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Masai / Maasai

Until recent times, the pastoral Masai inhabiting the Great Rift Valley areas of Kenya and northern Tanzania were semi-sedentary dairy herders whose diet was based almost entirely on fresh or curdled cow's milk-sometimes supplemented by steer's blood--(80 percent) and meat. Indeed, they had strong prohibitions against eating agricultural products, fish, or wild game. These food tabus were based on religious and cosmological beliefs and served as symbolic cultural diacritics by which the pastoral Masai maintained their separate identity from other Maa speaking peoples, including the Arusha, the Baraguyu the Samburu, the Njemps and the Dorobo.

The Masai political system, based on an age grade system, with its ability to unite, mobilize and motivate a strong warrior group, enabled the Masai to defend their land against traditional cultivators whose ecological adaptation resulted in higher population densities.

The male Masai were divided into " ages," according to the date on which they were circumcised, a ceremony to which great importance is attached. It usually takes place between the ages of thirteen and seventeen, but may be delayed if the youth's family is poor and cannot afford the necessary feast. When the proper time arrives, a circumcision feast is held every year for four years in succession, and all the boys who undergo the operation belong to one age.

Then follows an interval of about three and a half years in which no feast was held, and then another age commences. Each age has a name, and was called alternately right and left. Thus those who were circumcised in 1896 and the following years are right hand and are known as Il-Kishon (lives) or Il-Kitoip (the lucky ones), while those who were circumcised at the beginning of this year (1904) are left hand, and called Il-Meitaroni (the unconquered). Two ages are considered equivalent to a generation, and the names are known for more than a hundred years back.

After circumcision a Masai, who has previously only been a Laioni or youth, becomes a warrior, commonly called Elmoran (strictly speaking, Ol-murani in the singular, Il-muran in the plural), and remains so until he marries. The warriors do not dwell with the rest of the tribe, but have separate kraals, where they live with the immature unmarried girls. According to their own traditions, the practice was permitted because it was found that the girls, if kept apart from their own warriors, allowed themselves to be courted by the enemy and betrayed the interests of the tribe.

A Masai warrior was rather a fine-looking creature, though generally so smeared with oil and red clay that Europeans thought it better to interview him out of doors and at a slight distance. The hair is grown as long as possible, and plaited into a short pigtail. On full-dress occasions a helmet is worn made of a lion's head and mane, which is effective and imposing, and the face is surrounded with a circle of ostrich feathers. The body is absolutely naked except for a short cloak hanging down the back, and is often elaborately painted.

Bracelets, anklets, and ear-rings are also worn, the latter often of enormous size. The lobes of the ear are slit in childhood, and gradually distended by forcing objects into the opening. In modern times a jampot has become a favourite form of ear-ring, but the older fashion is to wear a large round stone weighing between two and three pounds. Ear-rings of chains are also commonly worn. The arms are a sword, a club carried behind, a spear with a very long blade, and an oval shield bearing figures in red, white, black, and grey, which indicate the clan and age to which the bearer belongs.

Since the early 1890s the British government had shown interest in the construction of a railroad from the coast to Uganda. After establishment of the Uganda Protectorate, the proposed railroad became of great strategic significance, and in 1895 responsibility for its building was assigned to the new East Africa Protectorate. The principal obstacle to the advance of the railroad and the imposition of British control was expected to be the widely reputed ferocity of the Maasai. The British officer in charge of Fort Smith (present-day Kikuyu), an outpost bordering on Maasai territory, established a friendship with the chief Maasai leader in the region, however, by giving him support in a local conflict, and thereafter his people presented few problems to authorities there or to the progress of the railroad.

In the late 20th Century, the pastoral Masai possessed an average of 14 head of cattle per capita or 125 to 140 head per family of eight to ten persons. In addition, they had goats and some sheep, probably making them the wealthiest pastoralists in East Africa. The complexity and diversity of Masai herding systems varied with the local environment and historical circumstances. In general terms however, they involve transhumant herd and family movements from permanent river, well, or spring water supplies to temporary, outlying, low-potential, wet season grazing areas based on rain ponds at other temporary surface water supplies.

