Experiencing Maasai Art and Culture

Watching the elephants
Watching the elephants

Beading off the Beaten Path: Experiencing Maasai Art and Culture

By Amanda Denz
Going on a safari in Kenya can be an exhilarating adventure. Watching giant elephants roam the plains of Africa is a sight not soon forgotten. However, some tour companies use the land and people as an exhibit for profit without ever giving anything back. Fortunately, there has been a movement towards sustainable eco-tourism and some companies now seek ways to work with the members of the local communities.

Wildland Adventures is a company that works hand in hand with the Maasai Environmental Resource Coalition (MERC), a grassroots organization that advocates for the rights of the Maasai — an indigenous people that inhabit East Africa.

Together they work to create sustainable tourism that benefits the Maasai people. This type of tourism gives the visitor a more authentic experience by giving them the ability to interact and form bonds with the local people.

Beading While on Safari

Recently Wildland offered a unique safari experience. They worked with a Seattle-based bead store to put together a trip that combined nature, art, and culture. The trip brought a small group to Kenya to learn about the Maasai people as well as participate in traditional safari activities such as game drives. During this trip the guests were able to meet with the Maasai in their village and spend several afternoons beading with them.

Beading is a major craft of the Maasai people. Much of the jewelry they wear is symbolic through colors and patterns. A piece of jewelry with a very significant meaning is the wedding necklace. This is a necklace that a couple receives at their wedding. It is a solid color with a square in the middle and fringes that are tied in certain ways depending on the wedding gifts the couple received and the livestock they own.

Maasai warrior
Maasai warrior

Our First Visit to the Village

“During our first visit to the Maasai village we were received in a traditional fashion. First the warriors came out. They sang and they jumped…then the women came out. They formed a semicircle and proceeded to dance for us and they included us in the dance.

Afterwards we beaded with them for about three hours. During the second visit they all lined up and so did we and we proceeded to greet each other individually. It was really nice to recognize some of their faces from the first visit.”

Not only were these Kathy Dannerbeck’s first experiences with the Maasai, but her group was the second group of tourists this village had ever received. Kathy is the owner of Beads and Beyond, the store that helped organize the trip.

Each participant brought beads with them to the village as a gift but left with much more. Each person took home with them some finished jewelry, new technical beading knowledge, as well as insight into a culture struggling to maintain its traditions in the face of development.

The Maasai and their Current Challenges

For centuries the Maasai people have lived in harmony with nature. They view their place in the complex ecosystem of Africa as its guardians. “The land contains our history; it is the keeper of our memories and culture, and protector of our forefathers' bones. The Maasai believe that the land is entrusted to the living for safekeeping, to be passed on to future generations.” (MERC)

The Maasai are semi-nomadic and follow the rains with their herds of cattle. The men in the society are warriors and herders. Since they are out with the herds all day the women are in charge of village maintenance. They build the houses, maintain the water supply, and gather the firewood, cook, and any other duties involved in running the village.

Currently, half a million Maasai people live in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. With western influences afoot, they are moving towards a new way of life by developing the things they need to survive and prosper within their villages such as water supplies and school houses. They strive to maintain their cultural heritage and incorporate it into their new way of living.

“It was not until the early 1980s that we became much more entrenched in a market economy and, hence, more impoverished generally speaking. As a result, the Maasai, which once was a proud and self-sufficient society, are now facing many social, political and economic challenges.” Kakuta ole Maimai, from www.maasai-infoline.org

Today many organizations, such as MERC, are working to replenish the self sufficiency that was lost amongst the Maasai people. MERC, “advocates for the protection of traditional land rights of the Maasai people, and for conservation, management and sustainable use of the great ecosystems of East Africa.” By holding onto their land the Maasai people are able to maintain their culture by taking any future decisions about their fate into their own hands.

Maasai women with westerners.
Maasai women with westerners.

A Visit with the Maasai

During this visit to Maasailand the group of visitors experienced something very different from the everyday African safari. As Kathy said, “there are Maasai tourist villages and then there are non tourist villages. We went on a tour of a tourist village and it seemed staged.

In this so called traditional village we passed by a guy making tools and in reality he was just heating a piece of metal and banging on it all day for show because the Maasai didn’t make tools like that traditionally, they traded for them.”

During the beading trip the group went to a non tourist village. Instead of walking around and observing the people they participated in authentic interactions with them. They sat in a dung hut and exchanged beading knowledge. During this experience Kathy really felt that she connected with the Maasai women. Even though “there were translators around, our common language was the love of beadwork”.

A New kind of Tourism in Kenya

While learning about Maasai culture and beading were major components of this journey to Kenya the group did much more. Each morning they would wake up with the sun. After tea or coffee they went on a game drive. This was followed by a lavish breakfast of fresh fruits.

As the day progressed they went on guided walking tours of the bush, visited a village or attended cultural events. Participants felt this trip offered more than a typical African Safari because they got out of the vehicles, experienced the bush on foot, and met the people who traditionally have inhabited it. In addition, they were able to see the elephants, lions, and the other wildlife Kenya is famous for.

The people in this group brought jewelry and other crafts from the Maasai village. During one of their trips to the village the people held a craft fair to sell their jewelry to the visitors. Kathy told me that the group was so enthusiastic in contributing to the Maasai in an empowering manner that they freely purchased Maasai goods. Two weeks later Kathy was pleasantly surprised upon her return to the village. The women had taken the profits from the goods, organized, and built a new school house.

This type of sustainable tourism is exactly what organizations like MERC are working towards. Spending money so that it goes directly into the community allows that group of people to improve their community. This type of tourism respects self determinism of indigenous population while helping them return to a self sufficient way of life.

Wildland Adventures

Wildland Adventures is currently the only tour company that works with MERC to provide sustainable eco-tourism options. They are in the process of putting together another beading trip and they also do many other types of tours in Africa as well as North, South, and Central America, Turkey, the Middle East, New Zealand, and Antarctica. Their tours are great for individuals, families, or small groups and they work with people who would like to personalize their tours. For more options find unique Kenya hotels and interesting tours in Kenya.

Adventure Travel and Ecotourism - Wildland Adventures

Maasai Environmental Resource Coalition (MERC)

Beads and Beyond: (425) 462-9627

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