Visiting an African Tribe: What You Need To Know

When I decided to travel to Africa, visiting an African tribe was one of the things I really wanted to do.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve always been interested in how people live, social dynamics, traditional customs and folklore – even before I really knew what any of those things really were. People have always fascinated me.

I’d seen tribal peoples in pictures and on tv, and depicted in African masks and art that I’d seen in various museums. But to meet them in real life was a dream. But I didn’t really know anything about how or why they had opened up their homes to strangers like me. Obviously to make money, but my knowledge didn’t go much deeper than that.

Maasai Tribe

My interest in people and places got a bit more serious when Tribe came into my life, just before I started seriously thinking about travel. If you haven’t seen it, Tribe is a TV documentary series where presenter Bruce Parry goes to live with indigenous tribes, for around a month or so. Living exactly as they live, not trying to change anything or judging, he simply goes to learn and gain insight into their cultures. The tribes he visits are usually quite remote, but who have had some contact with the outside world.

Himba Tribe Namibia

Tribal visits are common on the tourist trail now, both in Africa and elsewhere and are ‘activities’ offered by many hotels and tour operators.

Recently I was reading an article about the real cost of travel and  I got to thinking about why and how people do this and I think, it all comes back to the fact that as human beings, we are curious by nature. For me, visiting a tribal community is always an interesting and mostly humbling experience. To meet people, to learn is the main reason I travel.

But there are a few things I wish I’d known before I went travelling.

Mang'ati Tribe

There’s a debate as to whether tribal visits are ethical or exploitative and how tribal cultures are suffering due to western influences. I’ve heard the words, ‘human safari’ used. Now I’m not talking about visits to tribes that have little or no contact with the outside world, because that brings about a whole different set of issues, too numerous to go into here. I’m talking about tribes that have invited tourists into their villages, like the Maasai in Kenya/Tanzania or the Himba in Nambia.

The Maasai Tribe

I’ve been on tribal visits set up by a tour company I’ve been travelling with, but I’ve also spent some time with tribal people that I’ve happened to meet randomly, like Kisogo, a Maasai Warrior I met in a bar in Zanzibar, with whom I spent a lovely afternoon playing pool, having a few beers and hanging out on the beach.

Kisogo and I Maasai Tribe Warior Zanzibar Tanzania

Then there was the time I visited a small family group of the Mang’ati tribe, a pastoral people who I met through a friend who runs an NGO in Tanzania. This was not a paid or tourist trip. We were simply invited round. The matriarch of the village dressed up in her finest – her wedding dress.

Mang'ati Tribe

Mang'ati Tribe Tanzania

Regardless of the context of the visit, I’ve always found the tribes that I have visited to be mostly welcoming of strangers. Himba women were intrigued by the fact that I was 29 and had no children, Maasai women laughed as I tried on their jewellery and Maasai men were impressed with my jumping abilities. I enjoyed my visits immensely, and hopefully the people I met did too – perhaps I made them laugh!

But the thing that struck me most, is that whilst every tribe is very different, they are often facing very similar issues.

Showing the Maasai how it's done!

One afternoon, I went on a trip to a Maasai village in Kenya. Upon arrival, the men and women sang and performed dances for us before we entered the village. Children giggled shyly, egging each other on to hold our hands. We were given a tour of the village, shown how they maintained their homes, how they build fires using sticks and kindling – the traditional ways of the Maasai. All the while, others members of the tribe went about their business, throwing a welcoming smile or a raised eyebrow greeting as I passed. At one point, myself and my friend Kristy joined a group of children sheltering from the midday sun.

A Maasai Village in Kenya

They may have showed us how they traditionally lived, but in reality the Maasai are becoming part of the modern world. They have mobile phones and if I’d have wanted to top up my credit in the village, I could have done so. And the traditional fire building methods…did they do that all the time? I doubt it. They probably use matches.

Maasai Lighting a Fire the Traditional Way

The traditional dances they performed for us, at one time would have been saved for special occasions. Now they are performed for money.

Is it tourism ruining cultures? Or preserving them?

A semi-nomadic people, the Maasai have endured the harshest of conditions. But the outside world is encroaching in on them. More and more land is now privately owned and indigenous people become displaced for tourism (game reserves and hotels) or to make way to build roads and for other reasons. So tourism is having a dramatic effect on Maasai culture.

The Maasai Tribe

Being semi-nomadic, they are not farmers by tradition. Maasai diets consisted of raw meat, raw milk, cattle blood and occasionally fruits or vegetables. But today, more and more of their traditional land is becoming privately owned and they are forced to become more permanent rather than nomadic and their cattle, goats and sheep don’t have the space they need to graze. Disease amongst the livestock has also been an issue.

Maasai diets have changed over the years and their staples are maize porridge (ugali) and milk, with more vegetables in the diet.

A Money Economy

Trading cattle is no longer a relevant currency and many Maasai don’t know how to manage livestock for making money, only using them as a sign of wealth. Opening the village for tourism allow tribes people to generate vital income that can pay for food, life-saving medicines and education.

As Western culture spreads more into traditional African cultures, along with the bad comes the good.

Maasai Tribe

I think it’s important to keep traditional cultures alive, but there are certain practices that I would not be so sad to see go. Not that I’m in any position to judge what another culture does, but without outside influences and education, dangerous practices such as Female Circumcision (FGM) will never be phased out. This is illegal in both Kenya and Tanazani, but is still widely practiced.

