by Daniel SalauCivicus
It is unfortunate that the globalization process finds indigenous peoples, particularly the Maasai pastoralists, in a transition position. Strongly clinging onto tradition, while also embracing the modern way of life, is becoming a difficult equation to balance. However, the Maasai and other indigenous peoples can't live in isolation. They must secure a niche in the globalization process.
There is a misconception that the Maasai are a primitive lot, with outdated, barbaric and retrogressive practices. They have long been used as objects of charity. Their half-nude portraits have been flashed on countless safari picture books, which are meant to attract the tourist while the wealth accruing from this benefits them the least. Their naí¯ve and generous traits have been abused and misinterpreted to mean primitivity and backwardness.
For those who know them, the Maasai are indeed intelligent, elegant and outgoing peoples. With their traditional economy and lifestyle shattered as a result of interaction with other cultures, as well as government policies and development agencies, whose approaches are often inconsistent with community practices, there is no doubt that the community is at risk of both food insecurity and cultural erosion. Any organization striving towards development, however, must use an approach that is in conformity with the community's valued practices if any meaningful achievement is to be gained.
This is the approach that the Simba Maasai Outreach Organization (SIMOO), a community-based, non-governmental organization, is using to make tremendous achievements in integrated development. SIMOO, a membership organization with about 500 members, was formed six years ago by a group of people from the Olosho - oibor village, west of the Ngong Hills, who are determined to bring about socio-economic changes in their society.
The SIMOO project started collecting, storing and documenting materials and cultural items of value to the community. Most of these items are endangered and at risk of extinction. This is of paramount importance taking into consideration the need to conserve cultural and indigenous knowledge for future generations. The items collected are stored in a local museum called "Enkaji oonduat olmaasai" (House of Visual Knowledge). SIMOO also conserves ceremonial and medicinal plants in an open-air arboretum and documents local Maasai knowledge, especially in relation to conflict resolution.
The organization further arranges for an annual cultural field day where different cultural activities take place. By doing this, the organization has gained the confidence of the community. This means that the introduction of other new concepts such as development activities, education and gender issues face minimal resistance.
Further to that, the museum includes eco-tourism in order to add economic value to the projects. Eco-tourism involves activities that take into account the protection of the environment, while at the same time sustaining tourism and preventing the cultural pollution of indigenous peoples. The concept promotes tourism with minimum disturbance to nature and minimal cultural erosion. It emphasizes quality tourism as opposed to volume tourism and this has added value to the indigenous knowledge. It has given the community confidence, determination and an appreciation of their knowledge and culture.
SIMOO is currently undertaking a community-to-community exchange programme between the Maasai and the Luo community of Kenya. The former is rich in medicinal plants knowledge while the latter is more conversant with indigenous food crops. This initiative, being supported by the World Bank, is undoubtedly the first step towards combating poverty. The World Bank is also behind the ongoing Kenya Indigenous Knowledge Strategy, which strives to push for the recognition of indigenous knowledge and mainstreaming it into the development process. Members of the working group fostering this process are drawn from indigenous people's organizations and representatives of key ministries in Kenya.
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