Respectful Tourists Among the Maasai

10.05.2003 Nairobi, Kenya > These were American tourists with a difference. They defied their government and president, who had advised them against touring Kenya, to visit the country's wildlife parks and interact with communities who live next to the vast Maasai Mara National Reserve and Amboseli National Park. I met them in Amboseli , where they had come to hear first hand from the community their harrowing tales of the damage done by human-wildlife conflict. They witnessed heartrending scenes of misery amid comfort, deprivation amid opulence. But did it dawn on some of them that much of the suffering emanates from Kenya's attempt to please tourists at the expense of its citizens? "This was nothing like I have ever seen" said Diana Pearce, a lecturer in the School of Social Work in the University of Washington. ''Why is this allowed to go on?" many of the American visitors kept asking, especially upon learning of the amount of money that changes hands between tourists, hoteliers and the Kenya Wildlife Service'', writes John Mbaria. In an area where billions of shillings change hands every year, the fly-infested children were a sorry sight, as were the emaciated women who had traversed the plains barefoot, with babies strapped to their backs. Once again, as they shook their heads over the "poverty" of the people, did it occur to them to ask whether these people were actually poor, in the light of the large herds of livestock, the beautiful scenery, the rich diversity of wildlife, the open air things people in rich societies read about in nature magazines? In the minds of the Americans and probably in the minds of most in the community itself poverty is rampant in Amboseli. "Why is this allowed to go on?" many of the American visitors kept asking, especially upon learning of the amount of money that changes hands between tourists, hoteliers and the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). I had come along to report on the visit feeling somewhat cynical about the much-touted concept of cultural tourism (or tourism with respect). I accompanied the Americans on a nature walk between Serena Hotel and Kitilwa Village. Along the way, they kept asking the usual tourist questions while the ever-eager Maasai guides some unable to communicate in anything else apart from the musical Maa language provided more answers than the Americans had bargained for, including unsolicited explanations of the medical value of the many plants we came across. This was turning out to be a bore. However, listening to the exclamations, the eagerness and later the generous cash contributions, I realised that this was a different species of tourists. They were obviously respectful and were genuine in their interest. They visited a defunct water project in Kitilwa. Dug by hand, the 20-foot deep well had become useless after its walls caved in during the last heavy rain. The locals had resorted to walking long distances into Amboseli to draw water. This, they explained, had exposed them to the daily danger of being mauled by wildlife. But where are the much-talked-about KWS water projects for the community? No one volunteered a convincing answer. Despite this, the Americans made it their cause and later conducted an impromptu fundraising that raised $6,000 for the well's rehabilitation. The tourists went on to visit Meshanani School, which is an imitation of what a school ought to be. The walls of weather-beaten wood sported gaping holes. The pupils' torsos were covered by a thin film of the ubiquitous white Amboseli dust while the ever-present flies had caused trachoma in some. School head F. Wambua told us that the school did not have basic equipment and the children found it difficult to concentrate owing to the commotion created by the hundreds of vans going through the Meshanani gate, 400 metres away. When I talked to Mwalimu Kakuyo ole Tulitu, the chairman of the school, he started by expressing regret that though the locals called him Mwalimu, he had never had the opportunity to get much formal education. But he was among the few who expressed pride in local achievement. "There was no school here until I brought together a number of parents who agreed to contribute in cash and kind towards the construction of a school," he said. I also saw a hint of pride in the way the children danced to the tune of a traditional song. It was a fast-paced dance, but their pace slackened when it came to singing the popular gospel tune; nitamwimbia bwana, kwa kuwa yeye Ameniona (I will sing for the Lord, for he has remembered me). I was left wondering which Bwana the children were referring to; the Almighty or the Americans who had contributed so generously to the school? It was obvious to me that the morans (warriors), who did their now hackneyed spring-like leaps, were not doing it for any bwana. There was obvious enjoyment and pride in being able to leap so high and dance with such vigour. This so enthralled one of the younger American tourists that he joined in. To the amazement of all, the young man proved almost as agile as the morans and did some impressive leaps before he gave up, breathless. Moments later, it was the turn of the Maasai to be entertained. Meitamei ole Dapash, the chief executive officer of the Maasai Environmental Resource Coalition (MERC) who had organised the trip together with the President of Wildland Adventures, Kurt Kutay invited the visiting tourists to entertain the Maasai. At first the Americans were unsure of what song or dance would appeal to their hosts. It took them a brief consultation before they selected one which they sang while dancing around a circle. I could see obvious surprise written on the faces of villagers. But I also saw contemptuous smiles among the morans at the feebleness of the dance. The tourists were later invited to purchase curios directly from the community, in contrast to the usual practice where tourists either buy from the hotels or visit Maasai cultural manyattas (homesteads) chaperoned by protective drivers-cum-tour guides. The latter first demand cash from the tourists as "gate charges" for the manyattas (which they pocket). And when the purchasing is done, the guides demand a handsome commission from the owners of the manyatta. Seeing how well the community had organised this rare encounter with real dollars, it occurred to me that those who believe the Maasai cannot make good businessmen would have changed their minds had they been there that day. The curios all had the prices neatly labelled and the tourists were given a chance to make up their minds on what to buy without being harassed. Whenever a tourist settled on a certain item, he beckoned the owner, who came forward to collect the cash. By the end of it all, some of the traders boasted of having made Ksh10,000 ($128), a rare thing in a country where entire families live on less than a dollar a day.