Maasai (not Masai) is the correct spelling of this well-known tribe. Maasai means people speaking maa. Masai was the incorrect spelling of the British settlers and it has remained in current use. The Maasai have always been visually special, with their brightly coloured shukas.
Historically, the Maasai are one of the youngest tribes to settle in East Africa. They are also one of the smallest tribes, with an estimated population of around 1 1/2 million people. Despite their small numbers, they have a rich, distinctive culture and lifestyle, and are most well known for their brightly coloured Shúka’s (material worn wrapped around the body) which makes the Maasai stand out beautifully against the countryside, whether in small mud-thatched villages, more developed cities, or the wide open spaces where they have grazed their cattle for over 500 years.
While it is southern Kenya and northern Tanzania prolific wildlife that attracts most nature lovers to East Africa, it is the Maasai people who provide the region’s distinct cultural flavour.
Brief history of the Maasai
The Maasai are a Nilotic people indigenous to the African Great Lakes region, with origins in South Sudan.
They started migrating south from the lower Nile Valley north of Kenya’s Lake Turkana sometime in the 15th century, eventually settling in their current range between the 17th and late 18th centuries, according to oral history.
Many of the ethnic groups who had settled in the region were either replaced or assimilated by the Maasai, who often adapted some of their traditions (including ritual circumcision and social organisation focused more on age set than descent).
By the mid-nineteenth century, Maasai territories covered the entire Great Rift Valley as well as the surrounding lands, and its inhabitants were renowned for their bravery as warriors (using axes, shields, and clubs that could be hurled accurately from up to 70 paces) as well as their cattle-herding.
The Maasai Way of Life
Historically, the Maasai have been semi-nomadic pastoriaslists. These days however due to the governments allocating land to game reserves and national parks; the Maasai culture has become less nomadic, and more sedentary.
Maasai have a patriarchal social system. The elder men make the majority of decisions for each community and a man’s prosperity determined by the number of cattle and children he has. Men frequently have many wives, each with her own home.
Boys are required to shepherd the family’s cattle, while girls assist their mothers in gathering firewood, cooking, and doing most other household duties. Both sexes have traditionally undergone a ceremonial circumcision known as emorata.
Traditionally, the Maasai diet has included raw meat, raw milk, honey and raw blood from cattle. Today, the stable diet of most Maasai consists of cow’s milk and maize meal. The Maize is used to make a liquid or solid porridge. The solid porridge is known as ugali.
Adolescent boys who undergo circumcision are forced to remain silent and crying out in pain brings dishonour. After that, they are known as Moran and are sent to live in a manyatta (or village) founded by their mothers for several months, during which they prepare to become warriors. Many Moran, with their distinctive black clothes and white facial markings, can be found along Kenyan and Tanzanian highways, promising to pose for tourist photos for currency.
The Maasai are well known for their music and dance, in which a chief (known as the olaranyani) sings the melody and others sing polyphonic harmony on call-and-response vocals and render guttural throat-singing sounds to provide rhythmic syncopation. The warriors’ coming-of-age celebration, known as eunoto, can last 10 days or more and includes competitive leaping, for which the Maasai are perhaps best known.
What is threatening the Maasai way of life?
A traditional nomadic pastoral lifestyle has become increasingly difficult due to outside influences of the modern world. The biggest threats to the traditional way of Maasai life is the loss of land. Much of the land that has been rezoned by governments has been allocated to national parks and game reserve; which does not allow s such as the Serengeti National Park and Masai Mara National Reserve Kenya’s Amboseli, Masai Mara, Samburu and Tsavo and Tanzania’s Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro, Tarangire and Serengeti.