What can be understood about Maasai tourism from a single photograph? (Final version)

In 2016 I went on a safari trip to Tanzania. My intentions were primarily to view the wildlife, but as part of the package we were taken for a visit to a Maasai village in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. I, like most tourists, took many photographs during my trip including this one below.

(1) Tourists attempt the Adumu jumping dance

Although at the time I listened with interest as our Maasai guide explained their way of life, I was unsure about just what the Maasai villagers got from this visit, and whether we – privileged westerners – were the only ones to benefit? I kept a diary during my trip and afterwards wrote “As much as they work to preserve their way of life – nomadic, living on only meat, milk and blood, polygamous – I do feel we are as tourists contributing to slowly eradicating that same way of life”. Typical western guilt perhaps, but just how much significance does tourism have on the Maasai people? Obviously a single photograph cannot answer this question, but it can help in illuminating the issues involved here.  David Clark describes how the arrival of photography as a documentary tool during the Victorian era helped to embed an idea of ownership in European eyes. He writes of how photography shaped the European views of the majority world, and that such images ‘led to the establishment of particular power relations between the collectors of such images and the places that were imaged ‘ (Clark,2009:17). Although this viewpoint has become less severe and more nuanced since then, it still remains to a certain extent in the tourist experience. This idea, often referred to as ‘Imagined or Imaginative Geography’, is one that Edward Said has also described in his book ‘Orientalism’. Although referring to Asia and the East rather than Africa, Said describes how 19th century Europe developed a fascination with the Orient as somewhere exotic, based initially on literature and later on in photography. Said says of the idea of ‘Oriental’ that this fascination be ‘wonderfully synonymous with the exotic, the mysterious, the profound, the seminal’ (Said,1978:51). Clark later quotes Adrian Evans of Panos Pictures saying that photojournalism in Africa often falls into two categories; Afro-pessimism and Afro-romanticism (Clark,2009,114). While Afro-pessimism is the default mode in images of famine and conflict, Afro-romanticism accurately describes most tourist promotional material, and helps to reinforce the idea of an African village as a sort of pastoral paradise.  

This photograph (1) was taken after the villagers had demonstrated the Adumu, the jumping dance that is a strong part of Maasai culture. After the performance, we were invited to have a go ourselves and this photo shows two of our tour party joining in. We had been separated into groups of men and women as only the men perform the Adumu. 

John Urry describes the tourist experience as “allowing one’s senses to engage with a set of stimuli that contrast with the everyday and the mundane” (Urry, 1990:2). This is especially apt in my case here; I had never previously been in a similar situation at any time in my life. Lutz and Collins, referring primarily to American tourists but in a phrase that applies just as well to all first world citizens, compare photographs with non-western people as both being “objects at which we look”(Lutz,J.C,s.d:134). It was obvious that this situation could not be described as cultural exchange; we, the visiting tourists, were the consumers and the villagers were the providers. We were the ones who were intended to experience and learn things; the Maasai were not interested in us or where we came from at all. Our primary tour guide had mentioned to us before our visit that he would go ahead and make payment to the village for our visit. He was reluctant to say just how much they received for our visit, but other tourist websites suggest prices can vary wildly depending on the relative popularity of each village. One Safari company (https://suricatasafaris.com/) suggests prices from $10 to $20 are common, but another blog post (https://www.kesitoandfro.com/) mentions prices up to $40. Regardless of the actual cost, it is clear from this anecdotal evidence that this provides vital income for each Maasai village.

