Can Indigenous Australians help save African cultures?

Two of the world's oldest cultures are looking to forge links to ensure their traditions survive in these fast changing times.

Two of the world's oldest cultures are looking to forge links to ensure their traditions survive in these fast changing times.

Tribal people from the birthplace of civilisation in Africa want to work with Australian indigenous communities to better exploit modernity instead of it exploiting them.

This special SBS report by Karen Ashford explores the challenges confronting traditional peoples in Tanzania, and how they hope to work with Indigenous Australians to preserve their tribal integrity.

Oldupai gorge in northern Tanzania's Great Rift Valley is widely regarded as the cradle of civilisation.

It's the place where archaeologists Mary and Louis Leakey unearthed the so-called missing link; bones revealing the transition from ape to man, 1.8 million years ago.

A rustic two roomed museum smaller than an average house perches on the cliff top above the gorge, where guides explain the region's human history.

"We haven't had hunters at this level of life - this is a level of between 2 million years and 1.85 million years when we have had alstropithecus boseii and homo habilus and those species were non-hunters."

Down below, the rocky, wind eroded landscape continues to yield treasures that tell the tale of the first migrations from Africa to the rest of the world.

The significance of this extraordinary place cannot be overstated, yet for the traditional Maasai people, it remains a place where goats are herded and children emerge from seemingly barren stony slopes to beg visitors for trinkets.

As the modern world edges ever closer, big questions are carried with it.

Will this be the last generation to live truly traditional lifestyles?

Or can the tribespeople have both?

Francis Ole Siapa is a Maasai elder.

His village, or boma, is barely 20 minutes drive from Oldupai, near the Ngorongoro conservation region.

The boma itself tells a story of change.

There's a core of traditional rounded huts made of sticks plastered with cow dung, but nearby, structures of brick and tin have also been built.

It's a change that's not confined to the buildings - Francis Ole Siapa's children represent a new generation that's straddling the divide between ancient and modern.

"They are all educated, they know how to work the computer, they understand the technology, they are learned people. They can go to school, they can go to university, get their bachelors and undergraduate degrees - when they come home they continue with then traditions and culture of the Maasai."

The Maasai and other tribes like the Hadzabi measure their wealth in cattle.

Francis Ole Siapa's community has done well - reflected not just in the well-maintained huts and the new robes his villagers sport, but in the fact they can afford to send their young people away for education.

However their traditional means of wealth is increasingly tenuous as land becomes scarcer.

Tribespeople around Oldupai have fewer places to run their cattle and goats, pressured all around by competing interests, be it land given over for conservation and tourism, or rapidly growing resource exploration and mining.

Oldupai Gorge's site manager John Paresso says an increasing number of tribes are struggling to live the old way.

"They're suffering in many ways but the major way is their land has been encroached by other ethnic groups. So they all encroach the land of the Hadzabe and the Hadzabe now are squeezed in the centre and they have nowhere to go."

As tourism grows, tribes are being pushed to the fringes of productive land and this is creating tension between them.

It's prompting some to see whether they can turn the rise in visitors to their advantage and tap into the tourist dollar.

John Paresso is looking for a role model, and thinks he may have found it in Australia.

"What I'm interested about Aboriginal people is I have read about their culture and I wanted to link the life that they have today and the life of our Hadzabe people who live in the basin, those are the only hunter gatherers left in Eastern African area. And I want to see how they have survived and what they are doing now, and what should we have to do for the Hadzabi people who are now suffering from development and globalisation. They really suffer and my interest is to see how the Australian government have facilitated the Aborigines so they survive and they can even benefit from cultural tourism."

A few kilometres away, one group is trying just that.

These Maasai are cattle-less poor from various tribes, who due to some misfortune or another have lost their livestock, and with it, their standing in the community.

In a novel experiment, a cultural boma has been established.

This boma's focus is not cattle, but tourists.

The Maasai here bring visitors into their homes, perform dances and sell locally-made artefacts.

Tourism Officer Peter Makutian says their aim is to reap tourist dollars so they can rebuild their worth and return proudly to their communities.

"When someone stays here they normally sell whatever you can see here, beads and they normally get some money out of it and that money go to the individual, whoever owns the beads here."

Olokula Korio is one of about 70 people putting his life on display for tourists.

"The tourism dollar is assisting us to maintain our culture, preserve our culture and also we use the same money that we get to send some of our young people to school to learn computer skills and technology that's required to survive in this world of today, which means we are trying to coexist and maintain both."

