Accepted Paper:

Maasai beadwork for sale: destruction of culture or perpetuation of traditional handicraft?  


Signe Strøm (University of Perugia)

Paper short abstract:

Different aspects of the sale of souvenirs in Masai Mara (Kenya) will be addressed from both the buyers' and the sellers' point of view. Particular attention will be given to the discussion of exchange in two contexts: organised sale within a fair trade project and individual sale by local women.

Paper long abstract:

This paper is based on data collected during fieldwork in the Talek community adjacent to the Masai Mara Reserve, where sale of souvenirs, especially beadwork, represents an important income source for Maasai women.

Tourists' interpretation of different forms of souvenir sale will be analysed. A fair trade project, which claims to promote the maintenance of the handicraft skills and the production of beadwork as souvenirs, represents for the buyers a "positive" aspect of tourism in Masai Mara. Guests are invited to visit the workshop where they can see how the women work. The objects for sale are labelled with the name of the artisan and, consequently, a personal value is added to the commerce of souvenirs, often criticised as mass-produced. In this context, tourists experience buying souvenirs as "helping" the local poor women. In contrast, sale of souvenirs during village visits and outside the reserve's gates is characterised, according to tourists' accounts, by the Maasai women's aggressiveness and tough bargaining. Therefore, the tourists are often left with the feeling of being pushed to buy against their will and are often afraid they have paid "too much". Souvenirs sold in this way are generally of "low quality", according to Western standards, and mass-produced in Nairobi. This commerce is described as a sign of the ongoing erosion of traditional culture.

For the Maasai women, the direct sale to tourists is better than the participation in the project: they earn more, and are not "poor women" gazed upon by foreign visitors.

Panel W093
On 'Souvenir': experiencing diversity, objectifying mutuality