Is the Serengeti a place or an idea? The stakes of this seemingly simple question lie at the heart of this book, as I have tried to understand how safari tourism has changed the very meanings and geographies of places and people living in the greater Serengeti region of northern Tanzania. I now realize that I was initially drawn to the idea of the Serengeti when I first went to Tanzania in 1992 as an undergraduate anthropology student. As much as I wanted to see Serengeti National Park and its surrounding areas with my own eyes, I know that I wanted to experience what I had already determined to be one of the most important and valuable places in the world. I didn’t question why I believed the Serengeti was so important and valuable a place. I just knew it was. I didn’t see the historical and geographical discourses that shaped my understanding of this place from the position of a white male student from the United States or how it was that I might be involved in preserving or protecting a particular image or representation of this place. After years of living and working in Tanzania and then researching the political economy and cultural politics of tourism in the Serengeti region, I have come to understand how the production of the Serengeti as both a place and an idea influences current debates and practices concerning economic development, conservation, and tourism in Tanzania.
As geographer Doreen Massey explains, places “are always constructed out of articulations of social relations (trading connections, the unequal links of colonialism, thoughts of home) which are not only internal to that locale but which link them to elsewhere. Their ‘local uniqueness’ is always already a product of wider contacts; the local is always already a product in part of ‘global’ forces” (1995, 183). This idea of places and their pasts enables us to see the Serengeti not simply as the crown jewel of national parks in Africa but also as a landscape that has been produced in the image of an idea of African nature and what it should be.1 Scholars like Massey point out how “global” social relationships, including the ideas, values, and interests of Westerners longing to see and experience the Serengeti actually help construct the meanings and geographies of the place. Cultural studies scholar Stuart Hall makes a similar argument as he explains, “‘the West’ is as much an idea as a fact of geography” (1992, 57).2 Hall uses the metaphor of “the West and the Rest” to describe how understandings and beliefs about the history and meaning of a specific geography and the actual lived experience of a place like the Serengeti are inseparable. He shows that the idea of the West came into being through a biased system of representation during a period of European exploration, expansion, and conquest that not only described the West as a place but also provided a set of criteria to evaluate its relative value, which provided a new logic to explain difference. “A discourse is a way of talking about or representing something. It produces knowledge that shapes perceptions and practices” (Hall 1992, 317).
Tourism in the Serengeti is more than the enjoyment or appreciation of African nature. It is a critical site where cultural, political, and economic ideas and practices shape the activities and encounters among tourists, tour companies, state agencies, local communities, as well as the flora and fauna. It is a particular form of consumption in which the commodity is the landscape itself. The idea of the Serengeti is a powerful one. Geographer Rod Neumann’s groundbreaking book, Imposing Wilderness, describes the production of the dominant idea of nature in Africa. Neumann starts by quoting a traveling companion: “This is the way that Africa should look” (1998, 1). He draws on archival sources, as well as interviews with residents, to show how the production of nature in Africa transformed the identities and rights of African subjects. His research is a significant intervention in how understandings of African parks were forged through historical struggles over who should have rights and access to African natural resources. Neumann’s book is essential reading for anyone interested in the relationship between protected areas and livelihoods around the world.
The contributions of scholars like Hall, Massey, and Neumann go well beyond learning important histories. They enable us to recognize how contemporary understandings, ideas, and practices draw their authority and even their legitimacy from the very discourses that shape what people value in a place like the Serengeti. How discourse shapes landscape became an important lens as I researched and observed different forms of tourism in the Serengeti region. Tourism is commonly framed as a way to add value to place, where visitors will pay simply to passively enjoy the environment. Such narratives pay scant attention to how that environment is framed and preserved or to how prioritizing a certain kind of experience actually shapes the landscape in question. In one of the examples I discuss in this book, a U.S.–based tourism company purchased a former barley farm in the middle of three Maasai villages to establish a nature refuge and promote ecotourism. As I describe in detail, the company met considerable resistance from Maasai residents, who claimed that it had received the land illegally and the refuge would dispossess them of essential grazing land that they had used for well over a century. In a promotional video made by the company in 2012, the owners of Thomson Safaris describe their project to prospective clients and supporters. Missing completely from the video is the fact that the company gained access to the land by purchasing a lease agreement for $1.2 million.3 The project justification and rationale as laid out in the video tell a very different story about how land rights are allocated to investors. The video’s narrative relies on a universal claim that ownership of African nature is granted to those who can best take care of the land. Implicit in this narrative is the commonsense idea that the primary value of this land, in the general vicinity of the Serengeti, is for conservation. The American general manager of the company, John Bearcroft, describes the company’s relationship to the place. “We borrowed this land from our children, our children’s children; we don’t own it. It’s for the future of all that come after us. You know we are guardians of this land, it’s not ours so we do the best we can within our resources . . . and what we do is tourism” (Thomson Safaris 2012). For many of the people I have shown this video to, including a number of my undergraduate and graduate students in the United States, this statement appears to make a lot of sense. The video’s framing of a philanthropic-oriented company from the United States that wants to use its economic power to promote conservation, tourism, and community empowerment in Africa was seen to deliver the promise of development that many of my students wanted to help foster themselves. But the more we examined the origin stories and histories on which these claims were being made, the clearer it became that the company was drawing on a discourse of African conservation that relies on the implicit idea that foreign whites are in a better position to care for African nature than are the African residents of that place, in this case the Maasai.
