Maasai Culture and Tradition

Anthropology of Maasai Culture: Their Journey from Past to Future

Whenever you think of East Africa, you see prodigious wildlife in your mind’s eyes, but without knowing Maasai culture and tradition, your trip will not be fulfilled as it gives the place a distinctive essence of culture and customs. Before you experience the East African safari, you should know a little bit about the Maasai people. 

The name of this noble tribe is Maasai, as they speak the language Maa. They are a special semi-nomadic tribe with bright red robes that set them apart. They stay calm and courageous in the face of acute danger. Even the British troops that drove these brave tribesmen from their homes at the beginning of the twentieth century had great respect for the Maasai culture and tradition. It was not a long time ago that a Maasai boy could only achieve the status of a warrior by killing a lion single-handedly with his spear. 

Maasai distinctive clothing in Maasai culture and Tradition
Maasai Distinctive Clothing

MWCT or Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust works with the Maasai who are living at the Kuku Group Ranch. The Kuku Group Ranch has about seventeen thousand people and the place is situated in a significant corridor of migration with 283,000 acres, which are at the base of Hemingway’s “Green Hills of Africa,” the Chyulu Hills between Amboseli National Park and Tsavo.

History of the Maasai Culture and Tradition

Kenya identifies more than fifty tribes of indigenous people. In the early twentieth century, Maasai was the predominant tribe and among the very few tribes who have held onto their lifestyle, lore, and traditions. The Maasai need a lot of lands as they are closely integrated with the wildlife surrounded by them. Unlike several tribes, the Maasai are pastoral as they sustain by herding goats and cattle. 

Map of African Great Lakes
African Great Lake Region
Credit: Wikipedia

They are Nilotic people, aboriginal to the African Great Lake Region with roots that can be uncovered back to South Sudan. According to the oral history of the Maasai people, sometime in the fifteenth century, they began to migrate south from the lower Nile Valley, which is to the north of Lake Turkana in Kenya, and finally arrived at their present range in between the seventeenth and late eighteenth centuries. Several other ethnic groups in that area were displaced or amalgamated with the Maasai people, who also adopted the Maasai culture and tradition. It included ritualistic circumcision and social organization that concentrated less on the descent and more on the age set. 

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the territory of the Maasai people involved the whole Great Rift Valley along with surrounding land. The people became famous for their cattle herding as well as their strength as warriors utilizing shields and spears and clubs that can be accurately thrown from seventy paces. 

The Maasai people did not adjust to modern Africa. The brave tribesmen of Maasai had occupied most of the fertile land until the European settlers had arrived. The Maasai people struggled to protect their lands as their spears were unmatched to the weapons of the British armed troops, alongside the lawyers who didn’t have any chance in the British courtroom. In 1904, they lost the best of their lands to the British rulers by signing the first agreement. 

Maasai Culture and Tradition
The Maasai People

In 1911, exactly seven years later, a small group of Maasai signed another controversial agreement where they lost a very fertile Northern land to the white rulers. They certainly did not fully grasp the consequences of such a treaty as the signatories did not even represent the whole tribe. The Maasai people had to give up at least two-thirds of their land and had to relocate to the less fertile portions of Tanzania and Kenya. While the other tribes have adapted over time, the Maasai have persevered in Maasai culture and traditions. Therefore, when Kenya takes away more lands for agriculture and other developing tribes, the Maasai people perish.

Comprehension of Maasai Culture and Tradition

Within a patriarchal society, a group of elder men determines the most important decisions for each group and the number of children and cattle decides a man’s wealth. Oftentimes, men have many wives and each wife has their own home that has to be built five years apart because of termites by the women alone. The homes are fashioned with cow dung, sticks, and thatched roofs.

Maasai women headdress in Massai culture and tradition
Maasai Women in Headdress
Credit: Pinterest

The boys in the family are expected to shepherd the animals or the cattle. These are their three sources of food, which are milk, blood, and meat. On the other hand, the girls are expected to help their mothers with domestic responsibilities like cooking and gathering firewood. Historically, both genders have gone through a circumcision ritual named emorata, though the procedure is receding gradually as both foreigners and Maasai activists protest against it.

The boys in adolescence, undergoing this ritual with a sharp knife and without anesthesia, are expected not to cry out in pain as that is an indicator of dishonor. They are referred to as Moran afterward and sent to live in a village or manyatta which is established by their mothers for several months and the boy undergoes the procedure during this time to become a warrior. They also make money by posing for photos of the tourists alongside the roads with their black robes and white facial markings in Tanzania and Kenya.

Maasai Adolescent Boys in Maasai Culture and Tradition
Maasai Adolescent Boys in the Rites of Passage
Credit: North African Maasai Tribe

The Maasai culture and tradition are popular for its dance and music where the olaranyani or the leader sings the melody while the other tribespeople “sing polyphonic harmony on call-and-response vocals” and they also make guttural sounds from their throats to give rhythmic syncopation. In the time of eunoto, when the warriors come of age, there are more than ten days of singing involved along with other rituals and dancing. It also includes competitive jumping for which the Maasai people are best renowned. 

