The Maasai are a Nilotic ethnic group inhabiting northern, central and southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. They are among the best known local populations internationally 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 a member of the Nilo-Saharan family that is related to the Dinka, Kalenjin and Nuer languages. Except from some elders living in rural areas, most Maasai people speak 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. Many Maasai tribes throughout Tanzania and Kenya welcome visits to their villages to experience their culture, traditions, and lifestyle, in return for a fee.
History of the Maasai
The Maasai inhabit the African Great Lakes region and arrived via the South Sudan. Most Nilotic speakers in the area, including the Maasai, the Turkana and the Kalenjin, are pastoralists, and are famous for their fearsome reputations as warriors and cattle-rustlers. The Maasai and other groups in East Africa have adopted customs and practices from neighboring Cushitic-speaking groups, including the age set system of social organization, circumcision, and vocabulary terms.
Origin of the Maasai
According to their 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. The Nilotic ancestors of the Kalenjin likewise absorbed some early Cushitic populations.
The Maasai territory reached its largest size in the mid-19th century, and covered almost all of the Great Rift Valley and adjacent lands from Mount Marsabit in the north to Dodoma in the south. At this time the Maasai, as well as the larger Nilotic group they were part of, raised cattle as far east as the Tanga coast in Tanganyika (now mainland Tanzania). Raiders used spears and shields, but were most feared for throwing clubs (orinka) which could be accurately thrown from up to appx. 100 meters. In 1852, there was a report of a concentration of 800 Maasai warriors on the move in what is now Kenya. In 1857, after having depopulated the “Wakuafi wilderness” in what is now southeastern Kenya, Maasai warriors threatened Mombasa on the Kenyan coast.
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 and lived alongside most wild animals with an aversion to eating game and birds. Maasai land now has East Africa’s finest game areas. Maasai society never condoned traffic of human beings, and outsiders looking for people to enslave avoided the Maasai.
Essentially there are twenty-two geographic sectors or sub tribes of the Maasai community, each one having its own customs, appearance, leadership and dialects. These subdivisions are known as ‘nations’ or’ iloshon’in the Maa language: the Keekonyokie, Damat, Purko, Wuasinkishu, Siria, Laitayiok, Loitai, Kisonko, Matapato, Dalalekutuk, Loodokolani, Kaputiei, Moitanik, Ilkirasha, Samburu, Lchamus, Laikipia, Loitokitoki, Larusa, Salei, Sirinket and Parakuyo.
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 behavior. Formal capital punishment 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 monotheistic Maasai worship a single deity called Enkai or Engai. Engai has a dual nature: Engai Narok (Black God) is benevolent, and Engai Na-nyokie (Red God) is vengeful. There are also two pillars or totems of Maasai society: Oodo Mongi, the Red Cow and Orok Kiteng, the Black Cow with a subdivision of five clans or family trees.
The Maasai also have a totemic animal, which is the lion; however, the animal can be killed. The way the Maasai kill the lion differs from trophy hunting as it is used in the rite of passage ceremony. “Mountain of God”, Ol Doinyo Lengai, is located in northernmost Tanzania and can be seen from Lake Natron in southernmost Kenya. The central human figure in the Maasai religious system is the laibon whose roles include shamanistic healing, divination and prophecy, and ensuring success in war or adequate rainfall. Today, they have a political role as well due to the elevation of leaders. Whatever power an individual laibon had was a function of personality rather than position. Many Maasai have also adopted Christianity and Islam. The Maasai are known for their intricate jewelry and for decades, have sold these items to tourists as a business.
A once high infant mortality rate among the Maasai has led to babies not truly being recognized until they reach an age of 3 months ilapaitin. Educating Maasai women to use clinics and hospitals during pregnancy has enabled more infants to survive. The exception is found in extremely remote areas. 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 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. Burial has in the past been reserved for great chiefs, since it is believed to be harmful to the soil.