Living near the border of Kenya and Northern Tanzania are a group of people who have continued to practice their distinct customs and way of life for centuries. They are called the Maasai Tribe not “Masai”. It was the European settlers who incorrectly labeled them “Masai” and have continued to do so up until this day. The name of their tribe means, “the people who speak “Maa”. Maa, is derived from the Nilo-Saharan language family. Most Maasai are also noted to speak the official languages of their regions, Swahili and English.
History of the Maasai
The Maasai were thought to originate from North Africa and through the centuries migrated along the path of the Nile River until reaching North Kenya in the 15th century. They dominated over the other tribes, and they conquered those in their path until they arrived at their current region in the 19th century.
An epidemic spread throughout the herds of cattle and other livestock animals of the Maasai around the 19th century. Smallpox, contagious bovine pleuropneumonia and rinderpest scarred the land and reduced the numbers of both people and animals. This, coupled with the occurrence of a long and severe drought caused a large number of tribesmen and animals to perish. It was estimated that around half of the Maasai population was wiped out during this time. With this loss, they had little chance to overcome the forces that came their way to establish settlements in their lands.
Before the settlers drove them from their ancestral lands, the Maasai tribes occupied most of the favorable and fertile lands of the region. Their warriors were described as fierce by the westerners. This may be due to the fact that they have specific traditions that boys must achieve in order to become a man in society. Regardless, their spears did not fare well with the westerner’s steel weapons, and they could not defend their lands legally. They signed their first agreement in 1904 where they lost a chunk of their most productive land.
Maasai in the Modern World
At the start of the 20th century, the Maasai were the dominating tribe in terms of retaining their culture, way of life and oral traditions. Similar to some of the tribes in Kenya, the Maasai are semi-nomadic and pastoral. They move around the region at certain times of the year, and they rely on their livestock for survival.
They are noted as traditionalists, and most of them have resisted the ways of modern life. The government of Kenya and Tanzania tried to persuade them to modernize, but they heavily declined the offer. Instead, they demanded the right to graze and live off of some of the national parks of the two regions. Today, they live in East Africa’s wildlife areas.
The Maasai society is described as firmly patriarchal in nature. Elder men ruled and decided on tribal matters. Sometimes, retired elders pitch in as well. These tribesmen are monotheistic, and the name of their god is Engai or Enkai. As for burial ceremonies, most of the time the Maasai do not practice any form of it as they believe that the process is harmful to the soil. Sometimes, with the death of great chiefs, they opt to provide an official burial ceremony to respect their former leaders.
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To be born as a Maasai is to be a part of the last remaining cultures centered on being a well-versed warrior. Becoming a warrior is important in the Maasai culture, and boys learn the ways and responsibilities to become one at a young age. Maasai boys are guided by their fathers or their village elders to develop the skills needed to progress and become a man.
Rituals, ceremonies, and circumcisions are performed. As a warrior, a man can now settle down and start his own family, take care of his own herd and become a village elder. The role of a warrior is to protect their livestock from dangers such as other people or wildlife. They are also expected to build shelters called “kraals” and provide security to their family. The ceremony performed as a type of graduation from boy to man is called “Eunoto.”
As for the girls, female circumcision was once done traditionally, but this practice is diminishing due to it being outlawed by modern legislation. The young women are taught to build homes, create jewelry and beads, cook, clean and take care of children.
Once they are considered to be of age, the parents search for a suitable warrior from another clan and make an agreement for marriage.
The women shave their head and extract the lower central incisors. This is served as a way to deliver traditional oral medicine.
As said earlier, livestock and cattle were considered to be the center of the Maasai life, as they are the primary source of food and other materials for clothing, shelter and other needs. Their houses are actually made of cow dung, mud, grass, and wood. These huts are semi-permanent and loosely made, designed to fit their semi-nomadic lifestyle.
Typically Maasai clothing consists of a red fabric called the “shuka” which is wrapped around the body, and this is coupled with a lot of beaded jewelry around the neck and arms.
Both men and women wear this traditional outfit, and colors tend to vary depending on the occasion or tribal event. Earlobe stretching is practiced by these people, and serves as a standard of beauty for both sexes. They usually go around barefoot, or sometimes they fashion simple footwear made from the hide of cattle.
Their music is mostly comprised of people singing the harmony in unison and a song leader called the “olaranyani” leading the tune. The female Maasai also hum songs and lullabies for their children. During the Eunoto ceremony, the initiates called the “morans” are gathered for more than ten days. People sing and dance, and men and women flirt with one another as the event progresses.
Want to visit the Maasai Tribe?
Visiting the Maasai and spending a day in their village, learning about them and experiencing their culture first hand is going to be an unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime experience. Be aware however that some visitors to the Maasai village do consider the whole affair to be a bit of an in-genuine tourist trap.
Bring a lot of extra cash with you and know that the entrance fee to the village is not all you will be asked for while in the company of these people. Know that they are not shy about asking for money from you. Donations will be requested for their “schools”. Bracelets and handicrafts will be thrust upon you. So get ready to spend, because if that is what is required for the Maasai to feel compensated for your entering their home, I suggest that you be prepared to oblige or postpone your visit for when you can better afford it.
So that’s a brief insight into the Maasai Tribe’s lifestyle and culture. There is still so much to learn about these people though and if like me you have a fascination with the Maasai I recommend the following;
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