Maasai and Cell Phone Technology

By Daniel Stone [1]

The Maasai people of Kenya and Tanzania live a semi-nomadic, pastoral life, seeking out areas of fresh pasture and building enclosures to protect their livestock. For cultural anthropologists who wonder how off-the-grid people are being changed by a world of screens, Internet, and fast communications, the Maasai are an ideal test case.

Tim Baird is observing the transform in progress. “Phones are a profound new tool for them,” says Baird, a Virginia Tech geography professor who has studied Maasai cell phone culture under a NG grant. Instant connectivity where none existed before has changed the type of people a Maasai person can reach, he says, and the type of information shared. That includes weather data, market prices for livestock, and–even though tradition sometimes dictates arranged marriages between young girls and older men–ways for girls to flirt with boys their own age. After all, Baird notes, even some older-model cell phones can access Facebook.

Phones can store money, which has introduced Maasai to mobile banking (and its untidy companion, fraud). Business transactions are faster and more efficient when they don’t have to be conducted face-to-face. When Baird convened groups of Maasai to discuss phone culture, men consistently mentioned two things they photograph: women and cows.

Baird has heard the criticism that 21st-century technology is diluting the historically rustic culture. But that critique rarely comes from the Maasai themselves, who, according to Baird’s findings, generally see a mobile phone as a tool that’s empowering rather than intrusive. “They’re not jumping on Epicurious to see how to make a soufflé; they’re using phones in ways that are relevant to their lives,” he says. “Phones help them solve their problems.”
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[1] From National Geographic (March 2016)

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