The Datoga of the Serengeti are another of Tanzania's 120 tribes.

They're the traditional rivals of the better-known Maasai, but now both are facing a new challenge - progress.

Modern trappings are pervading traditional lifestyles - cattle herders carry mobile phones beneath their swathes of robes.

Elder Gabriel Lahoy says outside values and standards are changing their practices, like female genital alteration, arranged marriages and body piercings.

" What we are trying to do now is really ensure we get rid of some of the harmful cultures, for example the piercing of the ears - look at me I'm all pierced, big holes, whereas look at our girls they are not that pierced. They may not now find that to be beauty and we are trying to do away with such cultures"

But does altering these practices risk the cultural integrity tourists are willing to pay to see?

" We've only just started to get into contact with tourists therefore we cannot really say if tourism is going to put any constraints on our culture or is going to assist us to preserve our culture because this is just the beginning of that contact."

There's concern that culture could count the cost of tourism in other ways too.

The concept of what it means to be wealthy is changing for tribespeople as they're increasingly exposed to tourist trappings.

Travellers arrive in cars fitted with fridges to village huts that don't even have running water, let alone electricity.

Maasai who once regarded themselves as cattle-wealthy are starting to judge wealth differently and question whether they're getting the dividends tourism is hyped to bring.

Francis Ole Siapa says despite tourism being one of Tanzania's biggest revenue earners, poverty has become a significant issue for tribespeople.

"We get a lot of tourists to the Ngorongoro region, they bring a lot of money, but we only hear about that money, we don't see that money. The Maasai in Ngorongoro are hungry, they are really poor. So if there is all that money why are the Masai still hungry?"

And that's where Francis Ole Siapa thinks Africa can learn from Australia.

He's heard about the poverty striking some Aboriginal communities, but he's also heard about the push for indigenous self governance - and believes it could be a strong precedent for Maasai to pursue.

"I've heard about your self determination and Mabo. If, after all that has happened to the Aboriginal people of Australia, they are really coming up again for self determination then I too have hope for the Maasai to preserve culture and be economically independent. "

Gabriel Lahoy of the Datoga also thinks that the original peoples of Africa could learn a thing or two about resilience from Aboriginal people, who according to anthropologists, were the first to migrate from Africa tens-of-thousands of years ago, and now are possibly the world's oldest continuous culture.

"How do you think you can facilitate some kind of cultural exchange between the Datoga to come and meet with the Aboriginals of Australia and also to meet with other cultures of Australia so that we can really exchange, share, how we can preserve our cultures and how we can really work together and learn from one another."

It's prompted a Tanzanian living in Australia to propose just that - a cultural exchange to bring together two of the world's most ancient cultures to swap notes on progress.

Tanzania's Tourism Goodwill Ambassador, Casta Tungaraza, is seeking out areas of common concern for a planned conference.

"With Aboriginal people because of their displacement what we found was they had to adapt to new food and new ways of life and they have suffered, their health has actually deteriorated. What about the Hadzabe people - if they cannot find what they traditionally were used to eating, to adapt to find other sources of food - has that impacted on their health? For example obesity, life expectancy? "

Casta Tungaraza intends the conference to have a broad agenda, examining everything from similarities in traditional tools and rock art, to colonisation, displacement and land rights.

She says it will be a chance for indigenous Tanzanians to share experiences and tactics with indigenous Australians.

Donatius Kamamba, from Tanzania's Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism, thinks the opportunity for ancient cultures to learn from each other will help African tribespeople to better balance old and new.

"They have the opportunity to keep their culture, but definitely we have to provide them with the necessary facilities, education health and other facilities that we have to provide. So Australia we know are doing very well on that matter with the Aborigines and I think it's an area where we could collaborate well."

But future-proofing traditions can be complicated.

When the world sees the beauty and value of traditional ways, those ways can become vulnerable to exploitation.

A sewing machine clatters at away at the cultural museum markets in Dar es Salaam.

The market is run largely by women who produce and sell traditional handicrafts like garments, jewellery and utensils - but they're under attack.

"The Chinese are some people who are, I mean they stole our culture. I can say that because when they come here they don't want to buy anything, all they want is just to take some pictures so they can go away and make something like that."

17-year-old Amina Syanaloli is learning how to make beaded jewellery and other handicrafts crafts from her mother but cheap fakes are threatening their survival.

