In a corner of the world that sees its fair share of Western tourists, it must have been incongruous for veterinary medicine professor Dr. Frank van der Meer to see dozens of local Maasai people walking around their native Tanzania—snapping photographs with digital cameras.
But the Maasai weren’t turning the tables and getting tourists to pose for them. They were using the cameras to document various problems they face as semi-nomadic cattle herders in some of the more remote and diverse terrains of Northern Tanzania.
The cameras were loaned to them as part of a University of Calgary research project called PhotoVoice. Van der Meer, together with colleague Dr. Karin Orsel and students Adam Thomas and Eoin Clancy, ran the project last spring at a field school in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area—adjacent to Serengeti National Park.
The Ngorongoro PhotoVoice project was created as part of an ongoing interdisciplinary program between the Faculties of Veterinary Medicine and Medicine called One Health, which brings together researchers to explore the health connections between animals and humans.
While culture shock was acute at first, the mutual learning between academics and locals was strengthened through relationship-building. Through open, two-way communication, the group gained a deeper understanding of how ingrained animals (in particular, cattle) are in Maasai culture.
That was helped by bringing along a dozen cameras that were purchased at a Calgary big box retail store. Three different groups of Maasai (elders, warriors and women) were elected by their community and asked to take pictures around their community for a week. For many of them, it was an exciting chance to use technology they had never seen before. The pictures that came back told van der Meer plenty.
"A lot of times it’s better to have people show you what their biggest issues are and talk about them afterwards, rather than risk losing what they say in translation if you just have a discussion," he says.
All the pictures were uploaded into a laptop in camp and each Maasai member had a followup session to talk about the photos’ significance. The information compiled will help van der Meer and future students develop, among other things, potential field testing for brucellosis (a highly contagious bacteria that is caused by the ingestion of unpasteurized milk, raw meat from infected animals, or close contact with their secretions during an abortion), a vaccination strategy, as well as a field manual for the Maasai.
Some of the reoccurring issues that were documented were the availability and access to fresh water and the abundance of various parasitic ticks that can weaken their herds. Van der Meer was impressed with the level of knowledge the Maasai have about cattle, gained through centuries of observations and local practices.
"They know each and every one in their herd inside and out and if a Maasai comes to you and says ‘this is what is wrong with my cow,’ you can bet that they are absolutely right," he says.
The Maasai are not averse to adopting biomedical veterinary medical practices, such as injecting antibiotics or vaccinations, but they need to be shown the benefits before they will participate. Maasai cultural practices, such as drinking unpasteurized milk, or bleeding cows to give new mothers extra protein, are hard to give up unless they have a solution at hand.
Few Western people know that as well as Thomas, who has been to Tanzania several times assessing HIV outreach work amongst the Maasai. He wants to find out how human health issues, such as HIV/AIDS can be made more culturally compelling and ultimately more effective, if combined with animal health information and services.
"It’s all in how you communicate with people," says Thomas, who is pursuing a master’s degree in population and public health. "Cross-cultural communication is highly dependent on the context in which people are talking. When four academics show up unannounced at a village and say ‘you should boil your milk,’ or ‘don’t drink cow’s blood,’ people may seemingly acknowledge what you say as they know that’s the answer you are looking for. However, that doesn’t mean they’ll change their risky behavior."
For Clancy, a third-year veterinary medicine student, his field work allowed him to see One Health in action. Going through all the pictures and talking to Maasai people also gave him a greater appreciation of why cattle are so much more than just a commodity to them.
"PhotoVoice incorporates real life examples of the interconnectedness of animals and people with the Maasai," he says. "Many Maasai put their animals’ health ahead of their own because they believe that if their animal dies today, then they will soon follow."
Van der Meer plans to return this spring with two more students in tow for followup work from PhotoVoice. His exposure to the Maasai culture and Tanzanian ecosystems has left an indelible mark.
"I met people who had never talked to a white man before," he adds. "Their level of knowledge and adaptability in handling cattle in very harsh conditions is remarkable. They just find ways to make it work."