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The Maasai and the Lion King: Authenticity, Nationalism, and Globalization in African Tourism

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The Questioning Gaze
I use the phrase the "questioning gaze" to describe the tourists' doubts about the credibility, authenticity, and accuracy of what is presented to them in the tourist production. The key issue is that tourists have agency, active selves that do not merely accept but interpret, and frequently question, the producers' messages (chapter 5; Jules-Rosette and Bruner 1994). In Bomas, authenticity both is and is not an issue--it depends on which Kenyan is speaking, as there is no monolithic local voice. Some Maasai are illiterate, others have been educated at Oxford University; some live in the game parks, others in the city; some are pastoralists, others are doctors, lawyers, and businessmen; some have a stake in the tourism industry, others have not. Urban Kenyans I know have told me they enjoy seeing their native dances at Bomas, as they do not travel frequently to their home areas, and even when they do they are not assured of witnessing a dance performance. They respect the ethnic diversity exhibited at Bomas, and they appreciate the performance as well as the entire Bomas experience. In addition to the dancing, Bomas features picnic sites, a children's playground, football, volleyball, badminton, table tennis, and a swimming pool. In other words, it is more than a display of Kenyan ethnic culture for intellectuals, ethnographers, and foreign tourists; it is a family recreational site.
Yet not all local observers share this view. Originally from Uganda, Christine Southall (a scholar specializing in East Africa) suggested to me that many Kenyan intellectuals laugh at parts of the Bomas performance, criticizing the inaccuracies in its representation of tradition and regarding its characterization of the various ethnic groups as inauthentic. In 1999, Jean Kidula, a Kenyan musicologist who has worked with the Bomas performers, explained to me that Bomas is a failed project because the original objectives were not achieved. The aim in the early 1970s was to construct a national dance troupe that would accurately perform the ethnic arts of Kenya. She feels that the dances now performed are not authentic so that Bomas has become a tourist thing, folkloristic, and commercial. The difficulty was that once the dance troupe was formed the performers began to innovate, and over the years the original tribal dance forms were changed. Kenyan people, she says, understand this but keep going to Bomas primarily because it is entertaining. To these two scholars, authenticity is important, and they criticize Bomas for not achieving it.
Commenting to me on Bomas, Jane Mayers said that "it's not true in any respect," meaning that the Maasai dance at Bomas is not necessarily performed by Maasai, that no one lives in the villages, and that their dance troupe is professional. The questions become, what is seen as true, and how does a performance derive its authority. There are different meanings of authenticity (chapter 5), but from my perspective, Mayers, Bomas, and the Sundowner are not authentic in the sense of being accurate, genuine, and true to a postulated original.
Anthropologists, at least in the past, have tended to regard tourism as commercial and shallow. From the perspective of realist ethnography, tourism is a disgraceful simplification, an embarrassment, like an unwelcome intruder who keeps appearing at cherished field sites (Bruner 1989; de Certeau 1984). Some U.S. anthropologists, Kenyan intellectuals, and foreign tourists might experience Bomas as being superficial and inauthentic--but that would be to miss the point. At Bomas, traditional dances are placed in such a high-tech setting and the production is so professional that the dances become detraditionalized. The modern auditorium, the bar, the signs, and the commercialism are not necessarily experienced by Kenyan visitors as an intrusion, for they serve to remind the Kenyans that they are not in a tribal village but in a national folklore museum. From the perspective of the Sundowner, however, the juxtapositions and incongruities become surreal theater, what the tourists expect within the postmodern frame.
Although the issue for some Kenyan intellectuals is authenticity, the issue for many Kenyan tourists, based on my interviews, is doubt about the validity of the nationalistic message of Bomas. The message of the producers is not necessarily the one received by their tourist audience. Kenyan people from all segments of society are very well aware of the reality of ethnic conflict in Kenyan society, and hence those Kenyans who visit Bomas have their doubts about the ethnic harmony portrayed there. The understanding of Kenyans in this respect is similar to the Americans who celebrate the Abraham Lincoln rags-to-riches narrative that everyone can be president, yet they know that no American of African, Native, Asian, or Hispanic descent, and no woman or Jew, has been elected president of the United States.
