People With Eyes

Why the Maasai came to believe that tourists have the evil eye.

By George Monbiot. Published in The Guardian 19th September 1998.

I don’t think I’ve ever had an argument with a tour operator – and there’ve been quite a few – in which my opponent failed to claim that she or he was facilitating a “cultural exchange”. Yes, I’ve sometimes forced them to concede, tourism does dispossess people. Yes, few of its revenues, especially in the Third World, reach impoverished locals. Yes, the environment is often scarred and polluted. But, whatever its other faults may be, tourism provides a bridge between ourselves and other people. It is an exchange of culture, which brings down barriers and allows us to understand each other better. This is such a well-trodden truth that it scarcely ever gets questioned.

Along the road to the Maasai Mara Reserve in south-western Kenya is a series of what the Maasai call “cultural manyattas”. Rings of low wicker huts, they look just like the Maasai’s ordinary ceremonial villages, but these have been built not for the festivals that mark the young men’s coming of age, but to lure tourists travelling towards the main attraction, the animals in the game reserve.

The Maasai are excluded from their lands in the Maasai Mara on pain of death, because, the conservation authorities have told me, “tourists don’t want to see them there”. Much of the rest of their land has been stolen for wheat farming. The differences between themselves and other people are among the few assets they have left and so, often reluctantly, they sell them.

The drivers of the minibuses will only bring their tourists to a cultural manyatta if the Maasai have bribed them in advance. Mysteriously, the tour guides fail to inform their charges that the villages have been built just for them. So when the buses pull in and the tourists see the Maasai lining up to dance, they trample each other in their haste to record for posterity the rare and secret ceremony they believe they have stumbled upon.

When the Maasai dance for themselves in real manyattas, they huddle together. When they dance for the tourists, they line up like an aerobics class. They jump up and down and chant a bit, then lay out some beadwork for sale. After half an hour, the tourists get back in the bus and move on to see the lions. Not a word is exchanged between them and the Maasai, except to haggle. Once, when the tourists had left, I managed to persuade one of the dancers to tell me what he had been chanting. “Come on you tourists,” he translated, “buy our beadwork, and give us all your money.”

Tourism of this kind, whose coin is instant and indolent gratification, seems only to raise cultural barriers. Among the Maasai, resentment towards ill-informed visitors has a long history.

Like Europeans who believe in the evil eye, many of the Maasai consider that certain people, whom they describe as “people with eyes”, can see through other people’s bodies. As their gaze penetrates the vital organs, they can unwittingly, strike people down.

To prevent this from happening, people with eyes are required to spit if they stare hard at someone. Spitting, invoking the falling of rain, is considered by the Maasai to confer a blessing. While people with eyes within the community are scrupulous, the Maasai do not trust strangers to be so careful. This is why, when newcomers enter a village, the children will run off and hide behind their mothers’ skirts: being seen by an inconsiderate stranger with eyes can be fatal to them.

As western medicine began to spread through Kenya, the Maasai heard that there was a machine used by foreigners to see people’s bones and guts. Long exposure to its rays, they learnt, could make people ill or even kill them. When foreigners then arrived in their villages and, without asking, stared at them through their cameras, the Maasai equated these one-eyed machines with the X-rays they had heard about. They concluded that the tourists had deliberately endowed themselves with eyes. Seeing that the tourists never spat when they took a photograph, some of the Maasai assumed that they were intentionally doing them harm.

Cameras are no longer equated by the Maasai with X-rays, but the resentment towards the insensitivities of tourists remains. It is compounded every time a westerner, draped in gold and cameras, travelling between the Nairobi Hilton and the Maasai Mara’s exclusive lodges, spends ten minutes reducing the cost of his holiday by three or four pence, by battling with a desperately poor Maasai over the price of a bead necklace.

There is no cultural exchange. The tourists get a parody of a culture they don’t even want to understand. The locals, if they are lucky, get a handful of loose change. And the walls between ourselves and other people rise with every encounter.