Such a framing is precisely what Hall means when he says that discourse is not innocent. In describing the creation of the discourse of “the West and the Rest,” Hall explains that in the encounter between Europeans and the New World, “Europe brought its own cultural categories, languages, images, and ideas to . . . describe and represent it. It fit the New World into existing conceptual frameworks, classifying it according to its own norms, and absorbing it into Western traditions of representation” (Hall 1992, 294). Europe, he asserts, also “had certain definite purposes, aims, objectives, motives, interests, and strategies in setting out to discover what lay across the ‘Green Sea of Darkness.’” Similarly, tourism companies have their own cultural categories for understanding and explaining places like the Serengeti, as well as their own purposes, motives, and objectives to make a good living while also promoting their deeply held values of conservation.
Such narratives are not created anew but rather draw directly on persistent historical ideas that often go unquestioned as representing truth. The narrative framing of the Thomson Safari promotional video is reminiscent of another landmark film that argued to a largely Western audience for the Serengeti to be preserved. The 1959 German film Serengeti Shall Not Die chronicled the famous veterinary professor and Frankfurt Zoo director Bernhard Grzimek and his son Michael as they fought to protect and preserve the Serengeti from a variety of what they saw as local threats, including African poachers and a poorly equipped park service. The film, released in 1959 two years before Tanganyika gained its independence from the British, marks an important moment coalescing the ideas and interests of a relatively small group of people and presenting them as the commonsense understanding of African nature and why it should be preserved for all of “mankind.”4 Grzimek draws on a nostalgic image of African nature as a countervailing representation for the decline of urban civilization. He uses this binary to help justify Western intervention in Africa in the name of conservation.
Today the human population of our earth is multiplying at a staggering rate. Our numbers are increasing by 180,000 per day or 700 million every ten years, more than the total population of China. As we become more crowded in our concrete cities, our grandchildren will be able to see less and less of the wonders of nature. These last remaining herds of African game are a cultural heritage of the whole of mankind. . . . If today, any government of whatever political shade dared to pull down the Acropolis in Athens in order to build workers’ flats, the whole civilized world would cry out furiously against such outrage. Similarly, no man, black or white, should ever be allowed to endanger the future of these last living cultural treasures of Africa. God made the earth subject to the will of man, but surely not that he might completely destroy his creation.
Part of the power of this film, as well as of the Thomson Safari promotional video, is that each appears to be speaking on behalf of humankind rather from their own historically situated position, with all its specific ideas, values, and interests.
Thinking about the production of places in this way helps us ask questions such as who benefits from the creation of a nature refuge for tourism? In the Thomson video, Bearcroft continues to explain the company’s intentions in setting up the nature refuge. “We’re trying to preserve a piece of heaven that we can share with our guests, that will touch them, that will make them think, and that will change them. They will go back home, and they will go inspired, and maybe they can use that in their future life when they are thinking about the world in general and educating their kids.” Although the video is clearly targeted toward a Western audience, foreign clients who can take a piece of Africa back home with them are not its only constituents. Bearcroft also describes what he sees as benefits for the local community. “This was an opportunity . . . to give some value to the community for what conservation can be as a resource to them.” Throughout the film, Bearcroft and the co-owners of Thomson Safaris describe the real long-term benefits of the project when the community and the company come together to use tourism to their mutual advantage. I am in no position to judge the intentions of the company, but in analyzing this promotional video along with many other communications and actions, I began to realize that their very right to represent this area and its value is derived from the dominant discourses of Western conservation and the unquestioned role of well-meaning foreigners in preserving, protecting, and creating new value out of African nature. Such relational understandings lie at the heart of questions about the political ecology and geography of northern Tanzania, its world-famous national parks, and the communities that still live in the shadow of both the place and the idea of the Serengeti.
