The Maasai tribe (or Masai) is a unique and popular tribe due to their long preserved culture. Despite education, civilization and western cultural influences, the Maasai people have clung to their traditional way of life, making them a symbol of Kenyan culture.
The Maasai tribe are a Nilotic ethnic group inhabiting southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. They are among the best known local populations due to their residence near the many game parks of the African Great Lakes, and their distinctive customs and dress. The Maasai speak the Maa language and are a member of the Nilo-Saharan family that is related to Dinka and Nuer. They are also educated in the official languages of Kenya and Tanzania, Swahili and English. The Maasai population has been reported as numbering 841,622 in Kenya in the 2009 census, compared to 377,089 in the 1989 census.
The Tanzanian and Kenyan governments have instituted programs to encourage the Maasai to abandon their traditional semi-nomadic lifestyle, but the people have continued their age-old customs. Recently, Organizations have claimed that the lifestyle of the Maasai should be embraced as a response to climate change because of their ability to produce food in deserts and scrublands. Many Maasai tribes throughout Tanzania and Kenya welcome visits to their village to experience their culture, traditions, and lifestyle.
The Maasai people of East Africa live in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania along the Great Rift Valley on semi-arid and arid lands. The Maasai occupy a total land area of 160,000 square kilometers with a population of approximately one and a half million people.
The Maasai society is comprised of sixteen sections (known in Maasai 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 Maasai). There was also once Iltorobo section but was assimilated by other sections. A majority of the Maasai population lives in Kenya. Sections such as Isikirari, Parakuyu, Kore and Ilarusa lives in Tanzania.
Maasai People Origin, Migration and Assimilation
The Maasai People originated from the lower Nile valley north of Lake Turkana (Northwest Kenya) and began migrating south around the 15th century, arriving in a long trunk of land stretching from what is now northern Kenya to what is now central Tanzania between the 17th and late 18th century. Many ethnic groups that had already formed settlements in the region were forcibly displaced by the incoming Maasai, while other, mainly Southern Cushitic groups, were assimilated into Maasai society. The Nilotic ancestors of the Kalenjin and Samburu likewise absorbed some early Cushitic populations.
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Maasai People Historical Adaptation
Tragedy struck the Maasai tribe at the turn of the century. An epidemic of deadly diseases attacked and killed large numbers of the Maasai’s animals. This was quickly followed by severe drought that lasted years. Over half of the Maasais and their animals perished during this period. Soon after, more than two thirds of the Maasai’s land in Kenya was taken away by the British and the Kenyan government to create both ranches for settlers and Kenya and Tanzania’s wildlife reserves and national parks.
The Amboseli National Park, Nairobi National Park, Maasai Mara Game Reserve, Samburu, Lake Nakuru, and Tsavo National Parks in Kenya and the Manyara, Ngorongoro, Tarangire and Serengeti parks in Tanzania all stand on what was once the territory of the Maasai tribe.
Today, the Maasai people live on a smaller piece of land in the Kajiado and Narok districts, surrounded by these now Kenya’s fine game reserves. Many practice nomadic pastoralism, while others have been absorbed into modern day jobs working in tourism where they showcase their culture to visiting tourists.
Many Maasai people have moved away from the nomadic life to positions in commerce and government. Yet despite the sophisticated urban lifestyle they may lead, many will happily head homewards dressed in designer clothes, only to emerge from the traditional family homestead wearing a shuka (colourful piece of cloth), cow hide sandals and carrying a wooden club (o-rinka) – at ease with themselves.
Maasai Culture and Traditions
The warrior is of great importance as a source of pride in the Maasai culture. To be a Maasai is to be born into one of the world’s last great warrior cultures. From boyhood to adulthood, young Maasai boys begin to learn the responsibilities of being a man (helder) and a warrior. The role of a warrior is to protect their animals from human and animal predators, to build kraals (Maasai homes) and to provide security to their families.
Maasai Traditions – Maasai Circumcision
Through rituals and ceremonies, including circumcision, Maasai boys are guided and mentored by their fathers and other elders on how to become a warrior. Although they still live their carefree lives as boys – raiding cattle, chasing young girls, and game hunting – a Maasai boy must also learn all of the cultural practices, customary laws and responsibilities he’ll require as an elder.
