The Masai: a cultural experience
The Masai are a proud people. Historically they have lived in what is now south western Kenya and northern Tanzania, regions that include the world famous Masai Mara and Serengeti ecosystems. For centuries (around 400 years) they have lived in close quarters with the wildlife of these plains, raising their cattle and defending them from predators. Many of the Masai now play a role in wildlife tourism and management in these two iconic area's of Africa particularly as wonderful safari guides. ( I have been astonished on several occasions at their ability to find animals, including one occasion when our guide spotted a couple of lions under a tree on the opposite side of a valley. They were only barely visible even with binoculars.) The Masai guides are a friendly bunch with plenty of local knowledge and they certainly contribute a great deal to the success and enjoyment of a Masai Mara safari.
I took the cultural opportunity to do a Masai village visit during my safari in September 2013. On arrival at the village we were greeted by the Chief's son (above), a striking and dignified young man with a well spoken manner. He gave us a tour of the village and a description of village life and traditions while seated inside the dark and smoky interior of one of the traditional village dwellings. Of course there was also the famous Masai dance and the opportunity to purchase local crafts and beadwork.
I am not by nature a culture or people photographer so it was a bit of a different photographic experience for me. I kept things simple and uncluttered and used just my Canon 40mm f2.8 'pancake' lens which is an outstandingly small, cheap and yet high quality prime lens perfect for this type of shoot.
Looking at the experience through privileged western eyes, I wasn't entirely sure how to feel about it. Although the Masai are undoubtedly rightly proud of their culture and seemed a happy lot I couldn't help wondering if going to their village and being a guest in one of their simple cow dung and mud homes wasn't slightly voyeuristic. It would have been nicer to see more signs of the tourism industry having an impact on the material wealth and living standards of the local Masai people.
Of course this one village is not the whole story. It was clear that the children were getting an education (we saw a few in school uniforms walking home) and there are other Masai who choose or a financially able to live in more western style houses. I believe that many Masai prefer and keep their traditional lifestyle even when given opportunities by the Kenyan government to adopt a more 'western' style of life and housing and I guess that is something that must be respected as long as they have access to good health care and education. The traditional lifestyle does come into conflict with 'modern' issues at times, particularly in relation to their cattle herding and how this affects the national park fringe area's, but on the whole I got the impression that it was manageable.
In the end, as a tourist who gets but a fleeting glimpse of local life I have to take it at face value and accept the sentiment expressed by the chief's son that he was happy we were there and could teach us about his culture.