5 things to know before you book your Maasai cultural tourism experience

Jun 18, 2020
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Encircle East Africa

5 things to know before you book your Maasai cultural tourism experience

These days there are so many options to choose from if you want to visit a Maasai village. Perhaps you have booked a safari to Tanzania or Kenya and have been offered an optional day out in a nearby Maasai village. Or maybe you are a traveller who likes to get off the beaten track, and a cultural tourism experience is central to your travel itinerary. Whatever your motivation or way of reaching a Maasai village, there are some common elements to a great experience.

Here are my thoughts on 5 things to look out for:

1.You are actually visiting a Maasai village

Okay, this sounds basic, but it’s a real thing! Brand “Maasai” attracts a lot more tourists and dollars than many other cultural groups. Unfortunately, this means some cultural tourism experiences stretch the truth in terms of “Maasai” authenticity. This can mean having a guide who dresses as Maasai but isn’t, or that you are visiting a similar cultural group that passes itself off as traditional Maasai. Don’t assume that your travel agent or their connections will be able to distinguish this – if this is important to you, do your own research. Often these villages are closer to the city, may still be enjoyable to visit, but are not authentically Maasai and would not be considered such to a traditional Maasai. On the surface, perhaps there is not too much harm in this – you might meet great people and have a wonderful time. However, as Maasai people struggle with their sustaining their traditional livelihoods, cultural tourism can bring enormous benefits. Having other villages promoting themselves as Maasai not only potentially rips the visitor off, it also prevents your dollars flowing to and benefiting real Maasai villages.

2.The community is prepared for your visit

How many times I have I seen a safari vehicle arrive at a Maasai village with a group of visitors, hastily chasing down their local Maasai “connection”, who hastily arranges a visit to their family boma (homestead), rounds up the family members to sing and dance and whizzes you on your way the next day. This might not sound so bad. It might even work for you. But visits at short notice can disrupt everyday life and as a result the local people might be a bit half-hearted about your visit. Yes, we’ll sing and dance if you pay us… but do we really want to? Are we thinking about the cattle we would prefer to be rounding up? If you want to experience true Maasai hospitality, a little preparation behind the scenes goes a long way. Choosing a village that has a local tourism program does not necessarily mean less authenticity. It’s more likely to mean the locals are prepared and personally invested in your visit and that’s a win-win situation for you.

3.You have a chance to see normal, everyday Maasai activity

The best cultural tourism experiences will mean that you are immersed in normal, everyday village life and get to interact with the local people naturally. Perhaps there’s a Maasai warrior walking a herd of cattle alongside you to greet. Or women with donkeys going to fetch water or sitting in a circle making jewellery. This kind of unstated activity feels the most authentic. Some cultural tourism experiences use a “staged” cultural boma that’s only used for tourists, with extremely “staged” dancing and singing and limited natural interaction with the local people. Depending on what you are looking for in your experience, this might meet your needs. It may even be spectacular. But if you desire ‘normality’ in your experience, a village with a very staged program for tourists might not be for you.

4.There are small creature comforts available…

Like a toilet, filtered water or a seat in the shade… Let’s face it – Maasai people may love their mobile phones but their everyday existence would be a challenge even for the keenest outdoor traveller. You may like the idea of being off the beaten track, but that doesn’t mean you want the full Bear Grills experience. Having access to these creature comforts means you can enjoy yourself without being distracted by basic needs. If a Maasai community has an established tourism program they will likely have these small creature comforts available or be aware of your need for them. Please, do not take these aspects of your trip for granted – check that they have been considered in your visit.

5.The benefits of your visit flow to the local community

So, you might be paying top dollar for your Maasai cultural tourism experience, but who is benefiting? Research shows that Maasai communities in Northern Tanzania are more disadvantaged than any other rural group. The Maasai people may put on a happy face and appear serene, but 85% of households face severe food insecurity. Your visit could potentially mean more food on the table for a family, or education for a child. As a rule of thumb, transport to villages can be extremely costly and this will absorb a lot of your payment. Look out for experiences that hire local people and pay a benefit to the local village. Many villages will charge a village fee to tourists. Don’t resent this – it’s a small price to pay for ensuring a contribution flows to the local people. A good tour operator will ensure this payment goes smoothly and you may even be unaware. Be prepared to spend money locally, such as buying jewellery or paying for additional activities.

My recommendation: my partner not-for-profit Future Warriors Project manages a diverse range of authentic tourism experiences in Northern Tanzania and has invested thousands of dollars in building the capacity of local communities to work with visitors. Visit www.maasaiculturalexperience.com or www.encircleeastafrica.com.au for more information.
If you want to know more chat with met at sianga@encircleeastafrica.com.au

Sianga Kuyan is a traditional Maasai from Northern Tanzania and the Managing Director of Encircle East Africa.

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