I first visited Tanzania in 1992 as an undergraduate from the United States. I studied wildlife management and learned Swahili, the country’s national language. I spent my final month at Loliondo, an area just east of Serengeti National Park, studying the influence of tourism on the Maasai people who lived there. Tourism has played an increasingly prominent role in the economic development of Tanzania. In the late 1980s, Tanzania, along with many nations in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean, had little choice but to accept structural adjustment programs (SAPs) and other neoliberal reforms. With their economies in crisis and their debt burdens expanding because of rising interest rates, mismanagement, and bad investments, countries like Tanzania surrendered their policy decisions to the mandates of the Bretton Woods institutions, including the World Bank (WB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). A group of influential economists and politicians known collectively as the Washington consensus gained influence at the time as the global debt crisis signaled the failure of past development policies.5 Although those failures were multidimensional, the confluence of a Reagan administration in the United States, a Thatcher-led government in England, and the popularity of economic theories promoting austerity led to a new orthodoxy in international development known as neoliberalism. As a theory and set of policy prescriptions, neoliberalism is based on the principle that too much state intervention in the economy creates bad investments and excessive bureaucracy, distorts monetary policy, and encourages corruption. Policy makers used this new consensus to implement reforms to reduce the role of the public sector, prioritize balancing national budgets, promote foreign trade, privatize state-owned companies, and rationalize social service provision. For a relatively large cohort of economists and politicians from all sides of the political spectrum, a global assault on state power was seen as a positive move toward political and economic freedom around the world.
Along with profound economic changes that drastically reduced public payrolls and contributed to rising costs of living, the liberalization of Tanzania’s economic and political system in the 1980s set in motion reforms that altered the relationship among state institutions, economic markets, and civil society. “The balance sheet of structural adjustment in Africa . . . includes capital flight, collapse of manufactures, marginal or negative increase in export incomes, drastic cutbacks in urban public services, soaring prices, and a steep decline in wages . . . [and] a virtual demolition of the local state,” writes Mike Davis (2006, 155) in his book Planet of Slums, describing the effects of SAPs. There is now considerable agreement that SAPs demanded changes too quickly and placed significant burdens on the very citizens they were supposed to help.6 The rapid adoption of neoliberal policies in the late 1980s led to what is commonly described as “the lost decade” in Africa. Geographers, anthropologists, and other scholars have spent much of the 1990s and the twenty-first century thus far documenting and analyzing the consequences of neoliberalization in countries such as Tanzania. Much of this research has emphasized the increased burden placed on the rural farmers who cannot easily access markets or must leverage their most vital assets, including their land, to secure loans to compete with private companies. Other scholars have focused on the growing numbers of urban unemployed who rely on the informal sector to make a living, and shifting the risk of economic production and reproduction from the state to individuals.7
Neoliberalization, however, is more than an economic program. Its effects are as much cultural as they are economic. Like previous systems of economic and political rule, neoliberal governance shapes how different groups understand the value of people and places and sets the frameworks for economic and political activity. Situating questions of value and values within a political and economic framework enables us to see the relationships between symbolic and material practices under a capitalist mode of production. As Don Mitchell notes, “Values—meanings, knowledge about good and bad and about truth and falsehood, about moral ways of life—are inexorably, if not completely, imbricated in the production of capitalist value” (2000, 72). This connection does not mean, however, that capitalism determines the shape of these relationships. In part what is produced in this political economic space are meanings and possibilities. Commonsense discourse is a powerful force reproducing dominant ideas, values, and interests. Yet history is a dynamic process, and new forms of production and consumption lead to new possibilities for how spaces are shaped and reproduced.