Anthropology: Some Interesting Facts about Maasai People

Cows Represent Wealth for the Maasai

The Maasai culture and tradition revolve around this belief that God or Enkai or Engai, in the Maa language, has made them the custodians of the cattle of the world and the cattle are there specifically for them. For the Maasai people, life revolves around herding cows and, to some extent, goats. Not only do cows act as the primary source of income where livestock are traded for cash or other goods, but cows also play a vital role in the communal life of the Maasai. Maasai clans and families develop alliances through the exchanging of cattle and also the consumption of their milk and meat is a sacred act that connects and binds the Maasai people with their creator.

Maasai people herding cattle
Maasai People Herding Cattle

The “Green” Approach to the Lands by the Maasai People

It was long before the occurrence of the game parks to conserve environment, the Maasai grazed their herds of cattle them through the Rift Valley without damaging it for hundreds of years. The seasonal migration was the process behind it where they would migrate across vast swaths of territory to give the land plenty of time to recover and be ready for grazing again. The tribe’s hunting game was limited and non-destructive to the larger ecosystem, like their livelihood on cattle. 

Lion-Hunting is No Longer Practiced

In the past decades, lion-hunting it was a ritual that men had to go through single-handedly or in a group to prove themselves as warriors by only using their iron spheres. Quintessentially, only the male lions were hunted at the initiation of the Maasai rite of passage, since the lionesses are considered as the sacred life-givers. Though, today in East Africa, lion-hunting has been banned, when their livestock is threatened by the lions, the revered Maasai warriors still come back to kill them. 

Maasai People are Nearly Undefeated in Jumping Competitions

Maasai Jumping Dance in Massai Culture and Tradirtion
Maasai Jumping Dance or Adumu
Credit: Pinterest

As mentioned before, the Maasai jumping dance or Adumu was one of the most renowned dancing and singing rituals. In this custom, the young Maasai men are gathered in a semicircle while unitedly chanting in a rhythm, then, everyone takes their turn one after another to jump as high as they can towards the sky. Adumu mainly consists of high-energy whoops and observing Maasai women on the sidelines. Young Maasai men participate in this game to attract wives for themselves. The safari travelers in Africa are often thrilled by the presentation and want to try it for themselves. They cannot reach as high as the Maasai since they were practicing the jumping dance or Adamu when they were children.

Traditional Clothing Among Maasai

Shuka is the most worn and recognizable clothing that Maasai people use, which is a sheet of fabric wrapped around their body. They used to wear animal hides until the middle of the twentieth century, but they have stopped since they were introduced to cotton. The colors of their attire vary depending on gender and age. As mentioned earlier, young men wear black after their circumcision, while older men use red wraparounds. The women in the tribe usually wear striped, checked, or patterned pieces of clothing. 

Maasai Beadworks in Maasai Culture and Tradition
Maasai Beadworks

The beadwork is popular among Maasai due to its intricacy and it also represents the position of the women in the clan. In the nineteenth century, before they began to trade with the Europeans, they used to utilize natural elements like shells, ivory, and clay. Now, they use glass beads which help the beadwork to be more detailed. Each color has its own meaning, as red represents bravery and warriors, while white and blue stand for peace and water respectively.

During the times of the rites of passages like circumcision and marriage, men and women saved their heads and only the Maasai warriors could wear their hair long, but the hair had to be thinly braided. Using wood, stones and bones, they stretch their earlobes. Usually, they wear beaded earpieces on their long earlobes and piercings on the top of their ears. Maasai women and men both stretch their earlobes traditionally as it is a symbol of respect and wisdom. However, this tradition is waning, especially among young men.

Tooth removal is another type of body modification that is a Maasai tradition. In early childhood, the canine teeth are removed to prevent diarrhea and vomiting. They are especially removed when they stick out on the upper jaw. In some cases, the lower two middle teeth are removed to easily feed the children in case their jaw is locked during disease or an incident of tetanus.

Dangers to the Maasai Culture and Tradition

Maasai Culture and Tradition
Maasai Culture and Tradition

Difficulties between the government and the Maasai people can be traced back to one hundred years to the time when a pair of treaties with the British settlers drove the Maasai from their home in Kenya and more than sixty percent of their lands were captured to be used for the ranches of the colonialists. In 1940, the pastoral in Tanzania were removed from the most fertile land around Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Meru, and the Ngorongoro Crater. Most of the lands that were taken away from the Maasai people were then used to create the most renowned national parks and wildlife reserves that include Samburu, Amboseli, Tsavo, Masai Mara in Kenya, and Tarangire, Ngorongoro, Serengeti, and Lake Manyara in Tanzania.

In recent times, the Maasai have rejected the pleadings of the governments of Tanzania and Kenya to change to a more active lifestyle and send children to schools that are government-approved. They refuted their urgings because they believe that the educational facilities are there to teach people how to become rich and the Maasai people are already rich in the Maasai culture and traditions. 

Several non-profit organizations such as Survival International are working together with the Maasai leaders to assist them to get back their grazing rights to their historic lands and resist the government’s notion of making progress. 

Here we are at the end! Hopefully, I have given you a glimpse of the Maasai culture and tradition, which will encourage you to experience it personally. More than one million Maasai live in the hotspot areas and we can certainly hope they will continue to live and prosper with their rich tradition, culture, and lifestyle for more years to come. Until then, travel well, be well.  

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