The three most important resources in this traditional Masai subsistence system were rangeland (particularly, dry season rangeland), permanent water supplies, and livestock. Control over these resources was vested in the most important units of Masai social organization, the tribe, the locality, the boma or cattle kraal camp, and the family. The extent to which these organizational units have retained their social and cultural importance, had been modified or had been weakened is related to changes in the regulatory rights they exercise over these resources.

Traditionally, the Pastoral Masai were divided into a number of discrete tribes (sometimes referred to as sections or olosho). Each tribe had "its own territory and autonomous political structure based on a tribally organized age-set system. The tribe was the largest political unit capable of common military action in defense of its territorial rights Each tribe organized its age-set system separately, and individual male heads of compound polygynous families secured rights to communal grazing and water within their tribal boundaries by initiation into a specific tribal age set.

Families of one Masai tribe were prohibited from grazing their herds in the territory of another without first securing the latter's approval. Though in periods of drought or famine, there was often institutionalized sharing of each other's resources, and occasionally some changing of tribal affiliations, families generally grazed solely within their own tribal territory and were prepared to defend these boundaries by force, if necessary, against unauthorized intrusions.

East African societies were far from static or stagnant in the pre-colonial period. The pastoral Masai as a distinct people may have diverged from the Samouru as much as one thousand years ago. By 1400, they were moving southward from their original home east of Lake Rudolf into the certral Rift Valley. By 1600, they had occupied parts of what is now northern Tanzania. It is clear from archeological evidence, however, that all of the areas into which the Masai expanded during this period had been previously occupied by pastoral or semi-pastoral people. Indeed, there is evidence of pre-Masai pastoralism in parts of Masailand from the first millennium BC.

In the years before the British arrived, the pastoralist Masai controlled as much as a third of modern Kenya and numbered perhaps 400,000. The Masai had acquired control of these enormous tracts of land by dispossessing other Kenyan communities, especially the Kamba.

Beginning in the last decade of the 19th century the Masai suffered major natural, political, and economic setbacks which set in motion an irreversible process of eco-stress and social change. Their herds decimated by the Great Rinderpest Epidemic of 1890. Their numbers were greatly reduced by smallpox, and in the last few years of the 19th century, they lost perhaps 90% of their population to famine after a series of diseases decimated their herds.

The Masai were unable to resist the encroachment of European settlers and African farming peoples on their most valuable lands. To some extent this loss of resources was the result of the political power of the European administration and its policy of forced relocation, as in the case of the "Masai moves" of 1904 and 1911, which confined the pastoral Masai in Kenya to the "Southern Reserve."

The British, seizing on this weakness, "convinced" the Masai to enter into two treaties, one in 1904 and one in 1911, which gave the British government huge tracts of land in central Kenya under what was supposed to be a 99-year lease. These lands formed the lion's share of the "White Highlands."

However, during the colonial period and after independence, that land was either re-leased or sold outright. When the original 99 years expired, none of the land was returned to the Masai. The population of Kenya's Masai is now somewhere around 500,000 and more and more would-be Masai herders have no land for their cattle. Illegal land dealings within the Masai community itself have caused a large part of their problems, but their claims to the land taken from them by the British and the governent have become a lodestone for those seeking to reform Kenya's land system.

Masai livestock owners' animal husbandry practices and economic strategies represent a rational adaptation to the resources presented to them by their environment and the social and political institutions that control access to these resources. This means that Masai economic behavior cannot simply be attributed to custom or to their "traditional attitudes" but must be understood in terms of familiar concepts, such as risk aversion, maximization of returns on labor, savings, capital formation and investment in an unfamiliar ecological, social and cultural setting.

The most famous game park in Kenya is the Masai Mara National Reserve, which, in effect, is the northern continuation of the Serengeti National Park game reserve in Tanzania, together forming the home of perhaps the grandest and most complete collection of the large wild animals for which Africa is famous.

Arguably the ultimate in adventure travel, an African safari is also an easily doable family vacation, an experience of a lifetime for people of all ages, and with a little research, not much more difficult to arrange than a week at a Caribbean resort. While the centerpiece of safari-going remains viewing majestic animals in their natural habitats, many tour operators now include programs on local culture, history, geology, and ecosystems and encourage travelers to get to know the people not merely as subjects of photos. Accommodations range from crawl-in tents to portable, air-conditioned, walk-in tents with full bathrooms.

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Page last modified: 10-05-2015 19:45:00 ZULU