For many Tanzanians reducing government programs meant that few if any social safety nets remained in place. For upper-middle-class Tanzanians, this new economy organized around ideas of freedom and competitiveness could provide new economic prospects. For the majority of Tanzanians, however, there were too few opportunities to go around. Groups like the Maasai, who never enjoyed the full benefits of Tanzanian citizenship and received little in the way of social services or infrastructure development, did not necessarily lament the weakening of the state. For a large number of Tanzanian Maasai, the emerging international consensus that states stood in the way of development created new possibilities to claim long-sought land rights. Many Maasai people whom I interviewed between 1991 and 2010 associated Maasai land dispossession as much with the nationalist state since independence in 1961 as with the German-and then British-led colonial state and considered the neoliberal assault on the state a potentially promising change.
Scholars such as Dorothy Hodgson and James Igoe who have studied Maasai politics and land struggles in Tanzania since the 1990s have focused their attention on the important role of civil society and the remarkable rise of Maasai nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), which are fundamental in advocating for pastoralist rights in the changing national and international context. Much of this scholarship documents the work of NGOs in building new transnational coalitions and giving political representation to marginalized groups, especially ethnic minorities and women. These scholars also describe the limitations of NGOs as agents of social change, including the often narrow interests pursued by identity-based groups, the overreliance on foreign donors and their agendas, and new opportunities for corruption.8 Much of this literature is divided on the potential of NGOs to foster a new era of democratic and participatory development.
The role of foreign investment and the actions of specific investors have received much less attention by ethnographers seeking to understand how neoliberal development is experienced by its subjects and how it is remaking places and creating new possibilities.9 As important as NGOs have been to the politics of the Maasai people in Loliondo, foreign investors have played a crucial although largely concealed role in reshaping the Tanzanian landscape. In Tanzania state actors often view NGOs with suspicion as being excessively influenced by external agendas. Investors, however, are typically given a pass in this regard for they are represented largely as nonpolitical actors, simply interested in creating business opportunities and producing profit in the country. Because of the near-desperate need for foreign financing, national leaders, as well as large numbers of people looking for betting paying jobs and economic opportunities, commonly embrace investors as partners, if not saviors, in underdeveloped and highly indebted nation-states like Tanzania.
Arriving in Loliondo
Foreign investors are attracted to Loliondo primarily for safari tourism, including the area’s two main activities, big-game trophy hunting and adventure-oriented ecotourism. National park restrictions against hunting and walking (visitors are not permitted to get out of their vehicle, except at their campground, picnic site, or hotel) have made Maasai village lands adjacent to Serengeti National Park valuable sites for a range of safari tourism practices, including hunting and ecotourism. The deregulation of the tourism sector in the late 1980s helped transform village lands into tourist landscapes, radically changing their meanings and values.
When I first arrived in Loliondo, I spent two days in the headquarters of the newly registered Maasai NGO KIPOC (Korongoro Integrated People Oriented to Conservation). Despite being the central government seat for Ngorongoro District, Loliondo is quite isolated from the rest of Tanzania. Located only 400 kilometers (approximately 250 miles) north of the nearest city, Arusha, it is one of the most difficult places to reach in the country with no all-season road connecting it to the rest of Tanzania.10 It is easier for Maasai in Loliondo to cross the border north into Kenya to sell livestock and buy basic goods such as tea and sugar than it is for them to travel to Arusha or the de facto capital city of Dar es Salaam.
The final project for my study-abroad semester was to investigate how Maasai villages in Loliondo might benefit from new forms of tourism. In May 1992, I set out to start my study, and I was thrilled to have simply arrived in Loliondo. There was no public transportation, but I had been lucky to arrange a ride with Lazaro Parkipuny, who had served as a member of parliament (MP) for the Ngorongoro District (which included the Ngorongoro, Sale, and Loliondo political divisions) from 1980 to 1990 and had left national politics to start KIPOC in 1991. The trip to Loliondo felt like an accomplishment in itself. But despite the distance I had come, I was still uncertain how I would reach my ultimate destination, the Maasai villages that were only twenty to thirty kilometers outside Loliondo town. In my mind a Maasai village in this faraway place represented the authentic Africa I had traveled all this way to see.
