Spending the last year learning two new languages, Swahili and Maa, buying a car, and building a mud hut in the Maasai Mara, Kenya has been an unbelievable experience but it is very satisfying to finally get stuck in with my PhD research. I am based just north of the Maasai Mara Reserve in South Western Kenya studying perceptions of ‘development’ and its relationship with the conservancies which have recently been created on this land that borders the reserve.
As I am fortunate enough to have been warmly welcomed into the Maasai communities that neighbour these conservancies, and invited to build myself a little house in a family’s village, I am able to interact with the local people on a daily basis. I observe and discuss with them how they feel their lives are changing and who the actors are who are involved in ‘development’ in this area, as interpreted by themselves. I frequently have to remind myself that this fascinating daily life is my ‘work’ as I feel so privileged to be back here for the third time to conduct research, especially as I have been able to create this PhD research around the topics, culture and locations of which I am so interested and passionate.
One of my research questions is to explore how development is defined by the different actors within my study site. I have discovered that although this may sound a simple question, trying to elicit responses can be quite a challenge. For many people, especially those who work for NGOs, it is easy to give an answer on their interpretation via an interview, however, for many other people the ability to give a clear and concise answer is not so simple. Having conducted a couple of trial focus groups with Maasai women, the common response is that development is education, healthcare and clean water but upon more detailed probing, it appears that this understanding is what NGOs working in the area on programmes based on these three areas have stressed to the neighbouring populations. I am trying to get a deeper, more individual response and so have decided to try to conduct a visual ethnography method, sometimes called photovoice. My plan is to give five digital cameras to a sample of people in a village for a couple of weeks and ask them to take photographs of any changes and ‘developments’ that they see (this will then be repeated 10 times in different areas). The hope is that these photographs can then be used as an aide to initiate and fuel more in-depth discussions on what emaendaleo (development) really means to the people living in this area. These responses will then be compared to those obtained from other actors such as conservancy and tourism management, local MPs, NGO workers etc. and any differences will be examined.
I will be also be exploring who feels a sense of responsibility for development in this area. As it is a hotspot for Kenya’s safari tourism industry, hundreds of thousands of tourists pass through this area every year, and my initial assessments suggest that many of these tourists feel a sense of responsibility to help ‘develop’ the local communities that they see first-hand. For example, last week a Belgian tourist went to one of the schools where I regularly visit and within minutes decided to donate $1000 to build more toilets for the students. I will be exploring the rationale and feelings that result in tourists making donations – is it more than just guilt? However, it isn’t just philanthropic tourists who make such gestures. Although tourism is undoubtedly a neoliberal industry with a focus on making money, I am finding that the tourism operators in the conservancies here appear to have a genuine interest in ‘development’. In addition to the rent for the land leased by the local landowners to the conservancies, the vast majority of local infrastructure (including schools and clinics) is at least partially funded by the tourism companies. I am interested to explore why this is, and how, after a more detailed analysis, it may actually be in the interest of such capitalist industries to take an interest in their neighbours’ welfare. This poses a further question as to whether the motivations behind such actions are important if a positive result occurs regardless of motivation.
My final research question aims to pinpoint where the power to make decisions regarding ‘development’ lies at the different scales that affect my study site, and whether this is changing over time. My initial findings are that much of the power currently lies with the NGOs and conservancy trusts, who decide where their funding should go, however, the degree of ‘local’ participation in this is increasing rapidly and even within communities I have noticed (since undertaking my previous research in this area) a movement of their decision making ability from ilpayiani (the male elders) to the ilmurran (young men), especially those who are educated. I am also observing that the voices of women are also increasing in frequency and volume in this traditionally male dominated society.
My plan once I have conducted my research over the next 12 months is to try to establish how these grassroots perceptions and findings relate to development theory, and to establish if there are any lessons that development theory can learn from this study at such a grass-roots scale. However, at the moment this seems a long way off, and for the moment I am just enjoying every moment that I have in this beautiful land and the unique opportunity that I have to work with the Maasai people and to try to elicit locally defined interpretations of development from those who are directly affected by such definitions but rarely given a voice.
Crystal Courtney, PhD student in Kenya