Maasai – The People & The Culture

This is dedicated to my mother who has been bugging me to write something … anything … because despite my conviction that no one needs to be tortured into reading my long (I mean, REALLY LONG) posts, she’s been trying to convince me that people have been waiting with bated breath for my next post! So with that little ego massage comes this Wikipedia-type post about the Maasai people – one of my most favourite tribes.

These are “facts” I picked up when Chief enacted his tribes’ history by the fireside. An experience I won’t soon forget. If there’s one think I will always remember the Maasai for, it is their intense story-telling talents.  By the way, this is a LONG, boring factsheet of sorts so be warned. You’ll feel like you’re in history class again.

They are nomads, pastoralists and have a reputation for being fearsome warriors (I had to rub down my goosebumps when the tribesmen enacted how they defended themselves against a lion). According to their own oral history, they originated in the lower Nile valley area and have been migrating south since the 15th century.

Soon they took over most of the Great Rift Valley area. The other tribes tried to push them away but the warriors were feared (and fear led the people to think they were magical and have some sort of superpower since they could throw a spear accurately for up to 100 meters). Then came the Germans and the English who tried to conquer and civilize them but then scared themselves shitless by believing that Maasai people were possessed by the Devil (Chief always giggles his toothless laugh at this part of the story). None of his people were sold as slaves – that’s saying something.

The British did manage to evict them to make room for ranches and then later to create wildlife reserves and national parts.  After freedom, the Tanzania government gave back the lands to the Maasai and gave them grazing rights (Mostly though because “Mzungus”, white people, will pay ridiculous amounts of money to see them)

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. A Maasai religious belief relates that God gave them all the cattle on earth, leading to the belief that rustling cattle from other tribes is a matter of taking back what is rightfully theirs

Many Maasai have now moved away from the nomadic life to big 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, cow hide or tire sandals and carrying a wooden club – at ease with themselves and the world.

The reason they are still such a thriving race/culture is because they resist change – they marry within their own tribe and they’re always moving. Never staying in a place long enough to find home or learn anything that is considered “normal”. The way they see it, they LIVE what is being taught in the “jails” (what they call schools) and practical knowledge serves much better in knowing one snake from another rather than learning their Latin names.

Of course the society is patriarchal – they have a council of elders who are the lawmakers and keepers. If someone has an issue, he brings it up with Chief who calls for a meeting with the whole tribe. They hear both sides of the story and then pass judgement. There’s never any “death penalty” and the normal “fine” is exchanging cattle. If you do happen to have killed another human (does not usually happen but there have been rare accidents), they are sent far away from the tribe and are only welcomed back after 14 years. For a Maasai, being cut off from their society is as good as the death penalty.

I know the legends about them are scarier then they actually are. Fear makes us all exaggerators and despite what I assumed, the Maasai are monotheistic and they call their god Engai – who is a single deity with dual nature. Engai Narok (Black God) is the kind, benevolent one and Engai Nanyokie (Red God) is full of anger and is vengeful.

I lived near Ol Doinyo Lengai, the “Mountain of God”, which is an active volcano and is seen as the Mecca of the Maasai. They have a person called Laibon who is like a Maasai chief priest who does freaky things like shamanistic healing, divination, prophecy etc. It’s not so much what he does but how he does it that’s scary – with painted face and fevered dancing.

So the society is divided into four.  1) Shepherds (Male) 2) Warriors (Male) 3) Elders and Priests (Male) 4) Women (In the Maasai culture – it’s the woman that builds and repairs the house, farms, raises children while the husband is out with the cattle) They fear hospitals and western medicine and prefer homemade remedies and so the mortality rate is high, especially of infants. And so children are not recognised as part of the society until they reach the age of 3 moons. Once you are dead, you are left out for scavengers. The corpse that is rejected by hyenas is considered a disgrace and to stop that from happening, the Maasai cover their dead in the fat and blood of a slaughtered ox. Only the great chiefs get buried but they have stopped that too because they can’t stand the thought of being harmful to the soil.

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 (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. This ritual is typically performed by the elders, who use a sharpened knife and makeshift cattle hide bandages for the procedure. The boy must endure the operation in silence. Expressions of pain bring dishonour, albeit temporarily. Any exclamations can cause a mistake in the delicate and tedious process, which can result in life-long scarring, dysfunction, and pain. The healing process will take 3–4 months, during which urination is painful and nearly impossible at times, and boys must remain in black clothes for a period of 4–8 months. (YIKES!)

One myth about the Maasai is that each young man is supposed to kill a lion before he is circumcised. Lion hunting was an activity of the past, but it has been banned in East Africa—yet lions are still hunted when they maul Maasai livestock and young warriors who engage in traditional lion killing do not face significant consequences.

Young women also undergo excision (“female circumcision” or clitorectemy) as part of an elaborate rite of passage ritual in which they are given instructions and advice pertaining to their new role, as they are then said to have come of age and become women, ready for marriage. These circumcisions are usually performed by an invited ‘practitioner’ who is often not Maasai. The knives and blades which make the cut are fashioned by blacksmiths who are avoided by the Maasai because they make weapons of. Similar to the young men, women who will be circumcised wear dark clothing, paint their faces with markings, and then cover their faces on completion of the ceremony.

The Maasai music though is something else. At the end of a long day, by the fireside, the group start beat boxing in rhythms that take you to a whole other world. It’s like their creating an ocean and when you start floating on it, the song leader joins in (usually chief and his first wife). The song begins by singing a line of a song. The group will respond with one unanimous call in acknowledgment, and the lead will sing a verse over the group’s rhythmic throat singing. One exception to the vocal nature of Maasai music is the use of the horn to summon the warriors.

Both singing and dancing sometimes occur around their houses, 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. It’s an entirely fascinating ritual.

Aah man, 3 pages. The rest about clothes, mythology, guardian spirits, drinking blood etc – you better be asking me in person. Buy me a pitcher and we’re all set! J Got to go to work now. Until next time!

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