Digitizing Traditional Culture in Kenya (6'25")

Narration: Their customs are rooted in thousands of years of tradition (singing cont)… their rituals passed down from generation to generation.   They are the Maasai … from East Africa. Life is about community they say, and their culture - rich with music and storytelling - is at the heart of who they are.

John Ole Tingoi:  My name is John Ole Tingoi and I’m a Maasai.  Culture is identity/ and identity is very, very, very importan.

Narration: They’re known as fearless warriors with a deep respect for village elders but with many young Maasai moving to urban centers in search of education and jobs, and with so many village elders aging, the culture is at risk …..

John:  We always say that when an elder dies it’s just like the light burning out. So we want to get that knowledge before this generation goes.

Narration: And so John set out on a ground breaking journey to help maintain his heritage. Armed with audio recorders, laptops, and cameras, he would travel into the communities he loves… to record… and preserve the culture.

John:  We want to participate in our own culture, documenting, protecting it, because we are archiving all this information for the future generations.

Narration: Joining him on this crusade is this woman…

Ann:  My name is Ann Tome. I’m part of the Maasai community.

Narration: For Ann, it’s deeply personal ….

Ann:  I remember my grandfather used to tell me a lot of stories in the evening by the fireside. He would tell me where the Maasai came from. If I were given another chance I would sit down and record everything that he said / so that I would have that forever.

Narration:  But John and Ann knew they could not go it alone …and so in 2003, John approached the UN’s World Intellectual Property Organization, WIPO, for help.

Wend Wendland WIPO:  Indigenous groups from around the world are the creators and custodians of a rich body of traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions.

Narration: Wend Wendland is Director of Traditional Knowledge at WIPO.

Wend Wendland:  They want greater recognition for the fact that they are also intellectual property creators. They want the right to control access to and use of their indigenous knowledge systems.

Narration: To help them do that, WIPO provided the equipment to record the culture, and together with the Library of Congress and Duke University in the U.S., trained John and Ann how to use it ….
….And they brought that knowledge back home to the foothills of Mount Kenya ….

They drive hundreds of miles, crossing savannahs, …over difficult terrain….until finally arriving in villages like this one, where they meet up with a Maasai singing group.  As the group begins the performance…John and Ann document their every mov.  They also record the music of individual singers, who often create the instruments…and the lyrics themselve.  Listening to them back in the headphones is a small victory. 

John soundup/aparté:  “It’s very clear”.  For these Maasai, it’s a chance for their music to sustain them. Their music may be an important source of income and the Maasai themselves John says, must be the ones who benefit from profits made from their culture.

John:  There has been exploitation of the resources. So the community feel now it’s time for us to control what is our so that we can determine our future.

Narration:  And this includes documenting the knowledge of these elders...Maasai medicine me.

John:  This knowledge only exists now within the elders. So we have to capture it.

Narration: They are brought into the bush – and knowledge that has been passed down for thousands of years is recorded ….

John soundup/aparté:  “The bark of the tree is used to develop a poison”.

Narration:  Life saving secrets are shared.

John soundup/aparté:  “It’s very interesting, if you have a stomach upset, you will feel ok”.

Wend Wendland:  The project has empowered the Maasai to seize control over the recording of their own histories, their own stories. The program turns indigenous custodians of the knowledge systems into intellectual property owners. It makes them stakeholders and they can benefit from the system.

Narration: And John and Ann both know that despite any challenges they may face …. this work must continue.  For Ann, it’s a way she has to honour her grandfather.

Ann:  If he knew I was doing this, that I was happy doing this, he would be proud.


Narration: And for John, being a custodian of the culture is a gift he’s been given he says.

John:  I feel that it’s a very big privilege for me… I will tell all the indigenous people across the world to empower the community themselves, to determine their destiny.


(Produced by UNTV - United Nations Television (Division of Public Information).  In association with WIPO - World Intellectual Property Organization.)