On Max Röing, “White Morans” and the Colonization of Maa Cultures

December 19, 2014 § Leave a comment

Three years ago when Max Röing decided to shake up his comfortable life in Sweden and embark upon a tough humanitarian mission to Kenya, where he’d assist in planting trees in Kajiado, little did he know he would become a Moran – or so he says. Last weekend, Max underwent the traditional Ilkiramat Eunoto rite of passage with members of the Ilchamus tribe, shedding enough of his formerly privileged western existence to become a Moran, an African warrior among the Maa people.

Having arrived in Kenya as a white voluntourist savior, to save Africans from their destructive environmental habits, 25-year old Max now returns as an Ilchamus Moran. As expected, Max’s adventures have elicited widespread outrage from critics condemning his actions as cultural appropriation. There has also been push-back from apologists labeling this “cultural exchange”. It’s not.

Max, who was welcomed and accepted by the minority Ilchamus, hails from Sweden, a country plagued by racism and intolerance towards African minorities

Max, who was welcomed and accepted by the minority Ilchamus, hails from Sweden, a country plagued by racism and intolerance towards African minorities

A common element in many African cultures is hospitality and the readiness to welcome and accept strangers. It is not uncommon for African communities to invite non-Africans to ceremonies such as weddings where they get to participate as guests. It would have been perfectly fine for Max to demonstrate his love for the rich Ilchamus culture by accepting an invitation to observe the traditional circumcision ceremony of youths graduating to manhood. However, for him to insist on taking part as an initiate alongside young Ilchamus men who are trained for this achievement their entire lives is utterly disrespectful.

In so doing, Max has reduced an entire culture to a self-help program that enables white westerners who have fallen out of love with their own culture to find meaning in their lives. Rather than an exchange of cultures, this is a case of just another attention-seeking westerner stealing the limelight at an important cultural celebration in Africa, to showcase his amazing adventure to become warrior.

True cultural exchange would entail an evenly-matched interaction of cultures, which would only be possible among equals. Yet there is no equal relationship between Max and his 5,000 fellow initiates from the minority Ilchamus ethnic group. Max’s fellow initiates are unlikely to find the same sort of belonging that he did in their homeland, as belonging is a privilege that is often denied to African minorities in Max’s own Sweden. Would an Ilchamus warrior in Sweden be embraced, received, welcomed and accepted as Max has been? Highly unlikely.

Behind the idyllic façade of an inclusive Scandinavian paradise, an egalitarian beacon of hope in an intolerant world, racial tensions constantly brew in Max’s Sweden. An Ilchamus warrior arriving in Sweden today can expect to find themselves in a struggle to find belonging in a society characterized by racial inequalities. While he may take comfort in even being allowed into Sweden (a country notorious for its low acceptance of applications from asylum-seekers) in the first place, his reverie is likely to be cut short during a stroll down central Stockholm in which he is accosted by shouts of “go back to your own country”. Even worse, he could find himself a victim of the increasing hate crimes against African-born residents of Sweden.

Disturbed by the hostility and intolerance of white Swedes, the Ilchamus Moran may decide to escape to his only sanctuary, his home in Tensta, one of the many segregated underground suburbs designed to keep Swedish people of color well hidden from view, thereby projecting the image of an all white Sweden. But in seeking comfort in the distractions of TV, he would be assaulted by populist xenophobia which is the order of the day in Swedish parliament. He would hear Swedish politicians arguing in defense of the establishment of economic divisions in Sweden based on racial hierarchies, thereby sowing the seeds for Swedish police brutality. Disgusted by the blatant racism in the Swedish political sphere, he may flick the channel only to find a rerun of the TV show Pippi Longstocking, in which Pippi – a national treasure in Sweden and the embodiment of the country’s “egalitarian spirit” – says her father is “king of the Negroes.”

Or maybe TV is not his thing, and so the Moran instead decides to visit the local library in Stockholm where he finds the openly racist Tintin in the Congo in the children’s literature section. Leaving the library in frustration, he may be forced to walk past segregated schools and arrive at a café for a coffee break. Only that at the table next to his, young white Swedes are loudly claiming the privilege to define what is and what isn’t racist for Africans in Sweden. He would then be reminded that as an African immigrant and minority in Sweden, he is expected to be grateful just for being allowed to be there.

***

The Maa people comprise the Maasai, Samburu and Ilchamus ethnic groups, whose homeland stretches from western Kenya into northern Tanzania. This land of the Maa is a popular destination for young, middle-class westerners seeking an escape, a transformational experience, a rare encounter with the “authenticity” and physical hardship they sorely miss in their own post-industrial societies – for a small price. A westerner out to experience something that their affluent lives do not offer is guaranteed to find it among the Maa: from blisters from spear hunting training, to sleeping on the ground in a communal bed of leaves and branches, and even going days without food. Westerners obsessed with the pursuit of emotional highs (and photo ops) among the exotic peoples of Africa are always quick to turn to the Maa people  – with the Maasai being a particular favorite. Once here, the westerners waste no time in using these exotic African cultures to boost their self-worth, and even profit from their romanticized trips to Africa, often through lucrative book deals.