Dorothy Hodgson has written about the problems faced by the Maasai in preserving their way of life in the face of pressure from national and local government to conform to economic liberalisation (Hodgson,2011). Maasai people inhabit much of the Great Rift Valley in East Africa, with a way of life based largely around cattle, and involving a semi-nomadic lifestyle moving cattle seasonally from place to place. From the 1970s onwards traditional Maasai range has suffered from land expropriation to support wildlife and game reserves, as well as other uses (e.g. military). Hodgson explains how Maasai activists during the 1990s and early 2000s began to align with the international indigenous people’s movement, and became active in the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Although this seemed initially to be a useful strategy, the movement itself was severely hampered by the reluctance of national governments (including Tanzania) to send representatives to the forum.  This reluctance is in part based on the premise that Maasai are not truly indigenous, being descended from incomers from the Horn of Africa several hundred years ago. This realisation that the UN forum was unlikely to lead to much change in the way Maasai concerns were dealt with by the Tanzanian government led others to move away from this approach and instead focus on setting up self-help non-governmental organisations to try and influence decisions from within the local political framework. Beginning with Korongoro Integrated People Oriented to Conservation (KIPOC, which also means “we shall recover” in the Maa language) in 1989, the number of Maasai-oriented NGOs grew to over a hundred by 2000 (Hodgson, 2011). Mittal and Fraser describe how creation of wildlife reserves in the mid-20th century has forced Maasai to leave traditional lands, including the entire Serengeti reserve. Subsequent sales of land to private corporations have further forced Maasai to leave their home range (Mittal, 2018:7). Although it is true that Maasai survive largely on a diet of milk, blood and meat, they have long relied on cultivation of subsistence plots for times when animal health or grazing access became problematic (Mittal, 2018:24). Wildlife tourism has become an important part of the Tanzanian economy, and has led to Maasai being forced from traditional lands such as the entire Serengeti Plain. In recent years sales of land to private companies such as Ortello Business Corporation have forced thousands of Maasai from their home villages (Mittal, 2018). A report for the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) says that these evictions “were in fact part of a larger government policy favouring the interests of private enterprises engaged in conservation, tourism and wildlife hunting” (Kipobota,2013:30). This, together with Hodgson’s analysis, is indicative of the pressure on the Maasai traditional way of life.    

Loss of land and other pressures to conform to political and economic concerns means tourism becomes an attractive option. Much Maasai tourism, including my own visit, is a display of traditional culture and life, but also a show, a performance just for tourists.  Edward Bruner, although discussing Maasai tourist experiences in Kenya rather than Tanzania, explores how the external view of the Maasai life is affected both by the presentation, and by the expectations of the tourist (2001). Bruner examines three different tourist locations to explore how the visitors’ experiences of Maasai life and culture are mediated in different ways each time. Bruner summarises this mediation by saying “Mayers presented the tourist image of the African primitive, Bomas presents the preservation of a disappearing Kenyan tradition, and the Sundowner an American pop-culture image of Africa”(Bruner,2001:897). In each case the Maasai people (along with representatives of other indigenous tribes at Bomas) are playing a role, a part for tourist consumption. It has only a limited connection to the reality of their existence. Bruner also mentions that at Sundowner the same Maasai man may at different times be a white-jacketed waiter or a warrior in traditional dress.

Bruner specifically discusses tourist locations in Kenya but I believe the points he makes are just as pertinent to Tanzania; Maasai traditional lands cross national boundaries, and the only real distinction between Serengeti and Maasai Mara wildlife reserves is the border between the two countries. During our visit I myself was unsure just how much of what we were seeing reflected the truth of their lives, but Bruner’s examination in Kenya suggest that my own experience was less mediated than those he visited. However it is still a performance, a quick sample of several hundred years of culture.

In the photograph (1) the Maasai villagers wear traditional costume. They present themselves in the way tourists expect. Sometimes the reality breaks through though, such as the watch on the wrist of the man on the left. This in itself is perhaps not surprising in this day and age, and does emphasise the idea that this is performance, and not necessarily a true representation of Maasai life. The Maasai guide told me that their outfits are often supplied from a warehouse in Arusha. The village itself though is very much not designed as a tourist destination, with almost nothing apart from a portaloo to cater for tourists. Another photograph (2) from my trip shows how construction has to make use of whatever materials are most suitable.

(2) A Maasai villager explains their housing

The tourists, or rather we tourists, also conform to the expected dress code. I, like most tourists on this trip, knew in advance that neutral colours were desirable for viewing wildlife. But even without that forewarning, western clothing often falls into these restrictions anyway – especially men’s clothing.

