While I thoroughly enjoyed observing and learning about wildlife during my safari in Kenya, there were some darker moments that made me ponder the social and economic consequences of our modern-day commodification of travel. I hope that by sharing this, we can all become more mindful travelers.
The Most Dangerous Animal in The Mara
Go on, take a guess. What do you think is the most dangerous animal in the Maasai Mara?
The lion, king of the savanna? Nope.
The savage, heavyweight hippopotamus? Nope.
It’s the human. The Maasai people, the middlemen of the tourism industry, and you and I – tourists.
The Maasai are renowned warriors; for centuries they guarded their territory around the Great Rift Valley and Serengeti. However, the modern world has forced the Maasai to adapt to government policies, land privatization – including the creation of present-day national parks – and tourism. Nowadays, a safari in Kenya will include an optional cultural visit to a local Maasai village, but while I’ve heard plenty of positive experiences on this, mine didn’t go quite so well.
Locals: Opportunism at Work
It started with the fee for our visit. We were told at our tented camp lodge that it would cost 1000 Kenyan shillings, or roughly $10, to be paid at the village itself. When we walked there, however, the village representative claimed the fee was 1500 shillings.
I didn’t like this, but since 1) we were already there, 2) it would be a valuable cultural experience and 3) it still wasn’t that expensive, the few of us went ahead. We were treated to a showcase of Maasai songs, dances, jumping (lots of jumping) and customs. I was enjoying myself…until we were guided separately into the Maasai homes.
While chatting with the owner of the home I was in, he suddenly conjured up some jewelry and forced them onto my neck and wrists. “These are handmade items by my family,” he began, “look how nice they are. Why don’t you buy one to support my family?”
Most of the time when I travel and take photos of locals, I feel obliged to do something in return – give them a copy of their picture, buy their street food or at least take a look at what they’re selling. But stuck in this small, dark Maasai hut with a warrior dude unwilling to let me leave unless I bought something off him, I felt threatened. I felt like I was being guilted into a purchase, which I detest.
I declined as politely as I could, took the items off, and after 10 minutes of pushing – he kept asking how much I’d pay for the items even though I said I wasn’t interested – I managed to escape back outside, where I bumped into another guy in our group who’d decided to visit the village after all…and paid only 1000 shillings to enter!
No matter how small the sum, it never feels nice to get ripped off.
Tourists: Trivialization of Culture
Subsequently, we were led to a compound at the back of the village, where the Maasai women peddled souvenirs flea-market style. As I browsed around I found that these were up to ten times cheaper than the jewelry the Maasai man had tried to sell me, but also markedly inferior. When I asked some of the male villagers about this, their answer was simple:
The ones we wear are different. Look at the quality, the colors, look at how the beads are sewn to leather. These are only made for Maasai people.”
Indeed, Maasai beadwork and jewelry carry great cultural significance. The colors of the tiny beads represent different values, and the accoutrements are symbols of age and achievement. Yet the tribe’s craft has been heavily copied and sold en masse, so much so that tourists expect similar or even cheaper prices for “originals” – which were traditionally only offered to esteemed outsiders. Is it any surprise the Maasai sell “tourist-quality” versions of their jewelry?
Haggling vs Extortion
The fact that I was on a “budget safari” speaks for itself: I knew how much I wanted to spend on souvenirs. Although I didn’t try, haggling is prevalent enough that here, the Maasai villagers kept asking us to name our price even when we declared “No thanks.” There’s often the assumption that foreigners in Kenya are rich, and I was frequently quoted above the “market rate”, but I believe that at the end of the day we have to ask ourselves, in our hearts: how much do we value this object or experience?
Later, the Maasai man offered to sell me his beaded leather cuff. He asked for $30.
Tour Operators: The Middleman’s Responsibility
Guess what? The worst part of my tour came after the safari itself had ended. The tour operator I’d signed up with had fobbed me off to another company (tour operators often combine their smaller, less profitable bookings into one group; this way solo travelers like me can pay less). But what happens when there are discrepancies in the itinerary or, worse still, damage to personal property?
More on Kenya
What a woman in rural Kenya taught me about empowerment – and love
On Safari in Kenya, Part 2: Reflections on Sustainable Tourism
On Safari in Kenya: Bucket List Expectations Vs. Reality
28 Lessons in 28 Days: What I Learned from Living in Rural Kenya
In my case, the middleman refused my request for partial compensation or a letter of acknowledgement for me to make a travel insurance claim. The manager even went so far as to point his finger at me and yell “get out of my office!” I learned my lesson that day: you get what you pay for.
“Developing country” shouldn’t mean “cheap place to visit”.
If you’re planning to go on safari in Kenya, I’d advise you to book with a KATO bonded tour operator based on personal recommendations rather than reviews. It’ll cost more, but you’ll be contributing to sustainability and development efforts instead of causing animosity between locals and tourists. We’d probably enjoy ourselves more when we’re not constantly trying to get more than our money’s worth.
I’d like to hear your take on this. Is our desire for cheap travel contributing to inequality? Do you believe that choosing sustainable tourism will make a difference, or is opportunism just a universal human trait?