With only a month to conduct my research, I was eager to arrive at my final destination and meet with real Maasai people living in their homesteads together with their livestock, just as I had read in my undergraduate anthropology classes. John ole Monte, one of the KIPOC staff members, told me to be patient.11 Ole Monte and other KIPOC staff would figure out some way to get me out to “the villages.” I spent my first day walking around Loliondo town. The place was a curious mix of Tanzanians who had moved to the district headquarters and established homes and small farms in the high-altitude plains. By May the maize fields were tall and green, awaiting the end of the rains in June for harvesting in July or August. Maize fields were a common sight across Tanzania. But not, I knew, in real Maasai villages. Unlike most peasant farmers, who lived on beans, maize, and a variety of green leafy vegetables, tomatoes, and onions, the Maasai lived primarily on milk and occasionally meat. Loliondo town fascinated me, but I couldn’t help but feel that I had yet to arrive in the real Africa. I did not have to wait much longer. In the middle of my second night, loud knocking and shouting awaked me. Maasai people throughout the district and the country knew Parkipuny as the go-to leader for pastoralists, especially when it came to handling trouble with state authorities. On this night, Maasai from the villages of Ololosokwan and Soitsambu came seeking his assistance. I heard the group of men speaking to Parkipuny in the room next to me. After several minutes of animated conversations, of which I understood not a word, Parkipuny knocked on my door. In Swahili he told me to grab my bag. There was a problem in one of the villages, he said, and he would be driving out to help resolve the matter. This, he told me in no uncertain terms, was my best chance to get a ride to a Maasai village.
I piled into the back of Parkipuny’s personal vehicle, a short-chassis Land Rover affectionately named “baby KIPOC.” For most of the ride, I sat quietly in the back taking in the scene. These six men had walked through the night over twenty-five kilometers to reach the KIPOC offices to find Parkipuny. They were clearly upset and spoke rapidly in the Maasai language, Maa. After about fifteen minutes of driving, Parkipuny explained to me what was going on. Serengeti National Park rangers had detained two young boys who were being held at Klein’s Camp ranger station in Ololosokwan village. He was going to help the elders and village officers get the boys released. Traditional and elected leaders had been seeking Parkipuny’s assistance for years to mediate and resolve disputes such as this. Not only did he speak Swahili and English fluently; having been the district’s MP also gave Parkipuny a particular gravitas when it came to dealing with state officials. Parkipuny wasn’t a lawyer, but he had pursued several lawsuits against the state during his tenure as MP. He was not afraid to confront state officials, especially if he believed they were treating the Maasai unfairly based on ignorance or discrimination. During his time in office, he had grown all too familiar with the accepted contempt and lack of respect for pastoralism as an acceptable way of life in Tanzania.
As I had learned on the way to Loliondo, Parkipuny’s reputation for driving fast was well deserved. That it was pitch black only seemed to encourage his desire for speed. The Land Rover careened across the red dirt roads, frequently hitting bumps that would send the little vehicle into the air and then forcefully back down again. I was only partially reassured, as the other passengers did not seem particularly afraid. My fear of dying was mitigated by my excitement at getting a lift to a real Maasai village. Beyond this ride, I had not given a moment’s thought to the logistics of my trip. During the forty-minute drive, Parkipuny broke off his conversations twice to speak to me. The first time was to inform me that we were passing through a part of Soitsambu village known as Sukenya. “This land,” he told me, “is Maasailand. The government tried to take this from us and turn it into a barley farm in the 1980s, but they failed. We took them to court and we won. This land is ours now, and people are afraid of us here in Loliondo. They know they can’t take our land. We started KIPOC to make sure they wouldn’t ever take our land.”
We drove another twenty minutes or so; then Parkipuny turned off the dirt road. Without reducing speed, he wove across the plains, avoiding trees, dry riverbeds, and occasionally zebra, gazelle, and wildebeest standing motionless in the open grasslands between scattered homesteads. We eventually stopped in front of a thorn fence enclosure. Parkipuny told me to get out here. “The boy next to you is Marcus Nalang’o. He speaks English and will be your host for the next four weeks. I will pick you up here at the end of the month.” With that, I followed Marcus out the back door of the Land Rover. During the ride Marcus had not spoken a word to me. Although younger than the other men in the car, he resembled them wrapped in a red-hued blanket with a staid expression on his face. For no good reason, I had assumed that he spoke only the Maasai language, Maa. A young man of about my own age of twenty-two clearly hadn’t come to Loliondo that evening to pick up a Mzungu (white person of European ancestry) visitor. He had walked the twenty kilometers from Soitsambu to Loliondo town with the other men to help get the young boys from his clan out of trouble. But in Maasai society it is quite difficult for younger Maasai, who can still be considered youth into their late twenties, to confront their elders. In many places having a foreign visitor foisted upon you for a month is less than ideal, if not utterly absurd, but Marcus never raised a question about taking me into his care. As it turned out, I could not have asked for a more gracious host; Marcus would become a close friend and research assistant for many years following our month together in May 1992.
