Life of the Massai
May 31, 2001
|Photojournalist Elizabeth Gilbert shares images from the Massai Steppe where she documented the last members of a vanishing tribe. Join this odyssey into this lost world of secret ceremonies and initiations before it disappears forever.
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Good evening. Tonight we are pleased to bring Photojournalist Elizabeth Gilbert to you live via this state of the art chat application. We will see images of a vanishing race, the Massai. The theme is preservation, not erosion. Tonight we will explore the proud heritage of these people.
Please ask your questions while you view these very impactful images. Welcome, Liz.
Hello, and it's really wonderful to be here. I'm just back from Africa and have been working on this project for several years now with the help of some Kodak sponsorship. I'm looking to hearing comments and answering questions, so let's get started.
Somewhere or other I learned that Massai Warriors must kill a lion with their bare hands to be initiated. Is that really true?
Killing a lion is not a requirement of initiation amongst the Massai. It is a common practice for warriors as a means to sort of prove their manhood and test their courage, and they receive a lot of celebration and praise when they do kill a lion. The function of it also is to get the mane of a male lion to wear at the ceremony of their graduation.
What have you learned about the Massai tribe that you never knew before?
I had lived in Kenya for about eight years before I began the project, so I had been familiar with them for a long time before I began photographing them. They have a very big and prominent culture in Kenya and Tanzania, and living there one can't help but know something about them just because of proximity. So I feel that I was well researched before I began the project, and I knew what I was looking to photograph when I started. I think the things that I learned about them were not so much about the culture or ceremonies, but more about the personality and profile of the tribe. I had not known them intimately, of course, until I began living with them. I would say that was always surprising. I was also surprised by the richness and depth of their character. I think so often the Massai are seen through the lenses of tourists, and especially in Kenya, their culture is advertised to attract that. So for a long time I only saw them through that perspective, and I was excited to get to know them and see how much they really are like the rest of us.
How did you choose to take on the Massai as a project?
The Massai culture lends itself to a project like this because it is so complicated and so intricate in its structure. I also felt that, because of their proximity to Western culture, they especially were at risk of losing that culture within our lifetime. So that made them an easy choice. The project is meant to create a visual testament to their past and because of the way they're living today, that was especially possible.
What is the one thing you think we should know about the Massai tribe?
I think, having spent a lot of time with them, I would want to talk about some of the problems that they're facing today. And I would probably be interested in letting people know how beautiful and important their culture is and how rich it makes the tapestry of our humanity. The biggest problem that the Massai face today is the pressure of land being subdivided and sold away from them. Once these boundaries are erected within the Massai reserve, it makes it impossible for them to continue living with the traditions they've maintained for the past several hundred years. This is largely because they are a pastoral people who live mainly off of their cattle, and as their land is sold and developed for farming and agriculture, they're unable to sustain that lifestyle. Because it is so central to who they are, I fear that an important part of their identity may be lost.
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