My research on interaction between tourists, Maasai communities and researchers raised questions about the boundaries of tourism, entertainment and research. One thing is that the Maasai usually classify all foreign visitors, regardless of whether they are NGO workers, tourists or researchers, as one category. Cross-cultural interactions are not always helpful in breaking down stereotypes, according to me.
This study was part of an entire year of fieldwork in Northern Tanzania with Maasai who were involve in a small-scale, locally own ecotourism venture. Tourists can enjoy camel safaris through the project.
As part of their safari, the mostly American and European tourists visit a Maasai family homestead. Local people often surprise when tourists walk into their villages, as there are few tourists in the area. It is also difficult to give advance notice. The tourists usually stay 20 to 30 minutes, looking at the cattle corrals and people’s homes.
My research provides a detail description about Maasai’s and tourists views of one another and how they influence by their interactions. It shows how and why people have different ideas about the Other.
My research lead me to make a short film called Eliamani’s Homestead. This film highlights some of my most important findings about host-guest interactions. The film follows the experiences of a group Dutch tourists who visit Eliamani and her family. All conversations subtitle and four languages spoken Swahili Swahili Dutch English and Maa.
These encounters are possible, but why? Tourists claim they visit Maasailand to learn about cultural differences. Because of their economic differences with visitors, the Maasai in Tanzania and Kenya primarily resort to tourism. They also sell safaris and other artifacts to supplement their income. There are striking similarities between their motivations and fears in interacting.
Tourists and Maasai fear being seen as ignorant or naive by the other side. They fear being exploit. Both sides exaggerate how much each side makes from the encounter. Maasai underestimate the amount of money tourists can make by taking photos. Maasailand is a place where tourists overestimate the value of their money.
Both sides worry that the other side is acting only out of self-interest. Tourists fear that Maasai only engage with them to sell beads, while Maasai fear that tourists only want to take photos. Both sides wonder if the other’s friendliness may be fake.
Details of the exchanges about prices and payments reveal that tourists aren’t triggered by the few Euros required to purchase artifacts. Instead, it is fear of losing face. Maasai also fear that tourists might be only interested in their cultural otherness and treat them as a spectacle. Eliamani running behind the house, fearing ridicule by tourists, is a clear example.
Confronting The Maasai Gaze
It isn’t all about exploitation and material interests. Both sides care about how they are perceived. They aren’t acting on their own image of the other, they react to what the other thinks of them.
Psychology has known for a long time that the presumed image of another person is crucial in intercultural interactions. Psychologists Joshua Aronson and Claude Steele described the phenomenon as the stereotype menace in this context. This was relevant not only to stereotypes of minorities, but also to those regarding powerful majorities.
Marie-Francoise Lanfant, a sociologist, explains that the tourist context forces the recipient society to reflect on its traditions and values by confronting otherness through encounters with tourists. This is also true for tourists who are host by hosts. People can imagine themselves in the shoes of others and create an image of what they might look like.
After fifteen minutes, Eliamani suddenly looks at the camera and complains that he is being film too often. The filmmaker and the viewer are ask to consider whether they have contribute to the problem of cultural tourism’s voyeuristic invasion.
The film and my research raises questions about whether viewing a documentary or conducting research is different from entertainment or tourism. What does this mean for us as tourists researchers?