Anyone for cultural tourism?

by zunguzungu

I mean, of course, the tourist industry that serves those whose desire is not merely to shoot animals (with gun or camera) but to travel into remote zones of pristine, unspoiled cultural practice and experience the heck out of them. The theory, so it goes, is that this is beneficial to the practitioners of such raw, unadulterated culture: tribal groups who, in the parlance of our times, are “underserved” and “underdeveloped” can market their tribalness to tourists out for an experience of life in the underdeveloped world, and thereby get money for schools, roads, drought relief, etc. And the demand is definitely there; tourists have always liked the Maasai, for example, to the extent that in the strange subculture of Teddy Roosevelt / Ernest Hemingway tourism, the “big five” of animals that are difficult to shoot or something (I’m cultivating a lofty ignorance here) has expanded to include the Maasai and become the big six. Presumably they don’t actually shoot the maasai, though again the lofty ignorance allows me to suspect otherwise.

Why the Maasai? People point to the Maasai as a people who have somehow managed to remain culturally unchanged by the ravages of the modern world, who have somehow managing to live on the boma without losing their old ways. This is an attractive thing to shoot (with your camera). But its very easy to romanticize a much more complicated situation: the Maasai have struggled (like the Japanese have done quite successfully, for example) to embrace modernity on their own terms, to determine how and where they will adapt and where they will not, and by doing so, have managed to maintain a certain amount of cultural coherance. But the idea that the Maasai live a traditional way of life is plainly false. In Arusha for example, you see around a billion maasai marching around taking part in the very non-“traditional” economy in all kinds of ways. They still wear their traditional maasai gear (tartan blankets, maasai knife, beads, etc) and most will return to the boma whenever they get a chance, but large masses of them do not make their living simply by keeping cattle, as they supposedly did since misty time immemorial, etc. What is interesting about this, however, is that the Maasai have found ways of being “modern” that allow them to be “traditional.” Any anthropologist will tell you that cows are the central fact of traditional maasai life, but if getting cows requires you learn English and move to Arusha to work as a gate guard in a chinese restaurant, or selling masaai trinkets to tourists, or being a tour guide, is such a person traditional? And if so, what the heck does traditional really mean, anyway?

For example, what about that tartan the maasai “traditionally” wear? What about those beads? If the central fact of the Maasai economy is cows, shouldn’t they be wearing leather? Well, I’m glad you asked, because before the colonialists came, they did. But it was precisely a Maasai willingness to adapt that allowed them to integrate the tartans they traded for and the beads they traded for into a new conception of what it meant to be kimaasai (all of which originates in trading ports in Dubai, by the way; I wonder who the first Maasai was that decided he liked the way they set off his eyes). And now, no Maasai is complete without them, even if there’s nothing especially primeval or unspoiled about such cultural practice. But why does it have to be? Traditional life ain’t what it used to be, and maybe it never was. And, in any case, it is indisputable that this kind of flexibility has helped the maasai to maintain themselves as culturally coherent in such striking ways. Defining themselves against the swahili, they cultivate a stern pride in Maasai peoplehood and yet also seem to live up to it; whereas the swahili are increasingly not teaching their children their various tribal languages (such not being necessary in a modern economy), the entire bent of Maasai economic activity is towards making it possible for kimaasai to continue to be a first language, towards creating cultural spaces free from the modern economy, even if modern economic activity is required to do it. While the swahili leave their (metaphoric) tribal home in order to make money, the maasai have found ways to make money that lets them go back to the boma.

So, back to cultural tourism, one of the ways that you, as an underserved, reasonably authentic tribal sort of dude, can both maintain your tribalness and make some bucks while you’re doing it is to market yourself as a tourist destination. So, dollars in hand, four wazungu set off to visit the Barabaig, a tribe that is “related” to the Maasai (whatever that might mean) out in the hinterlands around Katesh. The original plan had been to spend the first night in a Barabaig boma, which might have been interesting, but due to massive incompetence on the part of our tour organizer, we spent all day travelling without arriving anywhere until it was far too late to make the hour long hike up the mountain to the boma. And the incompetence and greed of this particular tour organizer (Joas Kehembe, who took our money and vanished, leaving the promises he had made to evaporate like a spring rain) can’t, in all fairness, be attributed to the cultural tourism industry as a whole. But he was a good example of how bad it can get.

First of all, on arriving in Babati, which is where he had told us to come (his business is located there), he berated us for not getting a ticket to Katesh and demanded that we pay the relatively large amount of money the entire trip would cost, in cash and in full, right there. The pretext was that the bus was leaving for Katesh immediately and we needed to be on it, so under this pressure we trooped into the bus station ofices and produced wads and wads of Tanzanian shillings. And then, after he was sufficiently mollified by the king’s ransom we had just handed him ($35 is a teacher’s salary for a month, and we paid him that much per day per person: 4 people, 4 days, do the math), he started talking, and that was where we probably should have realized what kind of a situation we were in. After telling us about the transcendent pleasures of taking a canoe out to see hippos (which none of us had been interested in, but which we were signed on to nevertheless), he started talking about the unspoiled natives we were going to see. “The Barabaig,” he said, “live without any of the things that we like to live with; running water, schools, good food. But they like to live like that, they don’t want to live in the modern way.” He waxed rhapsodic about how good it would be to see how our ancestors lived, to enter into their unspoiled traditional society and be welcomed by them (and his description of this had a very “Columbus-being-welcomed-by-the-Carib” feel to it), and then started talking about the Kolo cave paintings that we would see. Though his brochure had claimed that the local people still used these paintings in their “rituals” (a claim I’m highly dubious of), he now began to tell us how we would be able tounderstand those cave paintings in a way that the local people would never be able to. “They just don’t like them the way you will,” he said.

