On Africa's living museums and cultural villages

I’ve always had a certain scepticism about the so-called “cultural villages” that are dotted along many of southern Africa and East Africa’s tourist routes.

Even before I’d reluctantly popped my cultural village cherry, I wondered how I would have felt if a bunch of tourists rocked up at my house unannounced and started gawking, speaking to me in a foreign language, taking pictures of my wife’s breasts, and picking up my children without asking. Not best pleased, I guessed.

My scepticism of the whole thing was only reinforced by some of my early first hand experiences.

During a visit to a Maasai village in Kenya, a fellow visitor bemoaned that some of the locals had TVs and cell phones, because it obviously contradicted the reductive image of the “Real Africa” that he’d been seeking.

I was amazed that he and many others didn’t seem able to see, or didn’t want to see, that the whole thing was so obviously staged for them. I met one of the locals from that same Maasai village in the pub later in the day, drunk off his face, and it turned out he wasn’t even a Maasai, but rather a Kikuyu who worked as a Maasai.

My second experience of a Maasai cultural village came some years later in Tanzania. This time I sulked in the car, while the other members of the film crew I was travelling with filmed the whole song and dance that was put on for them. But even unwittingly glancing at the display from a distance, I got a strong sense that the rather sullen-looking villagers just wanted us to cough up some money and piss off asap. And I certainly didn’t blame them.

I think what I found just as disturbing and uncomfortable as the voyeurism and the stereotyped falseness of many of these kinds of scenarios, was a strong feeling that those being observed were very much at the wrong end of the power dynamic, and that much more was being taken from them than was being given in return.

So you can imagine, then, that I was not particularly looking forward to the various cultural village and living museum trips that were on the itinerary for our recent Namibia media trip with local operator Namibia Experience.

The first on the list was the The Living Museum of the Ju/’Hoansi-San, on the fringes of the Kalahari Desert, an area that various San groups have called home for tens of thousands of years. A glance at the Living Museum website hadn’t alleviated some of my concerns – there were typically cliche descriptions of the “friendly” hunter gatherers.

But from the moment we arrived at the reception area (in reality a large tree and a patch of open Kalahari sand), this already felt like a very different experience from what I had expected, and what I had come to know so far.

A young Ju/’Hoansi girl, Namibia
A young Ju/’Hoansi girl, Namibia

A local guide was summoned and introduced himself as Henry. He produced a laminated menu with various experiences that we could partake in at the living museum, with fixed prices next to each item. Instantly, then, it felt as though we were being told what we could and could not expect or demand, and this already made the power dynamic seem more fair than what I’d experienced with the Maasai.

We agreed upon folk tales around the campfire for later that night, then a guided educational bush walk in the morning.

We set up camp at the living museum’s well-maintained campsite, got the fire going, sunk a couple of stiff gin and tonics and were tucking into our supper when Henry and a companion appeared out of the darkness to join us. They’d shed the T-shirts and jeans they were wearing earlier, and were now dressed in traditional loincloths and carrying spears, bows and arrows and knobkerries.

The conversation around the fire ranged from traditional San folk tales to Henry’s love for playing FIFA on Playstation. One minute he was talking about tracking and hunting kudu in the bush, the next he was lamenting the lack of cell phone signal and reminiscing about a trip to Paris.

Somehow, against the odds, he seemed to be able to move fluidly and comfortably between very different worlds and ways of life. And there was no attempt to pretend that his existence fitted some sepia-hued, romanticised stereotype, despite the obvious performative elements of the campfire experience. Maybe the gin and tonics played a role, but I was absolutely transfixed by him.

The bush walk the next morning was an even more memorable experience. As Henry led us away from the camp and into the model San settlement, we were joined by a number of curious community-members, who took particular delight in my failure to start a fire with a couple of sticks and some dried grass. Again, it seemed that the experience was just as interesting for them as it was for us.

And this, Henry said, was a key part of what he and the Living Museum of the Ju/’Hoansi-San were trying to achieve. The experiences they offered were a financially-beneficial way of educating  the younger generations of the Ju/’Hoansi and connecting them with a heritage that has been almost entirely obliterated or forgotten in so many parts of southern Africa. And it was largely being driven, at least on the ground, by the locals themselves.

As we said our goodbyes and carried on towards Khaudum National Park, I felt profoundly moved by what I had experienced over the past 24 hours, and for the first time there was no resounding sense that the experience had been in some way exploitative, or that on a certain existential level we’d taken more than we’d given.

But I also found myself feeling renewed disgust at the role we Westerners had played, and still play, in undermining and undervaluing any way of life that is different to ours, and the damage that this has caused to so many indigenous groups worldwide. Without us, living museums probably wouldn’t be necessary in the first place. When I really thought about it, this was perhaps my main source of discomfort towards the concept.

In any case, as I pictured the “modern world” continuing to close in around groups like the, Ju/’Hoansi, I now saw the importance of living museums and cultural villages, if they were managed the right way. Without them and inspiring individuals like Henry to lead them, we all stood to lose so much.

Henry, our guide, Namibia
Henry, our guide, Namibia
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