POSTCARD: The Made-for-TV Tribe

ARUSHA, Tanzania—The Maasai woman shoved three beaded bracelets in my face, “sister, look at my bracelets. Good price, good price.” When she saw me looking at her instead of at the jewelry, at her red cloak, shaved head and brightly colored hoop necklace, she changed her pitch. “1000 for a bracelet and a picture, sister, 1000. Take a picture with me.”

The Maasai are a Tanzanian tribe noted for their steadfast adherence to their traditions. Men are easily identified by the purple and red cloaked attire and their wooden walking sticks; the women often also wear cloaks, have bare heads and wear dangly beaded-and-spangled earrings from a piercing at the top of their ear. Most still live in simple huts or houses and herd cattle for a living. Many Maasai choose this low-cost lifestyle consciously, not because of a lack of money. Upon seeing a teenaged Maasai drive an average-sized herd of around 20 cattle across a rural highway, I asked a local friend how much one of the cows was worth. He estimated 400,000 Shillings, or $266; the average annual income in Tanzania is $564. When I visited a top gynecological clinic in Arusha, over half the clientele were Maasai women.

The contrast between the Maasai’s wealth and lifestyle has made them a locus for outside attention. A majority of tourist paintings, postcards, and other souvenirs feature images of Maasai, even though they make up only 1.3 percent of the national population. One could argue that all this external attention is excessive at best and patronizing at worst. Of course “wazungu,” as foreigners are called here, would be obsessed with a Tanzanian ethnic group that fits their superficial stereotype of the backward, tribal African. When I first came here I felt bad that the Maasai were subject to such insidious curiosity about why they chose to live in a decidedly “unmodern” way.

However, rather than make efforts to nuance foreigners’ views, the Maasai seem to encourage simplification. The jewelry-selling woman was the first of many Maasai to approach me offering a picture for money. In fact, if you point a camera vaguely in the direction of a Maasai on the Northern safari circuit they are sure to reach out their hand and ask for a tip—even the young children. Additionally, nearly every hostel and tourist office has a brochure advertising “Maasai Camp.” For around $100 a day you can, “sleep in a traditional dwelling!” “participate in a traditional ceremony!” and “get your perfect picture!” To me, it would be as if I asked for five bucks every time a tourist snapped a picture of me hurrying to class in the Science Center, or if we Harvard students organized exorbitantly expensive tours of our habitat—“sleep in Lamont!” “participate in a problem-set session!” “get a picture with a dean!”

In marketing themselves as nothing more than a stereotype, the Maasai are setting back efforts to make foreigners understand that the way of life here is so much more than what gets shown on National Geographic. Each tourist that comes to Tanzania is an opportunity to expand conceptions of who Africans are, but if they are spoon-fed back their preconceived notions they will never see the difference between product and person.

Anita J. Joseph ’12, a Crimson associate editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator in Leverett House.