After about twenty minutes, three young boys from Marcus’s enkang’ (Maasai homestead) managed to remove the thick thorn-strewn branches acting as a barrier for the small entrance in the otherwise tightly wrapped enclosure. The design of these elaborate living fences varied across pastoral communities in Tanzania. The exceedingly strong weave of this fence was a sign that threats from predators like lions, hyenas, and wild dogs were very real. Hundreds of cows, sheep, and goats slept in the paddock in the middle of the homestead, which Marcus’s father shared with his three adult sons and their families. As a member of a polygamous society, Marcus’s father had three wives, and each woman had her own enkaji (Maasai house) within the family compound.
After contorting our bodies to pass through the small opening, I followed Marcus along a muddy pathway that ran outside the central animal enclosure and then into his house. Marcus cleared his throat with a deep guttural sound. He helped me maneuver around the wooden posts that held the roof up, avoiding the goat kids and lambs that slept inside to keep warm in the cold high-plateau climate. I sat next to Marcus on the “men’s bed.” The bed, which doubled as a sitting and sleeping place, was made of dried and cured cattle skins stretched over an elaborate gathering of sticks. Marcus and his brothers, as well as any male visitors, slept here. If his father was staying in the house, the boys and the guests would all sleep elsewhere, in one of his “other mother’s” homes. On the other side of the home, across from a fire pit, was his mom’s bed. Upon our arrival, she awoke and quickly began to relight the fire, which provided both heat and light. Blowing on the end of a metal pipe, she slowly and deliberately restarted the flame on a dormant log. She added dry wood from her extensive collection meticulously stored in the walls of her house.
Only after the orange flames illuminated the room did Marcus’s mother set her eyes on me. Although she never said so, Marcus assured me that I was the first Mzungu to stay in her home. She looked at me closely and then at Marcus. It was the middle of the night, and although I can’t be certain, I think she assumed she was hallucinating. She boiled a pot of water to which she added tea leaves, sugar, and milk. After about fifteen minutes, she handed me the hottest metal cup I had ever held. My inability to hold the cup was comical compared to her lifting the aluminum pot from the three stones in her fire pit over and over as she added ingredients to the chai.
Only after all of these preparations did she ask Marcus who I was. He told her that I was a student from “America” and that I had come to stay with them for a month. Her only question was, “What will he eat?” Marcus turned to me and asked if I had brought my own food. I told him I had not but that I was happy to eat whatever they ate. This information eased everyone’s mind. I told Marcus a bit more about myself while we drank our tea. Soon afterward, I unrolled my sleeping bag. Marcus covered himself in his blanket, and we both fell asleep for the night. While with Marcus and his family, I bought basic food supplies like tea, sugar, maize, and beans to help compensate for the burden of taking care of me. I quickly came to realize that my resilient stomach was a great asset for living and working among pastoralists.
Over the next month I traveled around Marcus’s village of Soitsambu as well as the neighboring villages of Ololosokwan to the north and Oloipiri to the southeast. I helped herd cattle, visited Marcus’s friends, went to the monthly market in Soitsambu, attended church, and crossed the invisible boundaries separating Tanzania and Kenya to the north and Maasai villages from Serengeti National Park to the east. I conducted interviews with people about the history of the area and their experience with tourism.
Since that first visit and initial research, I have closely followed the efforts of tour operators, conservation NGOs, state officials, and Maasai leaders and groups to create tourism opportunities and how these political and economic relationships have influenced pastoralist land rights and livelihoods. Over that time my research focus shifted from the policy prescriptions of designing tourism projects that would benefit communities to asking how tourism projects shape Maasai culture and influence Maasai political ideas and tactics.
Although I had read several critical accounts of colonial conservation, much of my understanding of conservation in the early 1990s was based on a commonsense Western belief that conservation was inherently good. As an eager student, I thought that informed and well-meaning experts, the kind I might one day become, could resolve environmental conflicts by educating the different groups with better knowledge about the problems. Achieving conservation seemed an obvious win-win scenario to me at the time. I learned many things that month in Loliondo in 1992. One of the biggest lessons was that the Maasai saw conservation up to that point in their history primarily as a national and international agenda designed to dispossess them of their land.12 They had nothing against wild animals per se; in fact they are one of the few groups with strict taboos against hunting and eating wild animals.13 But the common methods of achieving conservation in Tanzania, modeled after the national parks system in the United States, reproduce a strict separation of people and nature, denying the possibility of people sharing the land with wildlife as a viable practice. According to many Maasai I interviewed, the inevitable result of conservation policies has been the complete enclosure of Maasailand. Understanding and promoting tourism and conservation were clearly more complicated than I had first assumed.
