The Masai

We're driving along having left the Serengeti and are heading for Ngorongoro. Our driver stops so he can talk two Masai 'friends'. They talk and then our driver wants to know if we want to take a photo of the Masai standing next to a camel.

A camel! What is a camel doing in Sub-Saharan Africa? And why is it with two Masai? A people famous for cattle.

Some history.

The Masai: the single most well known ethnic group in Africa. The started out in the lower Nile and made their way south. Eventually evicting or assimilating other ethnic groups already living there. They claimed the rift valley, the shores of Tanganyika all the way to Mombasa as their lands.

They were famous/feared for stealing cattle.

A Maasai religious belief relates that God gave them all the cattle on earth, leading to the belief that rustling cattle from other tribes is a matter of taking back what is rightfully theirs, a practice that has become much less common. [Wikipedia]

Then the British came. They were evicted and their lands given to settlers. When Kenya and Tanzania achieved independence from the Empire it was different ethnic groups that took power.

The Masai were left with pastoral lands that were also national parks. So they were kicked out of grazing there cattle there. So they grew corn. That was banned. They needed food as they didn't have enough space for grazing and were not allowed to grow any food. So they sold what they had left: cattle and traditional medicines.

Nearly twenty years later the ban on growing food was rescinded. Although only today did I read that some 40,000 Masai are going to be evicted from 1,500 km2 of they lands so more rich pricks can shoot animals. The Guardian

Now the Masai grow food, graze cattle and sell their culture. Visit the Masai, take your photo with the freshly circumcised child. You can see the young boys and girls dressed in black with faces painted.

I refuse to take such photos lest it reinforce such barbaric practices. I usually refuse to take photos of people dressed in traditional attire, etc because people shouldn't be forced into selling the last vestiges of their culture.

So when an opportunity comes along to support a person in a non barbaric way, after much hardship over the past century, I reject it because it's not authentic.

I'm such a jerk.

Authenticity is arbitrary. Why don’t I take a picture of a Masai at a coffeeshop sipping an espresso? Is it because that wouldn’t be an interesting shot? Not sufficiently ‘Africa’?

The mental images/cages we create for other cultures, like the Masai, were formed when they first encountered colonialists. We then lock them into their place. Anything outside this isn’t Masai; isn’t traditional.

We lock them into how we want see them. But we won’t let keep their existing economic model or their land. So they’re left needing money and limited ways of making. Except for selling their culture of course. We let them do that, it’s keeps them right where we want them.

when: Friday, November 21, 2014