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The Enduring Culture of the Maasai

The Enduring Culture of the Maasai

Three smiling Masai women in colorful garbs and festive jewelry
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Maasais are an ethnic group of people found in East Africa. They mainly occupy the central, northern, and southern regions of Kenya and northern Tanzania. The Maasais are renowned worldwide for their unique dress and customs and reside near the national parks of Africa’s great lakes. Maa, part of the Nilotic language family, is their official language.

It is believed that the Maasai came from the lower Nile valley, north of Lake Turkana, and started heading south around the 15th  century. They arrived in what we now know as northern Kenya and spread to Tanzania between the 17th and 18th centuries. By the middle of the 19th century, their territory covered most of the Great Rift Valley and neighboring lands. However, the arrival of British colonizers in Kenya and subsequent treaties creating room for settlers’ ranches saw the community lose 60% of the land. The Maasai in Tanzania were also displaced from fertile lands to create national parks and wildlife reserves. This ethnic group has continued to demand grazing rights to many game reserves administered by several governments. They have also resisted calls to take up a less traditional way of life.

 

The Test of Time

Maasais are a distinctive, ingenious, and culture-influenced ethnic group that has preserved their customs for years. Despite the influence of western ways in East Africa, the tribe has persistently maintained their traditional way of life. Even in cases where individuals have moved to the city to be educated and work, they still value their heritage and try to participate in its various rituals.

The vigor of Maasai culture as it exists today can be attributed to the tribe’s adherence to the precepts of their ancestors and the steadfast commitment to their laws. Surprisingly, members of the ethnic group are so used to their traditional lifestyle; they aren’t ready to give it up for more convenient technologies. They believe embracing new traditions isn’t worth it, and it might take them hundreds of years to become accustomed to a different lifestyle. A heightened sense of self-worth also influences the Maasai to oppose foreign customs. Over the years, they have paid little attention to numerous appeals to ditch pastoralism and settle in one place. So, they are always on the move in search of new grazing lands for their livestock.

Elders, warriors, and spiritual and political leaders are among the custodians of Maasai culture. Their commitment to passing customs from generation to generation is another factor that has made their lifestyle survive this long. Given the irrefutable power the elders wield, they continue to promote Maasai socio-cultural practices, ensuring that the community adheres to traditional values and performs the rituals of their ancestors. But what are these traditions and rituals?

 

What is Maasai Culture?

From wearing colorful fabrics to engaging in jumping dances, lion hunting, and cattle herding, the Maasais continue to fascinate. Let’s dig deeper to understand the community’s cultural practices and what makes them unique.

 

Cattle as Currency

It’s hard to picture the Maasais without their cattle. Historically, they have relied on them to meet all their basic needs—clothing, food, and shelter. The livestock embodies the primary currency in conventional Maasai society. Families focus on amassing big herds to display their status and wealth. They sell and barter the animals in all kinds of exchanges that involve goods and services.

In the Maasai worldview, the creator, Enkai, made the cows, particularly for them. Therefore, they are the primary custodians of cattle everywhere in the world. For a long time, boys and young men have been tasked with safeguarding livestock from predators and taking them to pasture land and water sources. The herds wander with the changing of seasons, and this rotation helps regenerate grasslands.

Cows also play a vital role in Maasai’s communal life. Clans and families form pacts by exchanging cattle and eating the meat. Drinking cows’ milk is a sacred act that binds partakers to their god. In most cases, cattle are included in a young woman’s dowry that the groom gives to the bride’s family. A man is at liberty to marry more than one wife so long as he is wealthy, and of course, this wealth is measured in cows. A young warrior who shows exceptional courage can be gifted one or more cows. Similarly, shameful or criminal conduct may be punished with a fine paid in livestock.

 

Beautifully Dressed

The Maasai are famous for their unique dress and attractive beaded jewelry. They usually wrap themselves in a traditional robe; a bright-colored cotton cloth called a shuka. Shukas are mainly red, but it’s not uncommon to find some Maasais adorned in blue, checkered, and striped fabrics. The shuka protects wearers from the harsh climate and terrain of the Savannah. It also represents unity, bravery, and strength. The Maasai only started wearing commercially produced cloth in the 1960s. Before that, they used to wear leather garments made from sheep skin or calf hides and dyed with vegetable pigments.