I would later learn that my first visit to Loliondo coincided with several significant events. That same year, 1992, marked the arrival of the Ortello Business Corporation (OBC), a high-profile hunting company from Dubai in Loliondo. The company was granted a controversial lease to two hunting areas in Loliondo. This would initiate a series of conflicts between hunting, nonconsumptive tourism and pastoralism in the area. One of the effects of this initiative was the 2009 eviction of the Maasai from their village lands to clear the area for hunting and the subsequent government effort to enclose fifteen hundred out of a total of four thousand square kilometers as a hunting game corridor (see chapter 4).
I also learned about legal efforts to permanently restore a farm formerly run by the state-owned Tanzania Breweries Limited (TBL) to collective grazing land. In 1987 Soitsambu village resident Isata ole Ndekerei and fourteen other villagers filed a lawsuit against TBL, claiming that the community had never agreed to allocate ten thousand acres of its land to the state.14 Despite the ongoing legal action at the time, Parkipuny and other leaders were assured that TBL had not obtained a title to the property in question. It came as a surprise then when in 2006 TBL sold the land to a U.S.-owned safari company (see chapter 5).
Before arriving in Loliondo, I spent two weeks on a field course run by Dorobo Tours and Safaris (Dorobo Safaris), a travel company owned by U.S. expatriates. It was during that trip that I first learned of Dorobo Safaris’s approach to community conservation and about its recent efforts, in 1991, to sign joint-venture contracts with village governments in Loliondo. The village contracts were presented as an alternative way to promote tourism without enclosing Maasai lands (see chapter 6).
As an enthusiastic twenty-two year old, I was thrilled to spend time with the Maasai in what appeared to me at the time as their “authentic landscape.” The Maasai in Loliondo lived in dispersed homesteads spread out across several registered villages. Despite their relatively permanent attachment to a specific location within a village area, the Maasai continued to rely heavily on seasonal movement of their livestock. Young men would take their families’ herds far from their homesteads and establish ronjos (temporary cattle camps) to take advantage of unpredictable rain patterns and availability of necessary grasses and minerals.
It took me many years and several return visits working with civil-society groups and as a researcher to appreciate that Maasai villages were not a feature of some timeless Maasai society. Rather, villages were created quite recently, formed in the mid-1970s as part of Tanzania’s rural socialist strategy. Yet, I argue in this book that starting in the early 1990s and coinciding with the founding of KIPOC, the emergence of an institutionalized pastoral civil society, the rapid privatization of state functions, and the promotion of tourism on village lands, Maasai in Loliondo began to use villages to organize their collective interests and to engage with foreign investors and state actors.
Situating the Research and Researcher
I went to Tanzania as an undergraduate student seeking to get my feet wet in fieldwork that real anthropologists and geographers were meant to do. I still believe that ethnographic research in which an outsider immerses himself or herself in another culture, builds relationships, observes and participates in daily life, interviews a broad mixture of people, follows current events, and debates with others in order to ask and answer meaningful questions is an important research strategy. I am, however, much less naive about the problematic politics of this research and the inevitable inequalities that it reproduces. There could not be a more stereotypically problematic representation of this type of research than a white man from the United States, studying perhaps the most iconic African ethnic group, the Maasai. Although I did not specifically seek out this historically awkward position, I can now see that it was a product of my own training. My undergraduate mentor taught anthropology at a small liberal arts college in New England. He studied pastoralists in the Sudan and had his students read the classics in structural anthropology. Not only did we read the E. Evans-Pritchard ethnography The Nuer (1940), we also read the lesser-known books in the trilogy, Kinship and Marriage among the Nuer (1951) and Nuer Religion (1956).
