethnicité recréée. Un groupe de sociologues et d'ethnologues examine l'effet du tourisme sur le maintien, la transformation et la recréation des frontières ethniques. Ils considèrent le tourisme comme un cas spécial de rapports ethniques, en particulier cette forme de tourisme dans laquelle l'exotisme culturel de la population autochtone constitue la principale attraction touristique. Ce type tourisme produit trois rǒles principaux: touriste, “touree,” et intermédiaire. Les auteurs de cette collection d'articles se consacrent à différents aspects du “marché de l'ethnicité”, tels que le rǒle de l'état dans le dévelopment du tourisme ethnique; la modification et la re-création d'attributs et de la conscience ethniques en conséquence du tourisme; la transformation des formes artistques par le commerce touristique; le rǒle de l'agent de tourisme; et la formation de stéréotypes ethniques dans les interactions touristiques.
In this article, I analyze how the Maasai of Kenya are presented in three different tourist performances—postcolonial, postindependence, and postmodern. Each site tells a different story, an alternate version of history, with its own perspective on the role of ethnicity and heritage within the nation-state and in the world community. Using a method of controlled comparison, I expand the theoretical dialogue in tourism debates by departing from the monolithic discourse that has characterized so much of tourism scholarship, [ethnic tourism, Maasai, globalization, performance, authenticity, ethnography, media images]
Images of the Maasai and Zulu have served to represent alternative sides of the Other in popular depictions of Africa. The printing and marketing of collectable trade cards and stereographs at the end of the nineteenth century until the release of popular films and coffee-table books at the end of the twentieth century has ensured that this pattern of representation/misrepresentation of Maasai and Zulu culture continues to be taught and reinforced. Within the generalized categories of "exotic," "native," and "tribal," the Maasai are noble, the Zulu savage. That both groups are pastoralists, or that cattle play or have played a crucial role in their existence, is but a footnote or merely more evidence of a backward, uncivilized existence. This is further elaborated by examining some stereographs (stereoscopic slides) of Maasai and Zulu taken and published during the first years of the twentieth century, and the further manipulation of these images by the later addition of text panels, which bestow authority and reinforce the relationship between primitive and civilized, naked and clothed, dark and light.