[7 April 2009]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Antelope and giraffes, elephants and rhinoceri, roam the broad plains of Africa. Bounding or lumbering, in search of grass and water, these animals are at once glorious and at risk, depending on who’s watching them.
These mixed and shifting circumstances for African wildlife are the point of departure for Milking the Rhino. David E. Simpson’s documentary, airing tonight as part of Independent Lens, tracks these circumstances as they affect and are affected by two tribes, the Maasai of Kenya and the Himba of Namibia. The humans and creatures inhabit a “border between two worlds,” narrates Munyikombo Bukusi, comprised of “the forest and… people trying to make a living.” As the people emerge from the daunting limits of colonialism they remain untrusting of Caucasians, especially those who presume to instruct them on how to conduct their lives. Thus, as a Massai elder hears that his best interest is served by preserving wildlife in order to attract tourists, he is more than a little skeptical. “When I want to kill or eat a cow,” he says, “I do it. When it comes to an antelope, you need a committee of white men!”
And yet, proposes James Ole Kinyaga, host of the Il Ngwesi Lodge in Kenya, it is possible to “milk the wildlife just like the cow.” The lodge, a conservation project dressed up as a tourist attraction, has been in operation for some dozen years, built of local materials and employing local workers (“ItÕs not Massai way of life that men would cook for women,” observes one worker, but now, they plan menus, costs, and profits, as well as serving fried eggs breakfasts to white ladies in hats and shorts, enticing them, “Bon apetit!”). As it is producing income that can be turned back into the community—to build roads, schoolhouses, and medical facilities—Kinyaga argues that the eco-lodge benefits all. Still, his challengers insist the project is chancy. “What if we get a drought of tourism,” they ask. “We’re putting all our eggs in one basket. If we stumble, we all break.”
Il Ngwesi Lodge manager Kipkorir Ole Nteere commends the decision made 12 years ago to dedicate 80% of the pastureland to conservation. This even though the man who came up with the idea is Ian Craig (a “third generation Kenyan,” the documentary underscores), a white man whose own 45,000-acre Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in the past annoyed and provoked his neighbors. Soliciting tourists in search of a “wild” experience (with limits, of course, including a warm clean bed and bath at the end of each exciting day out in the bush), the lodge offers tour packages and even occasional interactions with the local population—kids are exposed to Western bodies and technologies they might not otherwise encounter.
Milking the Rhino offers evidence that such compromises are beneficial in a second similar effort now being mounted in the Marienfluss Valley in Namibia. Here, the resistance is much the same. Himba Tribesman Zaaruka Tjambiru laments the loss of traditional ways of life: “I learned to shoot before conservation,” he says, “when I helped kill off animals in this area.” Here the film shows an antelope carcass, as he continues, “I would arise hungry and the children as well,” but when he hunted, he could feed everyone and sate their appetites. Now, such practice is restricted, and the Himbas are being asked to accept income from the tourist industry.
This isn’t always a simple exchange structure. As the ongoing drought affects wildlife herd movement, it also affects people. As they have purchased a water pump with proceeds from the Serra Cafema Camp, they have fond it easier and more sensible to stay in one place, and not to seek out water with their cattle herds as they have in decades past. This means, worries camp manager Andrea Staltmeier, that guests will not feel they have “discovered” a “really remote people.” Instead, as the Himbas find ways to sell crafts, for instance, tourists might see “the whole village a curio shop.” It’s not “authentic.” It’s not what tourists seek.
As much as the documentary makes a case for eco-tourism, it can’t help but leave open these sorts of questions, the loss of integrity and history that accompanies the invasion of “pink people” (“What is a pink person?” asks one Massai, “It’s like it doesnÕt have skin”), as well as deciding which concessions inhabitants are willing or unable to make. While, as Helen Gichohi, President of the African Wildlife Foundation rightly points out, “the myth of wild Africa” might be sold for profit, the related costs are high. As that myth is a function of salesmen (camera crews who shoot lions and zebras, but don’t turn their lenses on the human residents of that same land who are standing behind them), so too is the marketing promise of eco-tourism. As negotiations continue, between past and present as well as between peoples, both locals and activists must recognize those costs.