Respecting cultures: When to protest & when to keep quiet

Masai, respecting local culturesMany people always cite ‘respecting local cultures and traditions’ as part of the responsible tourism mantra but when these cultures and traditions vastly contrast with your beliefs and even infringe on human rights should you still respect them?

I was confronted with this quandary whilst in a Masai village in Kenya a few months ago. Our Kenyan guide actually suggested that we should raise the issue of female circumcision with the Masai village guide. As someone who is normally fairly opinionated I have however learnt to keep quiet on controversial issues when I know that people are likely to be upset, so I was very interested to see how the conversation would unfold. The result of the fireside chat was that most of us kept quiet, feeling that as guests we should respect their culture rather than inflict our western views on this enclave of tradition but continued the discussion in private afterwards. The question remained strong in my mind; where do you draw the line between education and indoctrination?

There are many rituals and traditions that are common place in the world that are outlawed in the UK such as female circumcision, child labour, child sex and various forms of hunting. One could easily be led to believe that the UK knows best and encourage the rest of the world to follow. For some issues perhaps we are right, for example whaling. But even with something as clear cut as the hunting of endangered species we need to consider traditional cultures and view each issue on a case by case basis. Whaling is banned (except for ‘scientific purposes’) but certain small, communities, such as the Inuit, are permitted a small allowance to continue whaling in a traditional way, usually at subsistence levels. (Check out the pod cast from a traditional whaler in St Vincent & the Grenadines.)

Tradition is a strange thing; traditions continue because ‘that’s what we’ve always done’ or because there is no alternative. In the west we cling to tradition as a quaint reminder of our history because our culture has changed so much. In developing countries traditions carry on whether they are right or wrong and changing these destructive or dangerous traditions can only happen with education. For example, in many cultures turtles are food. It is only by educating the community to understand that soon there will be no turtles left if they continue to eat them. Perhaps by offering an alternative, even if it is only advising them to avoid eating turtles in the breeding season then the turtles may have a better chance of survival. You cannot stop a tradition by labelling it as wrong, only by explaining the consequences and giving people an alternative that real change can happen.

I left the village wondering if I had missed the opportunity to educate the Masai on the dangers on female circumcision. Much to my relief one of my fellow travellers, a nurse, had spoken privately to the Masai women and found that the operation is relatively small and infections were rare. In this case, caution was the correct approach to this delicate matter and avoided the unnecessary upset that a confrontation could have caused.
By Holly Foat,

Thanks to the Masai women of the Loita Hills for openly discussing these issues and thanks to Ian from Hickatee cottage for discussing the turtle education scheme with me.

 See our Masai Mara holidays here
 See our Kenya holidays here
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