Stereotype-Defying Photos of East Africa's Maasai People
Twenty East-African photographers prove that Maasai culture involves a lot more than the spears, beads and brightly coloured clothing Western photographers tend to capture.
Photo: Sarah Waiswa
This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands
The Maasai people are an ethnic group living in East Africa – mostly in northern Tanzania and southern Kenya. Thanks to the tribe's brightly coloured traditional clothing, elaborate jewellery and tendency to carry around spears, they're very popular among Western tourists hoping to capture their idea of the "authentic" side of the entire continent of Africa. The way Maasai people are usually portrayed fits the stereotypical idea of the continent being devoid of modern technology, with tribesmen and women living in mud huts and spending their days chanting and hunting wild animals.
The new book My Maasai aims to portray Maasai people in a less clichéd way, and is a collaboration between East African photographers Sarah Waiswa, Mohammed Altoum and Joel Lukhovi, Dutch photographer Jan Hoek and Kenya-based writer, Karanja Nzisa. "Representations of this diverse tribal group are almost always manifested in jumping warriors and bare-chested women struggling to look past a swarm of flies into the camera lens, while balancing snotty-faced tots on their hips," Karanja Nzisa writes in the introduction of the book. "[The Maasai] must be recorded truthfully and fairly for the world today and for posterity."
The book features the work of 20 young Sudanese, Kenyan and Tanzanian photographers and artists, who were asked to create unique portraits of the ethnic group in a visual style of their choice. With each picture, the photographer explains why he or she chose to showcase the Maasai the way they did. The result is a book with a wide range of works – everything from photo shoots inspired by legendary goddesses to a look at how Maasai fashion and architecture has evolved. "Time has come for the people of this wonderful land to reconstruct this narrative," Nzisa writes, "and show through their own images how they see the modern Maasai."
My Maasai will next be exhibited at the Lagos Photo Festival in Nigeria from the 24th of November to the 15th of December, 2017.
Scroll down to see more photos and read about what inspired the photographers.
Born and raised in Khartoum, Sudan, 33-year old photographer Mohamed Altoum is interested in how urban migrants identify with the home they have left behind, and how they reconcile that longing to return with a desire to find their feet in the big city. Mohamed recorded this conflict through the eyes of a Maasai woman living in Nairobi.
Sarah Waiswa, 36, is a Uganda-born Kenyan photographer. After hearing the legend of a long forgotten female deity from a time before modern religion had reached Africa, Sarah was fascinated by the idea of how a society so deeply patriarchal could have a history that was so the opposite of that. She discovered that hardly anything had been documented about the deity, who was said to bring cattle from heaven to earth. So Sarah returned to the Maasai village where she first heard the story and created a photo shoot inspired by the goddess in a place where opportunities for women are limited.
26-year-old Godlisten Meshack is a Maasai from Arusha in north Tanzania. For him, no matter how much he identifies with his culture, he always tries to distance himself from the traditional Western image of a Maasai. With the help of a Dutch fashion design student he brought together elements from Western fashion and traditional Maasai garments to symbolise that conflict inside of him.
With this work, Kelvin Kiarie, 21, portrays nightmares of a dystopian world overrun by Maasai vampires killing for human blood – the idea being that their usual diet of raw cow's blood with milk would no longer be sufficient. By combining cleverly composed images with a chilling aesthetic, Kelvin tries to convey this absurd and irrational fear to his audience.
For Waithereo Wambui, 20, many faces of Maasai women remind her of the models she has seen walking the runways and in fashion magazines – high cheek bones, angular jaw lines, intense eyes and bold stares. Inspired by her style icon Victoria Beckham, she combines a modern fashion aesthetic with the vibrant colours of traditional Maasai clothing, creating a hybrid look she calls, "Rock star Maasai".
When a Maasai friend came out to 22-year-old June Odiembo in high school, she realised how bleak it must be to be gay in a society that doesn't accept your sexuality. June now dedicates her work to growing the visibility of marginalised groups in the Maasai community.
In school, 18-year-old hip-hop artist Malcolm Nduati was an insufferable bully – and he was especially cruel towards his Maasai classmates. His friends even started using a name for them: "Ndaghuo", meaning foolish or clueless. But when he watched a performance of a young Maasai rapper at his local church, he was blown away. Malcom is also a hip-hop artist, and discovering there were Maasai in mainstream entertainment changed his entire outlook. Over the last year he's been working with other rappers from that community – both musically and in his photography.
Growing up in Ongata Rongai, a Maasai enclave just outside of Nairobi, 21-year-old Ruth Moige fell in love with the culture at an early age. Through this work, though, she wants to shift the focus from the cultural richness of the tribe to how cute their kids are.
This work of Joel Lukhovi, 30, is a great example of what happens when a passion for photography is combined with a background in engineering. He sees beauty where many would not – in the texture of a wall, the patterns of a roof or the asymmetry in a twig fence. Joel has lived and worked among the Maasai, and he uses his work to investigate what architecture and space means to the community.
24-year-old John Obiero documents shifts in Maasai architecture. He's convinced that this evolution is made possible by many different factors – a change in economic status, or the disappearance of once locally available building materials, for example. Whatever the reason, John has noticed that Maasai homes have definitely changed since the last time visited a village on a school trip, and saw the inside of a traditional manyatta for himself.