The Maasai (with PDF)

The Maasai (sometimes spelled "Masai" or "Masaai") are a Nilotic ethnic group of semi-nomadic people located in Kenya and northern Tanzania. They are among the best known African ethnic groups, due to their distinctive customs, attire and settlement near the many game parks of East Africa.They speak Maa, a member of the Nilo-Saharan language family and are also educated in the official languages of Kenya and Tanzania: Swahili and English. According to their own oral history, the Maasai 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. Maasai are pastoralist and have resisted the urging of the Tanzanian and Kenyan governments to adopt a more sedentary lifestyle. They have demanded grazing rights to many of the national parks in both countries.

The Maasai people stood against slavery. Maasai society never condoned traffic of human beings, and outsiders looking for people to enslave avoided the Maasai. They lived alongside most wild animals with an aversion to eating game and birds. Maasai land now has East Africa's finest game areas.

The Maasai society is strongly patriarchal in nature, with elder men, sometimes joined by retired elders, deciding most major matters for each Maasai group. A full body of oral law covers many aspects of behaviour. Formal execution is unknown, and normally payment in cattle will settle matters. An out of court process is also practiced called 'amitu', 'to make peace', or 'arop', which involves a substantial apology. The Maasai are monotheistic, worshipping a single deity called Enkai or Engai. Engai has a dual nature: Engai Narok (Black God) is benevolent, and Engai Nanyokie (Red God) is vengeful. The "Mountain of God", Ol Donyo Lengai, is located in northernmost Tanzania. The central human figure in the Maasai religious system is the laibon who may be involved in: shamanic healing, divination and prophecy, and ensuring success in war or adequate rainfall. Whatever power an individual laibon had was a function of personality rather than position.
A high infant mortality rate among the Maasai has led to babies not truly being recognised until they reach an age of 3 moons, ilapaitin. For Maasai living a traditional life, the end of life is virtually without ceremony, and the dead are left out for scavengers. A corpse rejected by scavengers (mainly spotted hyenas, which are known as Ondilili or Oln'gojine in the Maasai language) is seen as having something wrong with it, and liable to cause social disgrace; therefore, it is not uncommon for bodies to be covered in fat and blood from a slaughtered ox.

Traditional Maasai lifestyle centres around their cattle which constitute their primary source of food. The measure of a man's wealth is in terms of cattle and children. A herd of 50 cattle is respectable, and the more children the better. A man who has plenty of one but not the other is considered to be poor. Maintaining a traditional pastoral lifestyle has become increasingly difficult due to outside influences of the modern world. In order to survive they are forced to participate in Tanzania’s monetary economy. They have to sell their animals and traditional medicines in order to buy food.

The central unit of Maasai society is the age-set. Young boys are sent out with the calves and lambs as soon as they can toddle, but childhood for boys is mostly playtime, with the exception of ritual beatings to test courage and endurance. Girls are responsible for chores such as cooking and milking, skills which they learn from their mothers at an early age. Every 15 years or so, a new and individually named generation of Morans or Il-murran (warriors) will be initiated. This involves most boys between 12 and 25, who have reached puberty and are not part of the previous age-set. One rite of passage from boyhood to the status of junior warrior is a painful circumcision ceremony, which is performed without anaesthetic.
When a new generation of warriors is initiated, the existing ilmoran will graduate to become junior elders, who are responsible for political decisions until they in turn become senior elders.

The Maasai are traditionally polygamous; this is thought to be a long standing and practical adaptation to high infant and warrior mortality rates. Polyandry is also practiced. A woman marries not just her husband, but the entire age group. Men are expected to give up their bed to a visiting age-mate guest. The woman decides strictly on her own if she will join the visiting male. Any child which may result is the husband's child and his descendant in the patrilineal order of Maasai society

Traditionally, the Maasai diet consisted of meat, milk, and blood from cattle. Maize and beans were added during the time. Soups are probably the most important use of plants for food by Maasai. Acacia nilotica is the most frequently used soup plant. The root or stem bark is boiled in water and the decoction drunk alone or added to soup. The Maasai are fond of taking this as a drug, and is known to make them energetic, aggressive and fearless. Although consumed as snacks, fruits constitute a major part of the food ingested by children and women looking after cattle as well as morans in the wilderness. Clothing varies by age and location. Young men, for instance, wear black for several months following their circumcision. However, red is a favored color. Blue, black, striped, and checkered cloth are also worn.Shúkà is the Maa word for sheets traditionally worn wrapped around the body, one over each shoulder, then a third over the top of them. These are typically red, though with some other colors (e.g. blue) and patterns (e.g. plaid).

The Shu'mata in depth Maasai Experience

The Shu'mata in depth Maasai Experience

Download (PDF)