A writer struggles with the ethics of visiting endangered cultures and reflects on her own experience as “other”.
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We were about 30 minutes from our destination—A campsite near the famous Brandberg Mountain in Namibia — when we noticed a few cars parked by the side of the road. “Cars on the road?” Several? ”I said to my husband incredulously. At that point, we had been on a road trip around Namibia, one of the least densely populated countries in the world, for 10 days. overtook one car per hour, on average. ”We slowed down, curious to see what was causing the commotion.
Tourists were taking photos of topless women who wore pearl necklaces and reddish braids. We had finally found the semi-nomad Himba tribe, famous for their intricate hairstyles, bodies covered in red ocher mud and generally perceived beauty. They are the ancestors of the Herero people, who arrived in Namibia in the 16th century as subsistence herders. Before tourism, they had little contact with foreigners.
I was less fascinated by Himba women than by the scene as a whole. It was December 2017, but it could have been decades earlier. White tourists in khaki shorts crumpled their faces as they peered through their cameras’ viewfinders, trying to capture the perfect shot of these ‘exotic’ African women. As soon as the tourists were satisfied with their work, they paid out money. We watched these events unfold from inside our rental car across the street. Before we knew it, a Himba woman approached us and asked us to take a picture of her in exchange for $ 20. We declined his request and left.
The moment with the Himba was reminiscent of an unexpected visit to a village my husband and I made in 2013 in northern Thailand. We were on a three day trek through the rice fields outside of Chiang Mai when our guide told us that our the next stop was a Kayan village. I was surprised, because I had expressly asked not to visit the village. The idea of human tourism did not suit me. But it was too late. Someone was already asking for an entrance fee.
Kayan women are known to wear so many brass rings around their necks that their heads seem almost disembodied. They start with a few necklaces when they are young children, and over time more than 20 pounds of rings will lower their shoulders and give the illusion of an elongated neck. When entering the village, something is wrong. It looked artificial in a way, like it was created for tourists. We called our guide and had him translated as I attempted a basic conversation with a woman and her daughter.
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I remember the woman looking a little stunned. She told me that her family was from Myanmar, that her husband often worked in distant rice fields, and that his daughter loved math. She was kind enough to answer the questions I asked about the brass rings, like they hurt (they didn’t) and she slept with them (she did). I finally took a photo, but never felt comfortable sharing it on social media. It wasn’t until later that I learned that my instincts were correct.
The Kayan people fled Myanmar in the 1990s for Thailand, whose government has granted them “conflict refugee” status. They now live in guarded tourist villages like the one I reluctantly visited, but have not been granted citizenship. They are not allowed to live outside tourist villages, cannot return to Myanmar for fear of violence, and have no real rights in Thailand as stateless persons. In a blog post, physicist and travel writer Katie Foote described the village of Kayan she visited as “a home gift shop.”
The Kayan and Himba women both existed as flat, old objects in the tourist imagination. Our visitor professions was to ignore their inner life and to remain speechless at their unusual ornaments. But is there an ethical way to visit people from distinct and sometimes threatened cultures like these? In the most generous valuation, perhaps even a brief meeting can strengthen both parties’ understanding of the world. After all, who are any of us to determine what a valid interaction looks like? What may seem like a superficial exchange to me can have a profound effect on someone else. Additionally, tourism can help some of these cultures preserve their rich traditions. Without the cash incentive that comes with tourism, it is possible that the Himba and Kayan people will struggle to perpetuate the unique elements of their cultures. But is there a line to draw? Why does my stomach turn when I see a staged village atmosphere filled with tourists and cameras?
The root of my unease, I think, is that the experience is rarely an honest cultural exchange. Neither Namibia nor Thailand saw signs of natural social interaction. Apart from the money, the visitor is not there to give anything of himself. On the contrary, the tourist is promised the possibility of consuming a foreign culture. They pay to feel, so fleetingly, like a colonial explorer “discovering” a primitive people, with foreign rituals and markers of beauty. They pay to admire the people who represent an era before smartwatches and drones.
In 2005, Will Jones, the founder of a sustainable safari agency called Journeys by Design, gave a talk about the people of Ethiopia’s Lower Omo Valley. He focused part of his speech on tourism to visit the Mursi people, known for their large lip plates, piercings, and body painting:
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The Mursi see the act of photographing as predatory, with rich Westerners taking photographs of poor Africans, not just the poor but of a particular and altered area of their body – not their livestock, their way of life or from their homes. As [Mursi anthropologist] David Turton points out again that the Mursi realize that the photographs are taken not because the wealthy traveler wishes to emulate the practice, but because it represents this imbalance of power and a divide between the rich and technologically advanced world and the poorer and technologically backward world of the Mursi. Another psychological challenge for the Mursi is the feeling that they are being visited by a globally mobile audience, as they remain trapped at the end of a dead end road, marginalized and captured on film.
What if someone from a tribal community decides they want a taste of modernity? If that person decides they want a cell phone and a college degree and a job in the big city? This is why there are so many image results if you google “Maasai Warrior Cell Phone.” Many people think it is apocryphal that someone could simultaneously wear non-Western clothing, carry a spear, and send heart-eye emojis to their girlfriend. Modern ambition destroys the glamor of the primitive tribe.
In his speech, Jones mentions the Maasai, tribal people of Kenya and Tanzania, as offering a potential solution to the operating status quo. The Maasai manage many of their tourist villages themselves. The entrance fee allows the visitor not only to take photos, but also to watch a dance performance and to take a real tour of the village. Some may see this as an ugly commercialization of Maasai culture, but on the other hand, it is led by the community itself and encourages tourists to learn more about the people and places they visit.
I once fell victim to a cultural oddity when I was on my honeymoon in Cuba. In keeping with Indian tradition, my wedding had included a mehendi, or henna, ceremony. Days later, I was exploring the streets of Viñales with my hands and feet temporarily dyed in intricate brown swirls and cashmere. I first noticed that a few people were reporting me to their friends. Soon people started to arrest me. I quickly learned that Bollywood movies are big in Cuba. According to people I have met, films dubbed into Spanish are shown on national television every Friday night. I also learned that most Cubans had never met an Indian, especially one who looked as “exotic” as I did at the time. I speak Spanish and love to meet new people, so I used the fascination with my mehendi as a foot in the door of a cultural exchange. I explained that I had just got married. On my phone, I showed them some wedding photos, which apparently looked as colorful as the movies they were watching. They told me about Cuban wedding traditions. We talked about how people all over the world aren’t that different from each other after all.
In their eyes, I was “the other”, the human symbol of a distant culture. But unlike Himba, Kayan or Mursi women, I could engage with these curious Cubans on my own terms. I didn’t have to flaunt my heritage, nor was I held captive in a life that might or might not feel genuine to me. I had the agency to turn the gaping mouth into something that I think allowed both parties to benefit: a human connection.
Book’s extract Walk brilliantly. Copyright © 2021 by Sarika Bansal.
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