A Close-Up Look At What Happens When Tourists And Maasai Communities Meet
Vanessa Wijngaarden, 13 Oct 17

Filming of Maasai and tourist interactions. Vanessa Wijngaarden, Author provided

My study of interaction between tourists and a Maasai community raised questions about the boundaries between research, tourism and entertainment. For one thing, the local Maasai generally classify overseas visitors, whether researchers, NGO workers, businessmen or tourists, in the same category. I also found that cross-cultural interactions don’t always help to break down stereotypes.

The study was part of a year of fieldwork with Maasai engaged in a small, locally owned ecotourism project in Northern Tanzania. The project provides camel safaris for tourists.

The mainly European and American tourists also visit a Maasai homestead as part of the safari. Because tourists are scarce in this area and it is difficult to provide advance notice of a visit, local people are normally caught by surprise when a group of visitors walks into their village. The tourists typically stay for 20 minutes to an hour, looking at the cattle corral and at people’s houses.

My research provides a detailed description of “Maasai” and “tourist” views of each other, and how these views are influenced as a result of their encounters. It shows how and why ideas about “the other” persist even if they do not match people’s experiences.

The conclusions of my research led me to direct a short film – “Eliamani’s Homestead”. The film illustrates some of my most important findings on host-guest encounters. Viewers follow the experience of a group of Dutch tourists visiting a young mother, Eliamani, and her family. Four languages – Maa, Swahili, Dutch and English – are spoken, and all conversations are subtitled.

Paolo Ngulupa, research assistant who cooperated with the transcription and translation processes. Vanessa Wijngaarden, Author provided

Parallel fears

Why do these encounters happen, anyway? Tourists say they visit Maasailand because they are interested in cultural difference. The Kenyan and Tanzanian Maasai primarily engage in tourism as a result of the economic difference between them and the visitors, and they supplement their income by selling safaris and artefacts.

Their incentives and their fears when interacting are intimately connected and there are some striking parallels.

The Maasai and tourists fear being viewed as naive or ignorant by the other party. They fear being exploited. Both sides exaggerate the profit the other makes in the encounter. Maasai overestimate how much money tourists could make from taking photographs. Tourists blow out of proportion the value their money has in Maasailand.

Both sides fear that the other is acting purely out of narrow self-interest. Tourists worry that Maasai engage with them only to sell beads and Maasai worry that tourists’ only desire is to take pictures. Each side wonders if the other’s apparent friendliness is fake.

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