Jewelry, made of metal wire and beads, is also an essential part of the Maasai dress. The community has handcrafted jewelry utilizing beadwork for centuries. Before colonizers arrived in Kenya, they made jewelry from dried grasses, sticks, seeds, shells, and other natural materials. Today they use manufactured beads in an explosion of bright colors to create various ornaments, including earrings, necklaces, ankle and wrist bracelets, and collars. The number of bracelets and chokers worn depends on the clan and social status of the wearer. The men wear a long leather strap tied around their waist. This strap, generally cut from cow skin and decorated with colored beads, is worn when performing traditional dances.

The Jumping Dance

 

Also known as the Adamu, the jumping dance is one of the dancing ceremonies that the Maasai practice. The ritual involves young men forming a semicircle and chanting while every person takes a turn to step in front of the group and jump as high as possible. Even though the Adamu seems elementary in its movement, it carries heavy meaning and reason. It is a form of mating dance whereby a young Maasai warrior shows off his prowess and wins a bride. Tourists find the display fascinating, and some even try jumping themselves. It’s more challenging than it looks, and very few reach the heights the warriors attain.

Lion Hunting

While this custom has been prohibited in East Africa, it was at the core of the Maasai culture for decades. At the time, young men from the tribe had to prove they were brave by killing a lion utilizing an iron spear, after which they would join the warrior class—Morani. In the initiation rite called Ala-Mayo, the warriors only hunted male lions because the female ones were revered as carriers of life. When it was time to conduct this rite of passage, the participants would call out to one another utilizing a kudu horn. They would then track, encircle, and attack the animal with spears. After a successful kill, a celebration followed to praise the warriors for their courage. The lion’s tail and front paws were often carried on tips of spears as trophies during the ceremony. Now that lions are endangered, national governments in Kenya and Tanzania, and conservation agencies, have taken measures to discourage the practice. So, the Maasai will only kill a lion if it threatens their lives or livestock. Nonetheless, the community still reveres their warriors’ fierce bravery.

 

Manyattas

Due to their nomadic nature, the Maasai traditionally live in temporary structures known as Manyattas. Interestingly, women are involved in building these houses, not men. All the materials they utilize for construction are natural and locally available. The huts, typically oval or circular, are made with timber poles and plastered with a mix of cow dung, water, mud, and cow urine. Rooftops usually are covered with dry grass. Manyattas provide the residents with reliable shelter from rain, heat, and wind. The men are responsible for building fences surrounding the huts to protect livestock from predators.

 

Some Maasai Rituals

The Maasai culture features various rituals which are believed to draw the community closer to their god. Each ceremony represents a new stage of life, and the participants are always eager to enter this new phase.

 

Enkipaata

This ceremony marks the first initiation of a boy just before he undergoes circumcision. A group of boys aged 14-16 journey across their territory for around four months, informing the community about the new age set they have formed. Elders typically escort the lads, guiding the new age set in its formation. A chief among the boys, who will carry all the age set’s sins, is chosen just before the ceremony. An Oloiboni (prophet) is the one that decides where the 30-40 houses that will accommodate the initiating boys will be built. The participants are required to sleep in the forest the night before. As dawn approaches, it is a cue for them to run towards the homestead, entering it with a raider’s attitude. On the day of the ceremony, the initiates wear shukas and dance non-stop all day.

 

Emuratare

Emuratare, also known as circumcision, is the most important rite of passage for Maasai boys. Conducted shortly after puberty, the ceremony signifies the transition from childhood to adulthood. It is also a time for the initiates to demonstrate bravery, after which they become warriors and assume the duty of securing their territory. There are several customs an individual must do to complete this ritual. First, they must herd cows for one week non-stop before the operation. Then, on the day of the circumcision (the eighth day), the boy is expected to stand in the cold weather and bathe in cold water. Later, he joins the procession of other boys heading towards the site of the operation as age mates, friends, and other male members of the family cheer for them, shouting encouraging words. After his successful completion of the rite, each boy is gifted with cows from friends and relatives in addition to winning respect for his courage.