The photograph (1) of tourists joining in the Adumu does show as well how aspects of Maasai culture still remain. Although described as a dance to be performed at ceremonial occasions, the Adumu is in practice a competition, a test of strength and agility. The warrior who can jump the highest may not get anything more than bragging rights but it is still a competitive event. In the photograph the Maasai man taking part looks directly into the camera. He knows he is on show but shows confidence in his ability to jump the highest.  His expression also seems to be one of boredom, of resignation that he is being made to perform for tourists as a means of survival. Lutz and Collins, referring specifically to images printed in National Geographic, make the connection between the direct gaze into the camera in terms of a direct link between the photographer and the viewer. They say the returned gaze may be read as “the subject’s assent to being surveyed” (Lutz, J.C, s.d:139). Prior to this performance we were expressly given permission to take photographs but at the time I had no thought in my mind of what this man thought would happen to this photograph. Was I just a tourist, taking a souvenir to show my friends, or was I intending to publish this to a much wider audience? His expression gives no clue to his personal view of our licence to take photographs. In contrast the other Maasai are all looking at the jumpers, totally disinterested in being viewed by us. They seem keener to know who can jump the highest. Perhaps they are also satisfied that the honour does not go to a tourist?

What of those in our tour party taking part?  John Urry, referring to earlier work from Daniel J. Boorstin, says of tourists “Isolated from the host environment and the local people, the mass tourist travels in guided groups and finds pleasure in inauthentic contrived attractions” (Urry, 1990:7). Boorstin coined the term ‘pseudo-events’ to describe this contrivance, and although he was more referring to a kind of Disneyfied American tourism, there are still parallels here. All men in our group were invited to try, I included, and many of us took the opportunity. Would we have done so in different circumstances? In my case probably not; the circumstances were so different to my own normal life that I did feel a kind of liberation, a license to go further than I would do at home. The two tourists in the photograph do not look like competitors. Their expressions suggest – like me – that this is something to try solely to be able to remember and talk about later. Participating in this manner told us nothing extra about these people or their lives but became just a souvenir, a story to be told on our return home.

Given all the external pressures on the Maasai, direct or indirect earnings from tourism provide a lifeline. One village in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area reported that over a quarter of the adult inhabitants supplied vegetables to the nearby tourist lodge (Coast, 2002:19). Many may also have jobs outside of the traditional pastoral role, often directly or indirectly linked to the tourism industry. I wrote in my diary after my visit of my guilt at the affect my visit would have on Maasai, but I now realise that it is a question without a straightforward yes or no answer. My visit was also helping them to survive at all; what we encountered may have been a ‘pseudo-event’, but also a demonstration of cultural pride for the Maasai as well as a means of economic survival. However there are still dangers in this type of performance. Bruner cites as example the effect of tourism on Bali, saying that “performances originally created for tourism have subsequently entered Balinese rituals” (Bruner, 2001:897). Tourism unchecked can alter the subjects being visited so that distinctions between custom and pure performance become blurred.


Clark, D. J. (2009) Representing the MAJORITY WORLD famine, photojournalism and the Changing Visual Economy. Durham University.

Said, E. W. (1978) Orientalism.: Vintage.

Urry, J. (1990) The Tourist Gaze: Leisure and Travel in Contemporary Societies (Published in Association with Theory, Culture & Society). (First ed. edition) (s.l.): SAGE Publications Ltd.

Catherine Lutz, J. C. (s.d.) ‘The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes: The Example of National Geographic’ At: https://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/oca-content/key-resources/res-files/nationalgeographic_gaze.pdf

Hodgson, D. L. (2011) Being Maasai, Becoming Indigenous: Postcolonial Politics in a Neoliberal World. (Illustrated Edition) (s.l.): Indiana University Press.

Anuradha Mittal, E. F. (2018) ‘Losing The Serengeti’ At: https://www.oaklandinstitute.org/sites/oaklandinstitute.org/files/losing-the-serengeti.pdf

Bruner, E. M. (2001) ‘The Maasai and the Lion King: Authenticity, Nationalism, and Globalization in African Tourism’ In: American ethnologist 28 (4) pp.881–908.

Kipobota, A. C. (2013) REPORT ON THE STATE OF PASTORALISTS’ HUMAN RIGHTS IN TANZANIA: SURVEY OF TEN DISTRICTS OF TANZANIA MAINLAND 2010/2011. Directed by Kipobota, A.C. (s.l.): Parakuiyo Pastoralists Indigenous Community Development Organisation. At: https://www.iwgia.org/en/resources/publications/305-books/3115-report-on-the-state-of-pastoralistshuman-rights-in-tanzania-.html

Coast, E. (2002) ‘Maasai socio-economic conditions: cross-border comparison’ In: LSE Research Online At: https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/92477.pdf

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