Lack of education also leaves people more vulnerable to being taken advantage of, however education is becoming more widespread in Maasai culture. There are even Maasai in government in Kenya, which can only be good for the tribe, to give them a voice that they might not have otherwise.

What’s the alternative to tribal visits?

Tribal people are facing a tougher time than ever before but years of practice have made them resourceful and they are finding new ways to survive. Some Maasai have started farming and now grow tea and other crops, but droughts and unpredictable weather are common and make this difficult. In other areas farming is impossible due to the wildlife.

Mang'ati Tribe Tanzania

Without ways to sustain themselves in the villages, many tribes people are forced to move to towns and cities. A lot of the men work as security guards, but this takes them away from their families and others struggle with lack of education and social skills to survive in the city. Opening the village to tourism is often the better option.

Maasai Women

It’s a sad but true that many tribal communities now depend on tourism. Yet it’s tourism and development that has created the most problems.

This is echoed around the globe. It may not be ideal, but perhaps in some ways, tourism is helping to preserve traditional cultures, by allowing people to earn money when they might not otherwise be able to do so. And one thing to remember, is that the people have not been forced against their will to open their villages to tourists.

Two Women of the Samburu Tribe deep in conversation at Umoja Village, Kenya

Some women of the Samburu tribe have opened up their own co-operative and invite tourists in. This allows them independence. Educated or not, they are quite capable of making their own decisions about their future, but it’s always better to make informed decisions.

Corruption & Exploitation

But I don’t think the general influence of western society on these tribes is the dangerous part.

There was one occasion when I visited a tribe and things did not go so well. A few of us had organised a trip to go to a Twa village in Rwanda. A driver picked us up in a jeep and drove us into the countryside outside of Ruhengeri, on the same day we’d been gorilla trekking. We were shown around the village, we danced, we made music, I used all my strength to fight my maternal instincts when I saw small children literally playing with fire, we pulled silly faces with the kids… We were made to feel extremely welcome and it was a lot of fun.

Dancing with the Twa Tribe, Rwanda

But as we were leaving, an argument broke out between the villagers and our driver. They were angry about something but we didn’t know what as we couldn’t understand what they were saying. Our driver got in the car and we drove off. It wasn’t until later and I’d spent more time in Africa that I figured out why. I can’t prove it, but I’m pretty sure the argument was over money. Had the driver ripped them off? Probably.

Kids of the Twa Tribe Rwanda

I’ve since found out that it is common for this to happen. The problem is not just tourism or development, the problem is exploitation from all angles. If the tour operators keep a large cut of the money, villagers end up putting pressure on tourists to buy souvenirs at ridiculous prices to make money rather than doing a good tour of the village, which is now putting tourists off visiting. It’s a vicious circle.

The Mang'ati Tribe Tanzania

In Namibia, it’s common for tour companies to visit the Himba. But you should be aware, that most of those tour companies visit villages where the land they live on is not owned by them, usually part of a farm, but they are allowed to live on it for free. Some of the money may be given to the Himba but the majority won’t. I’m not saying don’t go. Just be aware that’s what happens.

If you want to visit the Himba independently, I’d suggest going to Opuwo in northern Nambia. It’s a bit of the tourist trail which is why the tour companies stick to elsewhere. But in Opuwo, the Himba own their own land, and you can arrange a tour direct with them, so you can be sure they receive all the money that you pay.

At Mara Explorers Camp in Kenya, a trip to a Maasai Village costs around 500KSH ($6), compared to other places that charge $20. So the tour operator will be taking a big cut (minus transport costs).

Things to Consider

Tribal visits provide vital income to help tribal people survive in today’s world. When you’re planning a visit, the most important thing is to ensure that the people you are visiting are treated fairly and that you do not contribute to the exploitation of vulnerable people.

  • Ensure that you are visiting a tribe that is happy to have tourists in their village.
  • Go with the mindset that this is a mutual learning experience. Ask questions, share things with them.
  • If you are travelling with a tour company, ask the company you are travelling with where the money goes. How much of the money is going to the village? Choose a company that works with and supports the village and does not exploit them.
  • If you are organising your own trip with a driver, negotiate a separate price with the driver for his part and give your money directly to the village chief.
  • Ask if you can take photographs. Most people who open their village to tourists will be more than happy to let you take photograph, they are proud of their culture, but it’s always nice to be asked.
  • Read up on the tribe you are visiting and be aware of any culturally sensitive issues.
  • Be respectful – you’re in someone else’s home.

Recommended Companies

This is a list of companies that I can personally recommend for their ethical tours, who either I or a friend have travelled with.

I will continue to add to this. If you know of any great companies that support indigenous people through tribal visits and other projects, please let me know in the comments below.

Kenya

  • Mara Explorers Camp – Run by Moses and his wife Laura, Mara Explorers Camp supports the Ole Keene Maasai village which is right next door and also work on a number of other initiatives in the Masai Mara.
  • Umoja/Unity Women’s Village – Run by women of the Samburu tribe, Umoja Village is a women’s refuge and co-operative. They offer tours of their village and you can book directly through them.
  • Il Ngwesi Lodge – An eco lodge in Kenya run by the Maasai themselves. Read reviews on Tripadvs
  • Maji Moto Maasai Cultural Camp – A Maasai run camp and social enterprise.

Namibia

  • Arrange a tour direct with a Himba village in Opuwo. You will be able to arrange this when you arrive.

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