 

Eunoto

Eunoto is an essential ritual that takes place every decade to mark the transition of warriors into senior warriors. Through this ritual, the men get permission to marry and participate in the community’s decision-making processes in preparation for becoming elders. The Oloiboni (prophet) is responsible for ordaining the ceremony after receiving nine cows from the age group. Preparations are extensive and begin by building 49 mud houses (manyattas). The 49th hut, referred to as Osinkira, houses the Oloiboni. Warriors will entertain this spiritual leader daily until the event ends. Every individual must be bald, and the warrior’s mother is the one who shaves their head. Participants are not allowed to carry weapons during the event.

Adorned in ostrich-feather and lion-mane headdresses and holding buffalo-hide shields, the warriors surround the consecrated ritual house and perform the famous Adamu. The men habitually fall into emotional states, during which their bodies turn stiff and foam at the mouth. Setting an animal horn on fire is another crucial Eunoto ritual. A warrior must remove a piece from the fire before the horn is completely burned. No one wants to perform this action due to the misfortune associated with it, but someone must do it to prevent the entire age set from being cursed. The festival often ends with a milk blessing. This is where elders take a mouthful of milk and honey wine and spray it on the warriors, welcoming them into leadership.

 

Marriage Rites

Maasai marriages require numerous rituals completed as part of the ceremony. The bride’s family receives a bull or big sheep from the groom during the ceremony and slaughters it for her. Oddly, the wife-to-be isn’t allowed to consume the meat. She will eat a goat slaughtered for her at her home instead. On the wedding day, the girl is shaved, symbolizing a new journey she is starting. As she leaves her home, the bride gets the blessings of an elder who spits out milk outside the bride’s mother’s house. The grass is tied to the girl’s shoes before leaving the house as a further blessing. The women usually boo her a little during the procession and give her presents. Everyone ends up in the husband’s village, where the wedding is held. On her arrival, the bride must carry a baby or toddler to represent the children she will have.

What can we learn from this culture that has stood the test of time?

 

The Value of Uniqueness

We can maintain behaviors we hold dear even when others pressure us to abandon them. Africa has been widely westernized, and most communities have adopted at least some western habits. The Maasai continue to stand out because of their love for their culture. From time to time, they show us what it is like to be a Maasai by sharing their traditions with us. It’s easy to see why they are so proud of their identity—their life is an adventure.

 

Never Give Up

Despite losing their land to colonizers many decades ago and subsequent pressure to embrace western culture, the Maasai remain true to their customs and beliefs. This is something we can learn from. As we grow up, we are taught to look to others for guidance. Social norms are a vital part of childhood and help us to know how to behave and relate to others. However, problems arise when this process is extended to include something as personal as your values, customs, and traditions. Stand by what you believe to be true.

 

Be Fluid and Accepting

A look into Maasai culture has shown us the practices the community engages in and the reasons behind them. We should not be judgmental; the Maasai might find it strange to spend $100 on a pair of jeans, money that could feed their family for a month. They do not force us to subscribe to their customs. Maybe we could be more tolerant and accepting.

 

Adopt the Spirit of a Warrior

Maasais value courage, and their warriors embody it. These warriors will bravely take on any challenge thrown at them. This makes them great protectors of the community’s land and wealth. Similarly, we can strive to be brave because life, as we know it, is full of challenges that only a resilient person can overcome to attain their dreams. Bravery boosts self-confidence and gives you faith in your abilities.

 

Take it Easy

The life of a typical Maasai is simple. They live in manyattas, their lives revolve around cattle, and they seem happy about it. In contrast, the modern world we live in is more complicated. Almost everyone is obsessed with amassing wealth in the form of houses, cars, or fancy vacations. As a result, we lose and forget ourselves. We can borrow a thing or two from the Maasais, and that is to appreciate the little things in life and be happy.

Maasai culture is diverse and exciting. It didn’t so much resist westernization as ignore it completely. Because of that, the world has come to appreciate this unique tribe, and a tour of East Africa is never complete without meeting the Maasai.

 

 

Edited by Michael Moss

 

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