An elaborate ceremony – Eunoto – is usually performed to “graduate” the young man from their Moran and carefree lifestyle to that of a warrior. Beginning life as a warrior means a young man can now settle down and start a family, acquire cattle and become a responsible elder. In his late years, the middle-aged warrior will be elevated to a senior and more responsible elder during the Olng’eshere ceremony.
Traditional Maasai people’s lifestyle concentrates on their cattle which make up the primary source of food. Amongst the Maasai and several other African ethnic groups, the measure of a man’s wealth is in terms of children and cattle. So the more the better.A man who has plenty cattle but not many children is considered to be poor and vice versa. A Maasai myth says that God afforded them all the cattle on earth, resulting in the belief that rustling from other tribes is a matter of claiming what is rightfully theirs, a practice that has now become much less common.
Maasai Culture Shelter
The Maasai tribe, historically a nomadic people, have traditionally relied on readily available materials and indigenous technology to construct their unusual and interesting housing. The traditional Maasai house was designed for people on the move and thus their houses were very impermanent in nature. The Inkajijik (houses) are either circular or loaf-shaped, and are made by women.
Their villages are enveloped in a circular Enkang (fence) built by the men and this protects their cattle at night from wild animals.
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Maasai Culture – Cultural Tours
Kenya’s safari tours enable both visiting tourists and native Kenyans to enjoy the country’s wildlife, while also exploring the Maasai’s rich cultural heritage by visiting their homes and attending Maasai cultural shows. These tours are held in Kenya’s game reserves, in particular, the Maasai Mara National reserve
The tours also provide an ideal opportunity for participants to take part in the Maasai dance and buy traditional Maasai jewelry, art and crafts to take home as souvenirs.
Maasai Way of Life
Clothing varies by sex, age and place. Young men wear black for several months after their circumcision. Although, red is a favored color among the Maasai. Black, Blue, checked and striped cloth are also worn, together with mulitcoloured African garments. In the 1960s the Maasai began to replace sheep shin, calf hides and animal skin for more commercial material. The cloth used to wrap around the body is the called Shúkà in the Maa language.Contact a Siyabona Africa Consultant for more information on Kenya National Parks and Kenya safari accommodation options.
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.
Ear piercing and the stretching of earlobes are also part of Maasai beauty, and both men and women wear metal hoops on their stretched earlobes. Women shave their heads and remove two middle teeth on the lower jaw (for oral delivery of traditional medicine). The Maasai often walk barefooted or wear simple sandals made of cow hide.
Maasai Culture – Maasai Food
All of the Maasai’s needs for food are met by their cattle. They eat the meat, drink the milk and, on occasion, drink the blood. Bulls, oxen and lambs are slaughtered for meat on special occasions and for ceremonies. The by-products of the animals – skin and hides – are used as bedding while cow dung is used for building (it is smeared on the walls). The Maasai’s entire way of life truly revolves around their cattle.
The effects of modern civilization, education and western influence have not completely spared this unique and interesting tribe. Some of the Maasai tribe’s deep-rooted culture is slowly fading away. Customs, activities and rituals such as female circumcision and cattle raiding have been outlawed by modern legislation. Maasai children now have access to education and some Maasai have moved from their homeland to urban areas where they have secured jobs.
The Maasai tribe now occupy a much smaller area in the Kajiado and Narok districts as their vast territory has been taken over by some of Kenya’s game reserves. The Maasai’s territory now overlaps with the Serengeti plains in Tanzania and Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya – an area famous for the huge Wildebeest migration that take place every year, when up to a million animals move from the north end of the plains to the south. However, the Maasai’s authentic and intriguing culture is a tourist attraction on its own.
Maasai Tribe – Private Ownership
The concept of private ownership was, until recently, a foreign concept to the Maasai. 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 Maasai land 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 Maasais, 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 Maasai people are restricted from accessing critical water sources, pasture, and salt lick. Subdivision of Maasai land reduced land size for cattle herding, reduced the number of cows per household, and reduced food production.
As a result, the Maasai 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 Maasai 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.
Maasai Tribe – Social Responsibility
The Maasai 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 Maasai region, it is not uncommon to see a kraal occupied by a single family.
The Inkajijik (Maasai 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 Maasai 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 Maasai 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 Maasai. Livestock serves as a social utility and plays an important role in the Maasai 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 Maasai prayer. The English translation of this prayer is: “May Creator give us cattle and children. Cattle and children are the most important aspect of the Maasai people.
