If you’re in a museum and come across an object from the Maasai people of East Africa, it’s likely that a woman made it. This is just one reason why it is essential for women to take an active role in decolonising cultural spaces.
In early 2020, seven Maasai delegates led a visit to the UK. During the trip, the group often remarked that women are at the root of Maasai culture. Maasai women transmit their cultural wisdom to younger generations . They play a key role in celebrating and protecting the unique Maasai culture. For example, they are the ones who teach children the Maa language, and create the distinctive beaded jewellery.
Since the launch of the Living Cultures: Decolonising Cultural Spaces project, there has been an ongoing discussion around the presentation of Maasai objects, and the untold stories and meanings behind them. Clearly, we need to hear the voices from the group who created these objects: Maasai women.
2020 Maasai delegation to the UK
In January 2020, Juliana Nainin Mashati and Evelyn Paraboy Kanei were among the seven delegates from Maasailand – Maasai territory across Kenya and Tanzania – who visited the UK. The group visited the Pitt Rivers Museum of the University of Oxford, the Horniman Museum in London and the Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology in Cambridge. The aim of the delegation was to continue work around culturally important objects. They were accompanied by guidance from the spiritual leader, Lemaron Ole Parit. Maasai women from the community selected Juliana and Evelyn as representatives to make sure that their voices would be heard in the process. “We are here not just to represent ourselves. We are here to represent Maasai women and the Maasai community,” said Evelyn.
“All the objects you see here have gone through the hands of a woman,” continued Juliana as she observed the Maasai collection held at the Pitt Rivers Museum. “Women are the architects behind what there is in the museums. That is why it is crucial for women to be engaged, involved and considered in all of the discussions surrounding the objects in the museum. This is the only way in which we can best move forward.”
Shining a light on gendered inequality
In the Living Cultures project, Evelyn and Juliana’s representation was not only about the care of sacred artefacts. It also became a platform for them to shed a light upon the gendered inequalities that affect Maasai women. They gave voice to their own worries by speaking of the issues that matter for them. The need for representation is great. “It is actually very important that women are represented in this project because in the Maasai culture, or even most African countries, the women are the custodians of culture. However, women are really marginalised and oppressed in our society,” she said.
“We live in a male dominated society. Maasai women are not employed, but they need to care for the family, for the children, for the livestock. So, it is important for us to be included in this project. Not only because we make the jewellery but also to continue raising awareness on the stories of suffering, oppression and poverty. That is why it is important for me to be here, to be a voice for those women.”
Maasai women take an active role in the fight against gender inequality, eradication of Maasai culture and enduring colonial attitudes. Oltolio Le Maa is a Maasai-led participatory video group. Women have since grown their involvement in using video to empower communities. Participatory video hubs, established with training from InsightShare, allow Maasai women to tell their own stories.
Female activism through video in Maasai comunities
As Indigenous women, Maasai women and girls often suffer the most from the consequences of climate crisis, land grabbing and the faults of a patriarchal society. Participatory video allows women to look critically at the ways in which unequal social power dynamics affect their lives. Women in Maasai communities have taken on an active role as participatory video trainers and filmmakers. They have covered issues like child marriage, barriers to education and lack of private ownership.
In Esipata-e-Eselenkei (translated as Girl’s Rights), Maasai women and girls focused on the lack of continued education for girls in comparison to their male counterparts, and advocated for girls’ rights to education. By creating this participatory video, they highlighted the link between child marriage, education dropout, and the dangers of early pregnancies.
Women’s Rights in Loliondo discusses inequalities in land ownership and household decision. The film presents the impact these factors have on Maasai women’s rights in this part of Tanzania. By the nature of the participatory video process, by producing this film Maasai women became their own advocates. They have emphasised the urgent need for family planning and access to healthcare.
We often fall into the trap of discussing issues – colonialism, representation, land, climate, women’s rights – as if they stand alone.
To properly address the structural inequalities affecting Maasai women, it is essential to look at their lived experience as women, as African women, as Indigenous people, as Maasai community members. We must consider the intersectional inequalities that impact their lives. In doing so, we see that to understand colonialism we also need to understand the experiences of women. Participatory video is a proven tool for engagement and empowerment. This is why it is crucial for Indigenous women to continue being at the forefront of these projects. By leading decolonisation and community-based processes, Maasai women can share the wisdom and knowledge only they possess. They can voice their unique needs and perspectives, while bringing positive change starting from their own communities.
By understanding the inequalities that women face, we also appreciate their vulnerability to the impact of the climate crisis. When we understand how each link of experience is connected to another, we will be able to truly grasp why when you look at a bead necklace in a museum, you are not only looking at a Maasai object. You are looking at a woman.