IN KENYA, TOURISM TESTS TRIBAL WAYS

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NYERI, Kenya -- Moses Ndungo, a Kikuyu tribesman from Kenya's Central Province, spends his days trying to sustain the traditions of his tribe. He is the front man for a troupe of dancers that performs in a mock Kikuyu village on the grounds of a hotel in Nyeri, about 140 miles north of Nairobi, the capital.

Each day, tourists gather at the hotel, which acts as a staging area for the famed Treetops Hotel, about a 20-minute ride away in the Aberdares game reserve. While they dine from a Westernized buffet that is included in the tour, dancers covered with stripes of limestone wend their way by the dining area as a come-on for their show.
 
Inside the village are a few huts and a couple of demonstrations of traditional ways. There is also a grandstand for the visitors, each of whom has paid 300 Kenyan shillings -- about $5 -- for the show. After Ndungo comes out in his shirt and tie to explain the circumcision-ritual dance about to begin, a dozen men and women take the stage.

They go through their paces, but it all feels scripted: Dancers work to make eye contact with their patrons, and later they invite a couple of them to join their conga line.

Later, Ndungo acknowledges that even he considers himself a Kenyan first, and a Kikuyu second, and that the old ways are receding into the past. "Most of the young people are in business today. That's why we try to keep it up here," he says.

If one wants to visit a tribal village where people actually live, they go to the Masai, the one tribe among more than 40 in Kenya whose traditions are still alive. Many Masai remain in the countryside, living in stubby mud huts, retaining their style of dress, and tending herds. They disregard the Kenyan/Tanzanian border because they had staked out their boundaries long before either nation existed. They are renowned as fierce warriors; it is a point of honor that the Masai were never infiltrated by slave traders.

But observers are tainting what they came to see.

Masai once objected to having their pictures taken because they believed cameras captured part of their souls; now, one can purchase a photo opportunity. The Masai wear what in the West would be considered an excess of bangles and beads. Now villagers on the tourist circuit make what they would consider an excess of the stuff, to sell.

Ole Tome is the house tribesman at Keekoruk Lodge in Masai Mara, a game reserve in western Kenya. During the day, he walks the grounds, chatting up the tourists in precise English. For free, he has his picture taken with a couple from Utah, his arms embracing each of them.

He says his mission is to teach Westerners to respect his culture. "I think many people think Western culture is best. Western people think that. But our culture isn't wrong, it's just different."

Every few nights, he explains an exhibition of traditional dance, and follows with a lecture on Masai traditions. He concedes that "every five or 10 years we see a bit more change," but says the culture is not dead yet. Maybe the villages beside the road will have to move, he says, or stop charging admission.

How would he have visitors act? "Just come and see it. To know it is a good thing." But he hopes they will conclude, " `I'm going to respect it, and help spread the word not to destroy it.'

"Or," he says, "just stay away."