I knew I wanted to study in Africa, and my professor recommended the St. Lawrence University semester in Kenya. The program was based in Nairobi and introduced students to the history, culture, and politics of Kenya. It was during that semester that I first visited Tanzania and met the directors of Dorobo Safaris. I spent the next semester based in Arusha, Tanzania, on another semester-abroad program run by the Vermont-based School for International Training. That program was similar to the first but was organized specifically around conservation and wildlife management. By spending the entire year in East Africa, I was able to improve my Swahili language skills and instill my instructors with enough confidence to allow me to travel to the otherwise off-limits Loliondo for the final month of the program. I am very grateful for the opportunities and experiences I gained while studying abroad from August 1991 to June 1992 in East Africa. Despite their mission to promote cross-cultural learning and communication, however, such programs also reproduce the historically unequal relationships between wealthy industrial nations like the United States and relatively poor countries like Tanzania. Such programs empower their students to explore countries like Tanzania with the hope that students will use their knowledge to “change the world for the better.”
Had I been aware of the broader implications of my opportunities, I may never have left on that Pan American flight from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York to Nairobi. But I have come to understand my ongoing work in Tanzania through a different lens. I returned to Tanzania throughout the 1990s, first leading trips for U.S. high school students to volunteer and travel over the summer. I parlayed these experiences into longer stays in the country working with a number of NGOs. I stayed in close touch with Tanzanian friends and colleagues, following their lives and struggles in Loliondo. Interested in pursuing development work, I returned to school to study natural resource management at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. While there I took classes about the postcolonial state and global political ecology, as well as forest management and soil science. I returned to Tanzania in 1997 to study the evolution of village tourism partnerships begun by Dorobo Safaris five years after they began. At that time the owners of Dorobo Safaris founded a nonprofit foundation, the Dorobo Fund for Tanzania (Dorobo Fund). I introduced the company directors, the Petersons, to Marcus Nalang’o and his cousin Lucy Asioka. The Dorobo Fund hired these dynamic young Maasai to conduct research with me in July and August 1997. Together the three of us spent the summer interviewing Maasai throughout Loliondo and Simanjiro, another Maasai area south of Arusha. We met with district officials, village leaders, and a range of civil-society groups.
We researched how Maasai used their land and the role of village governments in regulating land management. We also sought to understand whether the tourism joint ventures between villages and Dorobo Safaris were widely known outside the core village leadership, and if so, what, if any, impact they had on people’s understanding of their land and of conservation. In many ways we were testing the thesis of investors like Dorobo Safaris, which believed that paying villagers directly to use their land for tourism was not only more ethical than imposing external conservation agendas but also more effective. We did find that local meanings of tourism and conservation were changing as villagers directly benefited from tourism. Valuing tourism, however, is not the same thing as sharing an understanding of its meaning with tourists. To the dismay of many tour operators, not one Maasai person we interviewed shared their sense of awe or joy at “hearing a lion roar in the distance” or the knowledge that “elephants and hippos shared their land.” Maasai had their own relations with nature, neither hostile nor nostalgic. Invariably Maasai appreciated wildlife as a part of what they understood as their landscape—a landscape created for and by pastoralists and their livestock, though not entirely of their own making.15
This book explores the contradictory discourses of market-led conservation, tourism, and land rights. I demonstrate that despite numerous challenges, the Maasai in Loliondo use their relationship with foreign investors together with community-based organizations (CBOs) and NGOs to try to remake their relationship with Tanzanian state institutions, with nature, and with their land. One consequence of neoliberal reforms was the liberalization of tourism on village land. This transformed villages throughout Loliondo into new forms of transnational commodities. The shift posed new threats of dispossession from foreign investors who were invited to Tanzania to transform “underutilized” spaces into valuable places. But these same policies and ideas opened new ways to understand and imagine Maasai villages as sites of belonging, rights, and international investment and reconfigured Maasai social relations with the local, national, and international institutions. If neoliberalism was going to transform the village into a new kind of commodity, Maasai residents and leaders were not going to sit idly by and see what happened. Instead they actively participated in the process of commodifying their villages and their landscapes. This book traces how the Maasai people are remaking the meaning of their landscapes and identities through their different arrangements with safari tourism. Much of this political room for maneuver relies on a new way to imagine, represent, and translate the meaning of Maasai villages as sites of belonging and rights. Much like the Serengeti, the Maasai village is both a place and an idea. Who gets to imagine, represent, and translate the contingent meanings of the village and of the greater Serengeti landscape will go a long way in determining the future possibilities for conservation and pastoralist livelihoods in northern Tanzania.