Max Roing with Ilchamus Morans during the ceremony to initiate young Ilchamus men into manhood

Max with Morans during the ceremony to initiate young Ilchamus men into manhood

As a Kenyan woman, I have grown up aware of the importance of the rite of passage among the different cultures of Kenya, in fostering a sense of community within a given ethnic group. An important sense of unity, identification, belonging and togetherness is cultivated during this ceremony to transition youth from childhood into adulthood. Upon completion of the celebration, the young man feels well bonded and connected to his fellow initiates and integrated into the social fabric of his community. For some communities, this is a deeply religious step, with leaders offering sacrifices or prayers asking for blessings for the young people. In other communities, the spirits of the ancestors are invited to witness this occasion.

In stark contrast, western culture is characterized by the fraying of relationships, the disintegration of communities, and the fragmentation of society, all of which can be attributed to rampant individualism, manic consumerism and unrelenting careerism. It is therefore understandable why Max Röing would be eager to embrace the sense of community found in diverse African cultures such as that of the Ilchamus, which is difficult to experience in the cultures of the West. It is also easy to understand why Max would turn to the more meaningful African societal rituals, when the rites of passage typically available to young westerners in the west involve experimentation with alcohol, cigarettes and hard drugs, teen promiscuity and eating disorders.

But like many westerners before him, Max doesn’t see the irony in “finding himself” in a country and culture quite different from his own. Typically, when you lose your way, you retrace your steps to arrive at the point where you got lost, and then figure out the best way forward. You don’t get out of your car; abandon it in the middle of the highway to go take a plane to Africa. Rather than fixing the problems that plague their own fractured societies, young westerners experiencing emptiness are quick to flee into African cultures for fulfillment and as a perfect escape from their own problems that bedevil western culture and society.

In his selfish quest for his own experience, it is unlikely that Max even considered the actual needs of the Ilchamus. Did he consult Ilchamus women, to find out how they felt about a foreigner being granted the privilege of becoming a Moran, when they themselves despite being Ilchamus by blood, born and raised are denied the same? Did he take into account the fact that during colonialism in Kenya, the Maa people were some of the most affected by land grabs orchestrated by white men like himself? Is he aware that decades after “independence”, the Maa people have continued to lose their fertile grazing lands to environmental conservationists like himself whose singular aim is to protect wildlife, never mind the human cost? Did he consider that his photo-ops surrounded by Morans may only end up doing more harm than good, by promoting stereotypes that fuel the white-savior industrial complex?

Or was he just here to take?

The absurdity of Max Röing’s warrior adventures among the Ilchamus is further compounded by the original media report which reads like a parody worthy of The Onion:

“My name is Max Lemeyan Le Kachuma from the Ilchamus tribe and a clan called Iltoimai,” he confidently introduces himself as he sips sour milk from a cup. He then unwraps a polythene with round, yellow substances. He picks a handful and pours some onto his milk.”

How could Max fail to see the ironies that would entail when, after embracing poverty and hardship, he would have to return to his previous life of luxury? Will Swedish (let alone Kenyan) airport security allow him onto the plane with his warrior sword strapped to his brown belt, let alone the polythene bag with round, yellow substances he uses to garnish his sour milk? Will he be wearing his Moran shuka dress during the wintry months in Sweden or was this just a fun costume to wear but take off before heading to the airport? And what will his vegan pals in Stockholm think of “his” new cultural tradition of suffocating a goat to death and drinking its warm blood with herbs?

His Moran title secured, Max can now leave “his” Ilchamus tribe and return to his wealthy, privileged lifestyle in Sweden armed with photos as proof of how he chose hardship and survived it, how he deliberately embraced poverty and its discomforts as an indication of his superiority of character. He now has a story to tell that will place him in the ranks of the fearless and worldly-wise of Europe.

Yet the physically and mentally challenging tasks required to become a Moran are easy to endure for a couple of weeks when you have the comfort of knowing that this sort of hardship will not characterize your future way of life. But young Ilchamus men do not enjoy similar privilege. Unlike young whites like Max for whom this is just an “experience” from which they can walk away at any time, for the Ilchamus, this is their way of life. And therein lies Max’s profound disrespect.

By now claiming to be part of the Ilchamus tribe, the Iltoimai clan and the Ilmeng’ati age-group, Max seeks to create the impression that he belongs; that he is now one of them and therefore understands what it means to be an Ilchamus Moran. While the experience may have been “real” for Max, he should recognize it for what it actually was: symbolic. The idea that anyone can come in to a society, assume their practices and become a Moran in a couple of weeks is absurd, insulting and disrespectful to Ilchamus culture in particular and to African cultures in general.

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