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The Impact of Tourism in the Masai Mara Game Reserve

Dissertation Research – the impact of tourism in the Masai Mara Game Reserve
The Maasai people in Southern Kenya and Tanzania are one of the most well-known icons of Africa. Pick up any travel guidebook on the continent and you are bound to find photos of Maasai dancing as ‘warriors’ and scenes of traditional villagers wearing colourful shawls, beaded jewellery and hooped earrings. The Maasai have become so popular to tourists that they are now almost considered a ‘must-see’ as much as the ‘Big Five’ game wildlife on any East African safari holiday.

On a lengthy trip from Nairobi to Cape Town I completed in my gap year, I visited a Maasai village for a brief tour. I vowed to go back to undertake research for my degree dissertation (I’m a final year Geography student at Jesus College, Oxford University) and delve further behind the tourist images.

I am very grateful to ISA for helping to fund my dissertation research project this summer. I organised a month-long trip and lived alone in a remote Maasai village. I wanted to get a better insight of the impact that tourism is having on traditional communities and assess to what degree contact with international tourists strengthens the Maasai identity or weakens it. Do the Maasai play up to tourist expectations of their ‘warrior’ culture and embrace it? I also wanted to assess how digital technology is being adopted by the Maasai? What is the potential impact of the take-up of mobile phones, internet banking and social media? Could it threaten and gradually erode the strength of their cultural identity and traditional ways of life? To what degree is the Maasai culture changing?

I undertook three and half weeks of ethnographic research by living with a traditional community in a village called Olikiombo in the Masai Mara Game Reserve in Kenya (see map above). I accompanied this with a set of interviews undertaken with large charitable foundation, Basecamp, that works to improve the benefits of tourism for Maasai communities. For these interviews I visited three of their projects, including two eco-tourist hotels and the Koiyaki Guiding School where the foundation teaches Maasai the necessary skills to obtain safari guiding qualifications. These interviews proved really enlightening in illustrating the wider economic issues at hand, and moves being made towards sharing the proceeds of tourism more equitably.

The ethnographic period of my research was a real challenge. I lived alone in the Olikiombo village and even more than I had imagined when planning the trip, the language and cultural barriers were immense. Among the women female genital mutilation is the norm. But being so immersed provided me with endless opportunities to gain greater insights into the lifestyles of Maasai communities which practise a shifting form of subsistence herding, known as nomadic pastoralism.

I had arranged to stay in a tent next to the ‘chairman’s’ (village chief’s) house, and was involved daily in chores such as collecting water, milking cows, and greeting tourists that came to visit the village. I followed different individuals on their daily activities. My first day I spent with a professional herder called Kippilosh. Unbeknown to me the day involved walking through the nearby Game Reserve, including crowds of wildebeest and zebra, directing cows towards areas of lush pasture. Kippilosh, upon recognising my slight bewilderment, handed me a long wooden stick and demonstrated the different ways to get cows to move on. Unsurprisingly over three or so weeks my herding skills progressed! Other days included collecting water and firewood with the women from the village, making beaded necklaces and bracelets for tourists, and going to the local church. Tourists came to the village twice a day, and I interviewed them. I also interviewed the tour guides and drivers who often joined the tourists touring the village and in the dances with the Maasai group I was staying with. In this way I was able to collect the diverse views of tourists, tourist guides and the range of Maasai individuals within the community, and consider the impact of tourism within the everyday lives of different individuals.

Interviews with the Basecamp foundation helped me to contextualise my findings also with regard to wider economic and social issues. In particular I spoke extensively with the students at the Koiyaki Guiding School about their aspirations, and the opportunities that projects such as the guiding school had opened up for them. This illustrated both the wider potential benefit that tourism can bring these communities through investment in schooling and health care and also in providing employment. A number of issues face those within the school, and especially limit the potential of such projects in transforming local communities however. In particular I identified the difficulty in obtaining the funding to undertake such schooling, the fierce competition for places, and difficulty of finding female applicants given low levels of female students as key barriers to wider involvement in such schemes.

My dissertation, as a result of my research, argues that rather than looking at tourism as ‘diluting’ Maasai culture or ‘straightjacketing’ Maasai participants into acting a certain way ( as a number of academics argue) we should investigate ways in which tourism can be of benefit to local communities. Holding Maasai communities back in order to ‘preserve’ their culture, is inequitable and relies on unrealistic notions of what Maasai culture should be. My conclusion is that we must be aware of the complexities of cultural tourism. Some groups benefit more than others; for example women must sell beads in order to gain any income, whilst men are paid standardised wages. It is too simplistic to uniformly celebrate or deride tourism. We should let Maasai communities consider and choose for themselves the ways in which they interact with tourists. And, where possible, help inform that choice and promote the opportunities for Maasai to be involved.
There are other pressures and opportunities too. Digital technology and the use of smart phones has been spreading rapidly over the last few years across East Africa. In Olikiombo two or three villagers had mobile phones which I noticed they hid while tourists visited. But the same villagers once the tourists had left readily made use of text messaging to alert local communities where the best pasture could be found for their cow herds. They had heard of Facebook, but in the main were unfamiliar with it. I found it difficult to predict if and how social media would be embraced and the new mobile phone banking which is now becoming quite commonplace in less remote areas in Kenya.

I am incredibly thankful to those who helped me with my research and in particular the ISA for making my research study possible. I am also greatly indebted to Maasai community, Basecamp and those who live in the Olikiombo village who showed me such kindness and so patiently answered my endless questions.


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This project [building a youth centre in Romania] has taught me numerous skills and knowledge, from the best way to get bent nails out of wood to exactly how buildings do stand up. I has been a great summer, despite the aching muscles, constant muddiness and queues for the shower and I can’t wait to go back out next summer and do it all again.

Emma Bush, Edinburgh University, 2006

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