A delegation of seven Maasai leaders and representatives have returned home after spending two weeks in the UK working alongside InsightShare and the Pitt Rivers Museum.
This trip was a continuation of the Living Cultures: Decolonising Cultural Spaces project. The project addresses objects of cultural significance to Indigenous communities, held by museums. The visit is the second of its kind by Maasai representatives.
Who were the delegates?
Lemaron Ole Parit, the son of the Maasai spiritual leader Makompo Ole Simel, provided spiritual guidance during the trip. The other delegates are community leaders from Maasai clans from Kenya and Tanzania, and InsightShare Indigenous Associates. They included Samwel Nangiria, Amos Karino Leuka, Yannick Ndoinyo, Juliana Naina Mashati, Evelyn Paraboy Kanei and James Meipuki Ole Pumbun. Maasai communities selected the representatives to join the delegation.
The delegation presented the results of a mass community consultation process which has sought input on the project across different Maasai groups. Participatory media has been central to this. In this process, 70% of the Maasai community have been notified of the work with museums using video and radio. Community screenings in Maasailand of videos from the 2018 visit created an open forum for discussion. Importantly, the delegation screened a feedback video of the process during the 2020 visit. This video made clear to UK partners the advice and directions from Makompo Ole Simel.
Aims of the 2020 Indigenous Maasai delegation
The delegation were seeking to engage in spiritual guidance around particularly sacred artefacts, using the ancient Maasai wisdom system represented by Lemaron Ole Parit. This enables the community to understand the origins of these objects. Importantly, Maasai representatives have found that there are often large knowledge gaps in the narratives around artefacts. “This makes it more important for us to engage as an Indigenous community directly, to make sure we are represented properly in the museums,” said Samwel Nangiria, one of the leaders of the delegation.
A further aim was to explore way of redressing the historical wrongs that led to the collection or theft of these items, and the enduring legacy of colonialism that surrounds them. The trip is “a way to bridge the gap between what the museums don’t know, and what the Maasai know and they feel is not being addressed by UK museums,” said Yannick Ndoinyo, one of the delegates and a community leader from Tanzania. “Redress is finding the common and mutual ground between these museums and the communities of the Maasai.”
Evelyn and Juliana made clear that the voices of women need to be heard in the process. Crucially, women will have been the craftspeople behind almost all of the museum-held Maasai objects. “We are here representing all women, not just ourselves,” said Evelyn Paraboy Kanei.
Working with sacred Maasai objects at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford
At the Pitt Rivers Museum, the delegation continued the work from previous visits. They focussed on particularly sacred artefacts whose place in the museum are troubling for the community.
Lemaron Ole Parit led Laura van Broekhoven and delegates as they consulted a sacred calabash. This traditional Maasai object is a means of spiritual and ancestral communion. These ceremonies helped the group to understand how artefacts, sacred to Maasai culture, came to be in the museum’s collections. The group also held a session with the museum education team to disseminate the learnings from the project so far.
Investigating Maasai collections at the University of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
The MAA presented objects from Maasai culture to the representatives for the first time.
“It was like seeing six dead bodies on the table,” said Evelyn, when the group was presented with six orkaatar. Orkaatar are bracelet-like items. Fathers pass their orkaatar to their son, and as such they are items of great significance in Maasai culture. The delegates also saw several oltuala from the collection. Maasai warriors wear oltuala on the thigh to provoke emotion, and generate courage in the face of the enemy.
A source of pain for Indigenous communities is the continued inaccuracy which surrounds these objects in museums today. This is part of the long history of marginalisation. Delegates looked at the scant information that these objects often accompany. MAA curators worked with with representatives to correct and add to these narrative where possible.
Spreading the urgent message of Indigenous Peoples in the UK
During their trip the delegation took the opportunity to meet with UK allies and media. They carried the message that theirs is a living culture that should be listened to – for the sake of the whole planet. At BBC broadcasting house Samwel Nangiria gave an interview on Swahili TV about the Living Cultures project.
At a meeting organised by the Oxford Department of International Development, Maasai delegates met with Indigenous leaders from the Amazon. The Amazonian group were led by Davi Kopenawa, shaman and spokesperson for the Yanomami of Brazil. The group also joined local people and activists for an iqbol ceremony, an ancient Celtic event to welcome Spring,
Allying with Extinction Rebellion for a common goal
The delegation attended an Extinction Rebellion Universities event, Exploring Decolonisation: Environmentalism and Education. Academics and activists discussed the historical context, and what routes and barriers to decolonisation exist, and the Maasai group presented their experiences and ambitions for a global decolonising movement,
On Friday 7th February InsightShare and the Pitt Rivers Museum co-hosted the event Living Cultures: Decolonising Cultural Spaces at the University of Oxford. Here, delegates spoke with an audience that included academics, allies, curators and local educators about their work to reclaim their narratives through decolonising cultural spaces. Why is care of these objects important, and what is true care? What is the role of women in creating Maasai culture? How can the decoloniality movement be globalised?
As the movement grows, stay up to date by following us on our social channels. You can also sign up to our mailing list. To learn more about the work of the Living Cultures: Decolonising Cultural Spaces project, and the activities of the Maasai delegates, visit the project overview and media library here.