In this sense, Bomas is like Lévi-Strauss's (1967:202-228) definition of a myth, in that it tries to resolve a contradiction between a vision of Kenyan national integration and the reality of ethnic conflict and separatism, just as in the United States the Lincoln myth tries to resolve a contradiction between an ideology of equality and an actuality of discrimination. The function and the promise of national myths is to resolve contradictions, if not in life, then in narrative and performance. Nor is it a false consciousness, as the Marxists would have it, for most Kenyans and Americans are aware of these discrepancies.
At Mayers Ranch, many tourists had their own doubts, which they expressed to me, for the performance was too picture perfect, too neat and well scheduled, and the back stage of the performance as well as the actualities of Maasai life were too well hidden. Tourists vary, for to be a tourist is not a fixed slot to be occupied but is a role to be fashioned and performed (Jules-Rosette and Bruner 1994). Some tourists willingly surrendered themselves to the experience of the Mayers performance. One tourist told me that he was on vacation in Africa to relax, and he simply accepted whatever was offered to him. For him, there was no questioning gaze, or at least it was suppressed. Others behave as if they are in a graduate anthropology seminar: They are obsessed with issues of authenticity and question the truth value of everything. They are never sure if the performances are bona fide.
One American student at Mayers Ranch during my visit kept muttering to herself and to anyone else who would listen that the Maasai were being exploited, which may have been the case. The African American tourists who complained about Mayers to the Kenyan government did not see the performance as the producers intended, as a story about the English and the Maasai, but focused on skin color, as an example of whites producing blacks. This is interesting as it exports an American political sensibility to an African context (chapter 3). Tourists, however, like the rest of us, have the ability simultaneously to suspend disbelief and to harbor inner doubts, and sometimes to oscillate between one stance and the other. The questioning gaze may be pushed aside, so that tourists may delight in the excitement and danger of being with the Maasai and play, in their imagination (even temporarily and tentatively) with the colonial slot into which they are being positioned. For them, Mayers was good theater, and many made a conscious effort to engage the Mayers fantasy and to identify with the plot and the characters, at least during performance time, despite inner skepticism.
The Intrav tour agency that took the group to the Sundowner was skilled and sophisticated in catering to upscale tourists. It was an "Out of Africa" tour not just in the sense of the Isak Dinesen book, but in the sense of being literally "out" of Africa, above Africa, so as to protect the tourists from hassles, waits, and crowds, and to shield them from experiencing the darker side of Africa, the poverty, starvation, brutality, disease, dirt, corruption, and civil wars. The Sundowner itself went smoothly but there was an earlier instance, a memorable occasion in Tanzania, when Africa broke through the bubble. The tourists I spoke with were very disturbed about it. On a trip from Lake Manyara to Ngorogoro Crater, over a two-hour ride, the cars carrying the tourists passed a number of painfully poor Tanzanian villages. As each village came into view, emaciated children dressed in rags ran after the cars with outstretched hands, hoping for a handout, and they continued running even after the cars had passed far beyond them. The drivers did not stop, but I saw many of the tourists continuing to look back along the dusty road at the desperate children. Afterward, with pained expression, one woman tourist commented on the shocking disparity of wealth between the members of the tour group and the Tanzanian villagers, noting the contrast between our luxury and their poverty. Another said she felt ashamed to have spent so much money on a vacation while these villagers had nothing. It was a fleeting but significant moment. The tourists talked about it for days and were obviously distraught. Its significance extended beyond that one specific incident to the entire tourist itinerary, raising the larger question in the tourist consciousness, what else was being concealed on their tour of Africa? The incident materialized an inner doubt. By carefully orchestrating the "Out of Africa" tour, the agency had tried to suppress and silence parts of Africa, but they did not entirely succeed.