The Maasai 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 Maasai men and women in major towns and cities of Kenya selling, not just goats and cows, but also beads, cell phones, charcoal, 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- Music and Dance
Maasai music traditionally consists of rhythms provided by a chorus of vocalists singing harmonies while a song leader, or olaranyani, sings the melody. The olaranyani is usually the singer who can best sing that song, although several individuals may lead a song. The olaranyani begins by singing a line or title (namba) of a song.
The group will respond with one unanimous call in acknowledgment, and the olaranyani will sing a verse over the group’s rhythmic throat singing. Each song has its specific namba structure based on call-and-response. Common rhythms are variations of 5/4, 6/4 and 3/4 time signatures.
Lyrics follow a typical theme and are often repeated verbatim over time. Neck movements accompany singing. When breathing out the head is leaned forward. The head is tilted back for an inward breath. Overall the effect is one of polyphonic syncopation. Unlike most other African tribes, Maasai widely use drone polyphony.
Women chant lullabies, humming songs, and songs praising their sons. Nambas, the call-and-response pattern, repetition of nonsense phrases, monophonic melodies repeated phrases following each verse being sung on a descending scale, and singers responding to their own verses are characteristic of singing by females. When many Maasai women gather together, they sing and dance among themselves.
One exception to the vocal nature of Maasai music is the use of the horn of the Greater Kudu to summon Morans for the Eunoto ceremony.
Both singing and dancing sometimes occur around Manyattas, and involve flirting. Young men will form a line and chant rhythmically, “Oooooh-yah”, with a growl and staccato cough along with the thrust and withdrawal of their lower bodies. Girls stand in front of the men and make the same pelvis lunges while singing a high dying fall of “Oiiiyo..yo” in counterpoint to the men. Although bodies come in close proximity, they do not touch.
The Maasai Dance
Eunoto, the coming of age ceremony of the warrior, can involve ten or more days of singing, dancing and ritual. The warriors of the Il-Oodokilani perform a kind of march-past as well as the Adumu, or Aigus, sometimes referred as “the jumping dance” by non-Maasai. (both Adumu and Aigus) are Maa verbs meaning “to jump” with Adumu meaning “To jump up and down in a dance. Warriors are well known for, and often photographed during, this competitive jumping. A circle is formed by the warriors, and one or two at a time will enter the center to begin jumping while maintaining a narrow posture, never letting their heels touch the ground. Members of the group may raise the pitch of their voices based on the height of the jump.
The girlfriends of the Moran (intoyie) parade themselves in their most spectacular costumes as part of the Eunoto. The mothers of the Moran sing and dance in tribute to the courage and daring of their sons.
Maasai Culture Facts
- The Maasai believe God has given them all the cattle in the world. This makes cattle rustling a matter of taking back what belongs to them.
- The Maasai have a patriarchal society. The important matters of each group is decided by elder men.
- The Maasai believe in one god named Enkai or Engai. He has a duel nature; one called Engai Narok (Black God) who is benevolent, and the other Engai Nanyokie (Red God) who is vengeful.
- The Maasai tribe speaks Maa and are also schooled in English and Swahili (the official languages of Tanzania and Kenya).
- The piercing and stretching of earlobes is a common practice of the Maasai.
- Many Maasai have become Christian, and a fewer amount have become Muslim.
There is an extensive oral law that covers many aspects of Maasai behavior.
Interesting Maasai Facts
- Cattle play an important role in Maasai life. It is their primary source of food.A man’s wealth is measured in terms of cattle he owns and children he has.
- The Maasai are semi-nomadic which is a result of their raising cattle and the need to find new grazing land.
- Maasai families live in an enclosure called a Enkang which typically contains ten to twenty small huts. The enclosure is protected by a fence or bushes with sharp thorns.
- Maasai huts are very small, with usually only one or two rooms and not high enough for these tall people to stand.
- Traditionally these people of Africa do not bury their dead. Burials are believed to harm the soil and is reserved only for some chiefs. Most dead bodies are simply left outside for scavengers.
- In the mid 1800’s the Maasai territory reached its greatest size. It covered almost all of the great rift valley and several other adjacent lands.
- It is widely believed the Maasai people originated in the Nile valley. It is believed these people of Africa left the Nile Valley in the 15th or 16th century reaching their current home in the Great Rift Valley around the 17th or 18th century.