Opinion

Strong, unique, majestic: The mystery of the Maasai unveiled

Scrupulous young men and women from other ethnic groups plagiarise Maasai culture and dress to woo tourists, especially middle-aged white rich women

Dr Damaris Parsitau

A traveller departing from the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport is met by billboards and all manner of business adverts, including Kenya Airways and Safaricom Kenya Ltd, welcoming or bidding goodbye to travellers.

Many of these billboards bear images of a tall Maasai man, majestically standing on one leg, dressed in his famous red Maasai blanket and holding a long spear and brushing his insanely white teeth.

Others depict a group of Maasai warriors roaming the majestic savannahs with their long spears and clubs, past a pride of lions and other wild animals in the Maasai Mara that has been christened the 9th wonder of the world.

Safaricom adverts, on the other hand, depict a Maasai man in the deep savannahs talking on his phone and walking past a pride of sleepy lions while herding his cattle. Many coffee table magazines at airports and famous tourist hotel lounges are filled with glossy images depicting the Maasai people. All the while, these establishments sell some form of Maasai souvenirs in their lobbies: From beads and blankets to artefacts and many other products.

Many also decorate their hotel lobbies with pictures of these majestic men standing tall in their pride and dignity and happily wearing their culture and traditions well. Women are equally depicted wearing their trademark cultural dresses with heavy but colourful beads that adorn their long necks, arms and ankles.

Everyone knows the Maasai, writes Thomas Spear in his book Becoming Maasai. If Princess Diana was the most photographed person in the world, then the Maasai are one of the most written about ethnic groups in Africa. There are perhaps thousands of historical and anthropological literature, commentaries and many other ethnographic entries about this proud people who have come to represent a vanishing African world.

Many of these writings were carried out by colonial and missionary explorers. Many are great works but others are exaggerated. In fact, the Maasai have not only been written about as the other, but also as the extreme others.  Their culture, traditions, spirituality, diet, lifestyles, health, livelihoods and social, cultural and political institutions have been heavily researched.

The Maasai people of Kenya and Tanzania embody one of the most powerful, unique and distinct cultures and cultural expressions of a fast-disappearing tribal world. Consequently, the Maasai are known globally as the pristine and cultural representation of exotic or “tribal” Africa.

These tall, proud and distinctively dressed people are livestock keepers, although many have in the recent past embraced agriculture and commerce as a source of livelihood. Cattle remain not just important to the Maasai people — they serve a social, cultural and spiritual purpose, besides being the main source of livelihood for many.  The Maasai people’s relationship with cows is one that I lack words to describe because Maasai men love cows more than anything else in the world. They also represent a marker and signifier of wealth, social prestige and honour. A Maasai man without a herd of cows is considered extremely poor and vulnerable.

For years, the Maasai people have stubbornly clung to their culture and traditions, rejecting outside influence and fighting for their cultural preservation and dignity. They have their own independent ways of thinking guided by strong social, cultural and spiritual values. Kinship ties remain important for this nomadic people.

But this is no longer the case.

Yet their culture and traditions have been heavily misappropriated, both globally and locally, often without their knowledge and permission. Their photos, traditions, manner of dressing, beadwork, arts and many others have been used without their express permission or even knowledge. Their designs and styles have been used without compensation, while their cultures and traditions are appropriated by others, including leading international brands.

Locally, the Kenyan government, particularly the Ministry of Tourism — as well as local small business — all appropriate Maasai culture and traditions without any form of compensation to this people. Maasai people are in and of themselves a tourist attraction to Kenya as much as the world renowned Maasai Mara, the Serengeti and the Amboseli national parks. I have had tourists speak of the Maasai people as the highlight of their visit to Kenya.

While the total number of the Maasai people is estimated to be about a million, there are hundreds of people who claim Maasai identity and culture. Scrupulous young men and women from other ethnic groups plagiarise Maasai culture and dress to woo tourists, especially middle-aged white rich women who are increasingly using money and white privilege in sex tourism to savour younger Maasai and Samburu men.

Such women come here to have sex with “exotic savages” because they are looking for not just a sexual experience, but one with the majestic Maasai men who are fetishly thought to be “pros” in bedroom matters.

Non-Maasai women have also appropriated Maasai culture and dress to make money by pretending to be Maasai women working to save other Maasai women from their savage culture in the booming NGO and human rights marketplace. Increasingly, many are rescuing girls from early marriage and FGM.  This growing phenomenon, throughout Maasailand, is the growing cabal of ethno-plagiarists who have no qualms pirating and raking in money and flourishing in business by engaging in the misappropriation of Maasai culture for profit at the expense of Maasai people. This total and condescending disregard for intellectual property rights, business ethics, and human decorum is unacceptable and must be resisted by all Maasai people and their leadership.

Part II coming up soon: Why does everybody say they are Maasai?

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