The tourists' identification with Africans in this instance is reminiscent of the position of the character Dennis Finch-Hatton in Isak Dinesen's, Out of Africa (1938). In that book, Finch-Hatton, a white colonialist, casts a critical eye on the institution of colonialism, identifies with the independent pastoral Maasai, and is ultimately buried in a Maasai grave. In structural terms, he was a bridge between the civilized and the wild, flying freely over the African landscape, with the ability to move back and forth between the two domains of the binary. The tourists on the "Out of Africa" tour who participated in the Sundowner may want to be accepted, even blessed, by the primitive Maasai, if only temporarily, as a kind of absolution for the privileged position that haunts the edges of their dreams. They may relish the gifts, smiles, and dancing on the Sundowner as evidence that they are liked, or at least welcomed, by the Maasai. The African American woman on a walking tour with the Maasai who encountered the lions may retell that story, not only as a tale of unexpected adventure (always a source of good stories for tourists) but as a way of identifying herself with the Maasai.16
At Mayers, Bomas, and the Sundowner, there are always doubts among the tourists about what they are "seeing," doubts that differ from tourist to tourist, but that move beyond what has so artfully been constructed for them. This is the case with all the studies presented in this book. As a tour group was seated in Bali to watch a Balinese dance drama at Singapadu, one man looked around and asked me, “Is this a temple or a theater?” Good question. The questioning gaze is a penetration of the constructedness devised by the producers, but it is also more, in a number of respects. First, there is always an unpredictability of meaning about any performance, for individuals attribute their own understandings to the event, which may not be predicted in advance, and these understandings may change over time. Second, some tourists apply a frame to the activity of sightseeing and to everything else that occurs within the tour, like the woman who said to me, as we were about to watch a performance, "Here comes the tourist dance." It made no difference to her what particular ethnic dance was on display, except that it was presented within a touristic frame. It was a tourist dance, period. For other tourists, more inclined to surrender, an immersion in the physicality of the dance activity itself was more important than any explanation or attribution of meaning. This verges on what Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (1998:203-248) describes as an avant-garde sensibility, where the experience itself is more important than the hermeneutics. Further, in many cases, tourists simply do not understand what they are seeing and make no effort to interpret Maasai dance and culture. Even to those tourists most willing to open up to the experience and to accept the producers' fantasy, there is still, in MacCannell's terms, "an ineluctable absence of meaning to an incomplete subject" (2001:34). It is what Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (1998:72) has called the irreducibility of strangeness. Urry's (1990, 1992) tourist gaze is too empiricist, too monolithic, too lacking in agency, and too visual to encompass these varied tourist reactions. The tourist gaze does not have the power of Foucault's (1979) panopticon, for it is not all-seeing and enveloping. It is variable, and there are seepages and doubts.
In this chapter, I have described how the Maasai of Kenya are displayed in three tourist sites originating in different historical eras and in disparate social milieus. Each performance has its own tourist tale, provides its own frame around the travel experience, and has its counterpart in historically constituted ethnographic modes of telling and re-telling. I emphasize that touristic displays of a single ethnic group are multiple and even contradictory. I discuss the parallels between tourism and ethnography, especially evident in the concept of the questioning gaze. I demonstrate how ethnicity, culture, and authenticity gain and lose meanings in diverse touristic and world contexts. My approach has been to study local tourist performances by the methods of ethnography, to take account of tourist agency and narrative structure, and then to compare systematically the various sites with attention to the national and global frames within which they are located. Constructionism, my main theoretical thrust, is not an escape from history or ethnography. Such an approach enables the ethnographer to explore similarities and differences, to embrace complexity, and to open up new possibilities.
Acknowledgments: Early versions of this article were presented at a conference on tourism in September 1999 at the Department of Anthropology, Yunnan University, Kunming, P.R. China, and in January 2000 at the University of Illinois workshop on sociocultural anthropology. I am indebted to the participants for helpful comments, to Alma Gottlieb, Arlene Torres, Nicole Tami, Richard Freeman, Bruno Nettl, and the anonymous reviewers of American Ethnologist. In all of my fieldwork, my wife, Elaine C. Bruner, has been an insightful and helpful partner.

