The Maasai culture and people have long remained the ideal mental conceptualization of the Western European idea of an African “noble savage. Tall, elegant, handsome; walking with a gentle spring of the heel, seemingly proud and indifferent to all but most necessary external influences.”
The Maasai People
Perhaps the best known of Kenya’s tribes, the Nilo-Hamitic Maasai are a nomadic people whose lifestyle has remained essentially unchanged for centuries. The daily rhythm of life revolves around the constant quest for water and grazing for their cattle.
Maasai Culture and Traditions
Thought to have migrated to Kenya from the lower valleys of the Nile, the Maasai are distinguished by their complex character, impeccable manners, impressive presence, and almost mystical love of their cattle. The latter is based on the Maasai belief that the sky god, Enkai, was once at one with the earth. When the earth and the sky were separated, however, Enkai was forced to send all the world’s cattle into the safekeeping of the Maasai, where, as far as the Maasai are concerned, they have remained. Brave and ruthless warriors, the Maasai instilled terror in all who came up against them, especially the early explorers. “Take a thousand men,” advised the famous explorer Henry Stanley when speaking of the Maasai, “or write your will.” Today, cattle are still pivotal to Maasai life and “I hope your cattle are well” is the most common form of Maasai greeting.
Maasai Tribe – Way of Life
The milk and blood of their cattle continue to be the preferred diet of the Maasai, while the hides serve as mattresses, sandals, mats, and clothing. Cattle also act as marriage bonds, while a complex system of cattle-fines maintains social harmony. Visually stunning, the Maasai warrior with his swathe of scarlet shuka (blanket), beaded belt, dagger, intricately plaited hair, and one-legged stance remains the most enduring icon of Kenyan tourism That said, many a modern Maasai dons a suit for work but, come the weekend, and he ll be back in his beloved trad1t1onal dress
The Masai people of East Africa live in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania along the Great Rift Valley on semi-arid and arid lands. The Masai occupy a total land area of 160,000 square kilometers with a population of approximately one and a half million people.
Maasai People – Tribe
The Masai society is comprised of sixteen sections (known in Masai as Iloshon): Ildamat, Ilpurko, Ilkeekonyokie, Iloitai, Ilkaputiei, Ilkankere, Isiria, Ilmoitanik, Iloodokilani, Iloitokitoki, Ilarusa, Ilmatatapato, Ilwuasinkishu, Kore, Parakuyu, and Ilkisonko, also known as Isikirari (Tanzania’s Masai). There was also once Iltorobo section but was assimilated by other sections. A majority of the Masai population lives in Kenya. Sections such as Isikirari, Parakuyu, Kore and Ilarusa lives in Tanzania.
Maasai Culture – Social Responsibility
The Masai live in Kraals arranged in a circular fashion. The fence around the kraal is made of acacia thorns, which prevent lions from attacking the cattle. It is a man’s responsibility to fence the kraal. While women construct the houses. Traditionally, kraals are shared by an extended family. However, due to the new land management system in the Masai region, it is not uncommon to see a kraal occupied by a single family.
The Inkajijik (Masai word for a house) are loaf-shaped and made of mud, sticks, grass, cow dung and cow’s urine. Women are responsible for making the houses as well as supplying water, collecting firewood, milking cattle and cooking for the family. Warriors are in charge of security while boys are responsible for herding livestock. During the drought season, both warriors and boys assume the responsibility for herding livestock. The elders are directors and advisors for day-to-day activities. Every morning before livestock leave to graze, an elder who is the head of the inkang sits on his chair and announces the schedule for everyone to follow.
The Masai are a semi-nomadic people who lived under a communal land management system. The movement of livestock is based on seasonal rotation. Contrary to many claims made by outsiders, particularly the Hardinian school of thought, this communal land management system allows us to utilize resources in a sustainable manner. Each section manages its own territory. Under normal conditions, reserve pastures are fallowed and guarded by the warriors. However, if the dry season becomes especially harsh, sections boundaries are ignored and people graze animals throughout the land until the rainy season arrives. According to Masai traditional land agreement, no one should be denied access to natural resources such as water and land.
Maasai Culture – Economic Activities
Livestock such as cattle, goats and sheep are the primary source of income for the Masai. Livestock serves as a social utility and plays an important role in the Masai economy. Livestock are traded for other livestock, cash or livestock products such as milk and siege. Individual, families, and clans established close ties through giving or exchange of cattle. “Meishoo iyiook enkai inkishu o-nkera”- so goes a Masai prayer. The English translation of this praye is: “May Creator give us cattle and children. Cattle and children are the most important aspect of the Masai people.
The Masai economy is increasingly dependent on the market economy. Livestock products are sold to other groups in Kenya for the purchase of beads, clothing and grains. Cows and goats are also sold for uniform and school fees for children. It is now common to see young Masai men and women in major towns and cities of Kenya selling, not just goats and cows, but also beads, cell phones, chacoal, grain among other items. The entrepreneurial spirit is something new in our society.
It was not until the early 1980s with the Group Ranch project that we became much more entrenched in a market economy and, hence, more impoverished generally speaking.
Maasai Culture – Food
Traditionally, the Masai rely on meat, milk and blood from cattle for protein and caloric needs. People drink blood on special occasions. It is given to a circumcised person (o/esipolioi), a woman who has given birth (entomononi) and the sick (oltamueyiai). Also, on a regular basis drunk elders, ilamerak, use the blood to alleviate intoxication and hangovers. Blood is very rich in protein and is good for the immune system. However, its use in the traditional diet is waning due to the reduction of livestock numbers.
More recently, the Masai have grown dependent on food produced in other areas such as maize meal (unga wa mahindi), rice, potatoes, cabbage (known to the Masai as goat leaves), etc. The Masai who live near crop farmers have engaged in cultivation as their primary mode of subsistence. In these areas, plot sizes are generally not large enough to accommodate herds of animals; thus the Masai are forced to farm. Our people traditionally frown upon this. Masai believe that tilizing the land for crop farming is a crime against nature. Once you cultivate the land, it is no longer suitable for grazing.
Maasai Culture – Private ownership
The concept of private ownership was, until recently, a foreign concept to the Masai. However, in the 1960s and 1980s, a program of commercializing livestock and land was forced on us initially by the British and later by the government of Kenya. Since then, our land has been subdivided into group and individual ranches. In other parts of Masailand people subdivided their individual ranches into small plots, which are sold to private developers.
The new land management system of individual ranches has economically polarized our people; some Masais, as well as outside wealthy individuals, have substantially increased their wealth at the expense of others. The largest loss of land, however, has been to national parks and reserves, in which the Masai people are restricted from accessing critical water sources, pasture, and salt lick. Subdivision of Masailand reduced land size for cattle herding, reduced the number of cows per household, and reduced food production. As a result, the Masai society, which once was a proud and self-sufficient society, is now facing many social-economic and political challenges. The level of poverty among the Masai people is beyond conceivable height. It is sad to see a society that had a long tradition of pride being a beggar for relief food because of imposed foreign concepts of development.
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