"This one is a necklace. This is from the horn of the cow. You can see it. So the Chinese made the same as this one but theirs is a plastic one, and they sell at a lower price, and it is fake! If someone comes here and sees such a thing like this one, they say ah, this you sell at 5,000 shillings? But Chinese sells this at 2,000 shillings!"

Tanzania's President Jakaya Kikwete acknowledges the problem, but says there's no easy solution.

"We do not allow that to get into the local market but with the external market where we sell, we don't have control. If it is in the Tanzania market we have leverage but if it is the international market we don't have much. (Question) So how effective are your import controls - I've seen traders just down the road who were showing me their items, but they were also able to pull a cheap Chinese replica off the shelf right next door, and they're saying these are actually getting into local markets here. Do you need tighter border controls on imports do you think, the stop these bogus items getting through? (Answer) Of course fake items is one of the issues - we have a fair competition commission here, they need to be proactive. But of course there are times you don't appreciate it until - it's when it gets into the market that they know there is something fake. It's just like when people go and buy spare parts. You are told these are the spare parts for a Toyota, then somebody says this is the original, this one is the generic. So which one do you buy? But of course the law if very clear. No fake commodities are supposed to enter the market, and as I said, we are dealing with the human mind, always clever trying to find ways of sneaking, but once identified, definitely appropriate action will be taken. "

That's of little comfort to Amina Syanaloli at her trestle table draped with handcrafted objects she's struggling to sell.

"They give us a problem because we don't sell our things, they remain. The government should make sure they prevent them copying our cultures."

It's a similar story for Aboriginal communities battling fake dot paintings and balsawood boomerangs.

The University of South Australia's Dean of Indigenous Research, Peter Buckskin, says Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have shown remarkable resilience since colonisation in trying to preserve lifestyles and languages.

He says that resilience is serving indigenous culture well as it strives to manage the new challenges presented by tourism.

Professor Buckskin believes this makes Australia well-placed to help with the preservation and evolution of Africa's diverse cultures.

"I think we would really welcome in terms of diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia, to engage with another group of indigenous peoples from another continent in terms of their rich cultural diversity within Africa and the African states. I think we have lots to share, I think the indigenous populations of the world need to do more collaboration as we move further into the 21st century so that our uniqueness as indigenous peoples, our identity, our cultures, our language survive."

Peter Buckskin is a member of the world indigenous higher education consortium, an international network of indigenous representatives committed to preserving indigenous identity.

He says Australian indigenous culture stands out, with its ancient traditions and distinctive art attracting enormous attention.

"Because we know a lot of tourists to Australia, especially Asian and Japanese, really like to come for that cultural experience, here in Australia, to be amongst and speak to and learn about the oldest living culture of humanity."

The irony is that increasingly affluent Asians are foremost amongst the travellers whose dollars could buoy cultural tourism - but not if they're buying mass-produced fakes from Asia that undermine the culture they've come to see.

Professor Buckskin says that closer connections between Australia and Africa could prompt mainstream Australia to better value this nation's unique cultural heritage.

As he sees it, whereas Africa may hold an exotic fascination, many Australians fail to appreciate the wonders of their own backyard, often lost amidst the political and media focus on indigenous hardship.

He thinks cultural exchanges could deliver insights that refresh Australians' perspectives.

"I'm sure cultural exchanges are all a part of that and non-indigenous students will be much richer to be exposed to the cultures of Africa and I think it will also allow us as indigenous Australia to build our strengths and look at the resilience of the great poverty that African nations are experiencing in terms of being developed countries. And we are quite a wealthy country in Australia but I think we're culturally poor in Australia in terms of the way the western society really values, or does not value Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures in this country, and so I think we can learn a lot about their resilience by coming here and our children and our elders sharing that knowledge and understanding."

Back on the plains of the Serengeti, the Maasai tribesman Olokula Korio is hoping his people are getting the balance right.

He thinks if the Maasai can work with the outside world to preserve and value cultural identity, it will provide a wealth beyond mere dollars.

"We would love to have an opportunity to be able to go to other countries beyond the borders of Tanzania, beyond the borders of Africa to show that the Maasais are preserving their culture, and this is bringing us back to the question of cultural tourism, and the importance of having those cultural exchanges between Tanzania and Australia because in Australia there are the Aboriginal people of Australia who are still maintaining their culture. "

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