This set the tone, and the rest of the “cultural” tour unraveled at that pace. For one thing, we had selected this guy because we wanted to see the Kolo rock paintings–which really were worth the trip; if you can look at a 5,000 year old painting without a certain amount of existential awe, then you’re more jaded than I–but we found ourself roped into a canoe trip to visit hippos or something. In the abstract, that sounds like an interesting thing to do. But it wasn’t what we had been looking for: we weren’t out to look at animals, we were cultural tourists. In Mr. Kahembe’s mind, it was not however clear that the two things were different. And so, when we visited the Barabaig boma, the feeling that we were visiting a zoo without bars was pretty hard to escape. The first mama was delighted to see us, but she was there all by herself, not having been informed that we were coming. She trotted out a piece of leather she was making into a skirt and showed us how she did a variety of household tasks, from grinding corn to tearing the fur off cowhide to make leather. She was a delightful woman, and she was delighted to perform for her visitors, but the fact that she had had no idea we were coming was a little unsettling to all concerned: to her because she wasn’t prepared, and to us because it indicated how little control she had over the whole process.
Now, the idea of cultural tourism is that it is run by and therefore benefits the local people. We don’t speak barabaig, so we needed a guide, right? But every time we asked our guide to ask her some question, we couldn’t help but notice that he was asking and she was answering in swahili (despite his assurances that she didn’t know swahili and that he knew kibarabaig). And as the tour continued to other Barabaig bomas, this pretense of “unspoilt”-ness fell apart completely. One woman had several swahili laborers working in her garden and was quite noticeably upset at having been caught by us in work clothes (again, she had not been informed of our arrival, and it was patently clear that a call to her mobile would have been all that was required). We had been told to give pens to the children as presents, so we dutifully did; yet why would such children need pens unless they were going to school? And if they were going to school (which they were), are they really living a “traditional” life?

Now, I should clarify that while we had a variety of complaints about Mr. Kahembe and his little tour of horrors, the fact that the “traditional” is a myth sold to tourists is not really one of them. Our complaint with him is that he was making incredible profits off of us by delivering the cheapest possible services, and doing it while lying to us and disrespecting the people he was bringing us, zoolike, to gawk at. But he’s just one greedy little man in an enormous tourist industry based on that fiction, and it’s that fiction that I think is interesting. What monetary arrangement had been reached to allow us to access the “unspoilt” culturalness of that Boma? The brochure claimed (and again, we highly doubt the veracity of it) that a local school received all the profits, but the cognitive dissonance of selling access to an “undeveloped” culture in order for it to develop itself is pretty clear, not to mention the basic conflict of interest that is thereby built into the system. If the community school requires unspoilt cultural practice, then don’t be surprised if cultural practice finds a way to remain unspoilt. So while we’re of the opinion that Mr. Kahembe is ripping the villagers off because he is a greedy little man, selling access to one’s “unspoilt-ness” hardly seems like a viable economic strategy for “spoilt”-ing one’s community. Heck, even Mr. Kahembe wanted to tell us that the very things our trip was supposed to be providing to the people (schools, roads, developments like running water) were things that those people don’t want. They want to stay poor, he told us, they want to be isolated from modern society, and they want to be exploited and treated like second class citizens.

So can such a thing as a mutually beneficial cultural tourism exist? I’m not sure, nor would my opinion be particularly well informed if I had one. But I think the Maasai example is a way to understand how a cultural group can use its culture as an asset and help preserve, if not a way of life, at least a sense of community that can help fight the atomizing effects of the modern colonialism of globalization. The Maasai love telling stories about dirty swahili thieves and contrasting it with the legendary honesty of a Maasai village (in the same ways that Tanzanians love to contrast themselves with Kenyans), and it certainly is hard sometimes not to see a certain truth in those generalizations. But the word “culture” often makes it seems like you’ve explained something when all you’ve really done is give it a name, and I highly doubt Maasai “culture” is anymore intrinsically honest than Chagga or Meru or Samba (because if there is, then “Western” culture needs to be abandoned right now, coming in a firm last in any such comparison as far as I’m concerned).

Anyway, back to cultural tourism. If there’s one cardinal rule about life in Arusha, its that the tourism industry is a massive evil vortex that sucks everything into its sick little economy, and God help you once you’re caught in it. You can’t fight it, but you can keep from getting dragged in, either skipping along the surface so it can’t pull you down or (more safe) coming nowhere near it. Not that you can’t enjoy yourself as a tourist in a place like Tanzania or Arusha (our trip to see the kolo paintings, for example, was pretty innocently interesting, as I imagine are most people’s visits to game parks and such). And there are good people that make their living through tourism, and God knows that this country’s economy would be a very different thing without it. But a lot of bad comes with that good, and it makes me wonder if any real good could ever come of the kind of enlightened cultural tourism we were supposed to be involved with. Can “tourism” be a model for fostering cultural contact between people? Can you take a system designed to show animals to wazungu for an exorbitant price and make it into something that local people can control and use to benefit themselves? As a jury, I’m still out on that. One of the ways that some light will be shed on this question, hopefully, is the complaint we lodged with the Tanzania Tourist Board, and we’ve had several meetings with people who seemed genuinely glad that we had provided the ammunition to go after this guy. So maybe some good will come of it. I’ll keep you posted.