1 Although the subject matter is different, the methodology is not unlike that employed by Clifford (1997: 107-145) in his paper on “Four Northwest Coast Indian Museums.”

2 Adams 1998, Cheung 1999, and Hughes-Freeland (1993) are exceptions.

3 My "questioning gaze" was inspired by MacCannell's (2001) concept of the "second gaze," which he developed in opposition to Urry's (1990) "tourist gaze." I agree with most of MacCannell's critique of Urry. See also Kasfir 1999.

4  Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett and I did fieldwork together at Mayers Ranch, which we published, and at Bomas, which we did not publish. I returned to Kenya in 1995 and 1999, revisited old sites, gathered new data, and initiated fieldwork on Maasai tourism on the Mara, including the Sundowner. For the past 15 years, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett has influenced my work on the Maasai and on tourism.

5 Members of the tour group had to obtain visas, but their passports were collected by the Intrav tour guides who handled all the immigration and customs arrangements.

6 Bomas of Kenya was initiated by the government in 1971 and opened in 1973 under the Kenya Tourist Development Corporation, a part of the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife.

7 As there are 42 ethnic groups in Kenya, but only 11 traditional villages in Bomas, many groups are left out, although some are represented in performance. There is no representation of such minorities as the resident Indian population.

8 It will be helpful to examine the charges for admission to the Bomas performance. At the time of my visit, a Kenyan citizen paid about one-third the amount charged to a foreign tourist, and a resident child paid only about one-third of the amount paid by a Kenyan adult making it financially feasible for many Kenyans to come to Bomas for a family outing with their children.

9 The African Classic Tours (1986) brochure states:

Here in East Africa, we can still view the world as our primitive ancestors saw it, in its natural state, without the influences of modern civilization. . . . Here are the living remains of prehistoric human cultures, people who still live by hunting and gathering: nomadic peoples living in small family groups. Here we can view the daily struggle for survival . . . and see people and wildlife living, for the most part, unaffected by our rapidly changing society.

10 All quotes from the brochure for the Intrav "On Safari in Africa" trip February 2 to 25, 1999.

11Again, I must acknowledge the ambiguity of my subject position especially at the Sundowner, for I oscillated between being a tourist and being an ethnographer (see chapter 7). All ethnographers occasionally experience a similar oscillation, between being there as a participant in another culture, (merging into the ongoing activity) and the demands of being a scholar, striving for the distance and objectivity necessary to write for an anthropological audience. I have felt this tension the most in my work on tourism more than in other ethnographic endeavors.

12 I am indebted to Mulu Muia, Duncan Muriuki, and to Jean Kidula for helpful information on the musical scene in Kenya. I also note that data was gathered by modern electronic means, by e-mail and the internet. Bomas, Kichwa Tembo tented camp, and Them Mushrooms all have their own web sites.

13 I do not know the relationship between the use of Hakuna Matata in "Jambo Bwana" and in the Elton John-Tim Rice song. Neither the lyrics nor music are the same, but the phrase, Hakuna Matata, is equally prominent in both songs.

14 Them Mushrooms also are known for reggae, and for fusions of reggae with local musical traditions. Them Mushrooms are credited with recording, in 1981, the first reggae song in East Africa, with CBS Kenya Records. Their inspiration was Bob Marley, the Jamaican reggae musician (Them Mushrooms 2000). Reggae also has a political meaning, connected to the Rastafarians.

15 Wood (1999) reports that funds flow inequitably to the Maasai chiefs and politicians, and there have been many accusations of corruption. Berger (1996) discusses these inequities, offers solutions, and shows how the Maasai are being integrated into the tourism industry in Kenya. Kiros Lekaris, Stanley Ole Mpakany, Meegesh Nadallah, and Gerald Ole Selembo have helped me better to understand how the Maasai on the Mara do profit economically from safari tourism.

16 I thank Eric Gable for many of the ideas in this paragraph.

Maasai Lion

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