TO MOST OUTSIDERS, THE MAASAI ARE FIGURES from a postcard. A warrior stands tall — the right foot hooked in the crook of the knee of the straight left leg.
He sports long ochre-dyed hair and a red shuka cloth wrapped around his waist. A spear in the right hand and a stern face complete the picture of the Maasai moran.
This is the stereotypical image the outside world, and to some extent local people, have of the Maasai.
“Sometimes we are viewed and even treated as part of Kenya’s wildlife. This is unacceptable and must stop,” says Johnson ole Kaunga, team leader of the Indigenous Movement for Peace Advancement and Conflict Transformation (Impact).
“The Maasai are rich in culture, and have been so for thousands of years. True, times are changing, but we still follow the same lifestyle we’ve always had. What is strange about that?”
Now, Ole Kaunga and team have put all and sundry on notice: “Next time you visit Il Ngwesi, first consult with the people before you even think of taking pictures. You might end up in an Intellectual Property court for infringing the community’s rights.”
Enough is enough is the clear message; it is time the Maasai of Il Ngwesi told their own story.
Impact, together with the Maasai Cultural Heritage and the United Nations now want to document and preserve the community’s cultural heritage.
Recently, the two community-based organisations received digital recording equipment as part of a World Intellectual Property Organisation-backed pilot project aimed at helping indigenous communities document and preserve their cultural heritage.
“This is a milestone to the community. As we preserve our own cultural traditions, we will also manage our intellectual property interests,” noted Kolol Ole Tingoi, Maasai Cultural Heritage project co-ordinator.
In a community ceremony performed under an acacia tree, WIPO formally handed over digital recording equipment to Chief Kisio and other elders of Il Ngwesi community of Laikipia East. This included a digital camera, sound recording equipment and a laptop.
THE CEREMONY WAS A LANDmark event in the agency’s Creative Heritage Project, which provides indigenous communities with opportunities to digitally preserve expressions of their culture and traditions, as well as training in how to protect their intellectual property from unwanted exploitation.
“Besides stimulating creativity within the community, the programme will also promote local economic and cultural development by bridging the digital divide,” observed Ole Tingoi who together with Ann Tomme and Kiprop Lagat of the National Museums of Kenya have undertaken a three-month training programme, offered by WIPO in partnership with the American Folklife Centre at the Library of Congress and the Centre for Documentary Studies at Duke University in the US.
Apart from documenting the community’s traditions, the project will also help the community archive its heritage for future generations, and safeguard their interest in authorising use of their recordings by third parties.
According to WIPO, the new technologies will provide the communities with fresh opportunities to document and digitise expressions of its culture. However, these new forms of documentation and digitisation can leave this cultural heritage vulnerable to unwanted exploitation beyond the traditional circle.
By empowering the community to record its own traditions and creative expressions, the programme allows the community to create its own intellectual property in the form of photographs, sound recordings and databases.
WITH THE INTELLECtual property component, the community is trained to make informed decisions about how to manage intellectual property assets in a way that corresponds with its values and development goals.
The programme also stimulates creativity within the community, can promote local economic and cultural development and helps to bridge the “digital divide,” key objectives of both the Millennium Development Goals and WIPO’s Development Agenda.
It is sad, said Ole Kaunga, that when the Kenya government came up with policies such as the preservation of parks and reserves, it excluded the Maasai, whom he believes are the key stakeholders.
As if this was not bad enough, the increasing population has made the traditional Maasai way of life increasingly difficult to maintain. With poverty and migration, the traditional authority of Maasai elders has weakened.
“Anyway, who would listen to a hungry, poor old man?” Ole Kaunga asks.
Over the years, many projects have been started to help Maasai tribal leaders preserve their traditions while also balancing the education needs of their children for the modern world.
But according to Ole Kaunga, this is not enough. The emerging forms of employment among the Maasai have seen many move away from the nomadic life to responsible positions in commerce and government, in the process losing their cultural values.
The National Museums of Kenya will provide ongoing institutional support by participating as partners in evaluation. Together with the Maasai community, NMK will make recommendations for its improvement and further development.
This pilot project forms part of WIPO’s Creative Heritage Project, which is developing an integrated set of practical resources and guidelines for cultural institutions such as museums and indigenous communities on managing intellectual property options when digitising intangible cultural heritage.
ACCORDING TO WIPO DEP-uty director general to Francis Gurry, this innovative capacity-building partnership with the Laikipia Maasai addresses a pressing yet legally and practically complex question — how can indigenous and local communities record and promote their traditional cultural expressions without ceding authority over how the recordings are used by third parties?
The results of the pilot programme will be shared with other indigenous communities and depending on the feedback, WIPO may offer similar programmes to other communities and institutions from other countries, he noted.
The project stems from a request received by WIPO from the Maasai community. WIPO made an exploratory visit to the community in late 2006, together with the International Labour Office in Geneva. This visit was also facilitated by the Kenyan government taskforce appointed to develop laws and policies for the protection of traditional knowledge, genetic resources and folklore.
In consultation with the community, WIPO invited the American Folklife Centre to develop this pilot training programme. AFC and the Centre for Documentary Studies then jointly developed the curriculum for the training programme.