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Maasai History,Culture & Tradition

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Maasai WarriorThere is always talk in the coffee table books of the Maasai as a ‘lost tribe of Israel’ or the Maasai as descendant from a troop of lost Roman legionnaires.
The Maasai are one of the most fascinating tribes in Africa.This section has been put together by Mike Rainy, an American who has lived in Kenya for over 40 years, lived with the Maasai for 30 of those and is one of the few europeans that speak Maa (the Maasai language) fluently.

Maasai History

There is always talk in the coffee table books of the Maasai as a ‘lost tribe of Israel’ or the Maasai as descendant from a troop of lost Roman legionnaires. But it’s true their linguistic origins are African, Nilotic and Sudannic from somewhere between the first and third cataracts of the Nile on open plains that are now only spotted by the black rocks of the Sahara Desert where cattle were first domesticated in Africa over 7000 years ago on plains that included wild cattle, but also a wild plains fauna that would be very similar to what we see today in the Serengeti/Mara.

When not living somewhere in Greater Maasailand the activity that I enjoy most is being on the trail of lost or forgotten fragments of an African Cultural and pastoral past that still has direct links to the Maasai of present day Kenya and Tanzania. Sometimes the target is a colour sequence, for example, black, green, red, yellow and white. These mimic the colour sequence seen in the annual life cycle of plants as follows – black rain produces green growth, which matures through red and yellow and finally dries completely into white.

Maasai FamilySometimes the target is an ancient burial position – a corpse that was laid on its right side folded in a foetal position with its head supported by the skull of a long horned cow, and wrapped in a leather symbolic placenta and facing east, the direction of life, to greet a new dawn. Sometimes the target is an unexpected phrase, for example, ‘Nkai—ai oi pasenai’ e.g. ‘My God given at Sinai.’

Sometimes the target is an ornament, e.g., an Egyptian scarab carved in stone and placed over the heart of a mummy and called “kepher” clearly cognate with “keperr” which is Maasai for heaven and a linguistic connection that includes the idea of the rebirth of the sun after it is buried each evening in the earth until dawn.

If you enjoy searching the Old Testament, there are lots of distant Maasai connections in the first book of Chronicles. For example, verse 10 ‘of the priests: Jediah. and the son of Meshullam (those that do not herd together). and Maasai, the son of Adiel. And a bit later in verse 17: These were the gatekeepers of the camp of the Levites, Shallum, the son of Kore. the son of Korah. the Korahites were in charge of the work of the service, keepers of the thresholds of the tent. Not only were they the gatekeepers of the four sides of the temple, the Korahites were in charge of the bread prepared each Sabbath. They were also amongst the chief singers of the temple.

One of the present day tribes of the Maasai are the Samburu who are most often referred to by their tribal neighbours as the “People of Kore”. We learn further in Chronicles 12 that the Korahites and others were mighty warriors who could shoot arrows and sling stones with either hand.

The Korahites and Gadites were “expert warriors with the shield and spear whose faces were like the faces of lions and who were as swift as gazelles upon the mountains.” These were the protectors of the very Ark of the Covenant.

Like the present d ay Maasai and Samburu they were distinguished by having age sets demarcated by the ritual of circumcision which for the Maasai and Samburu is a rebirth of manhood that follows the death of childhood. The biological and ritual parents of Maasai initiates ask that “God bless this mark, the mark by which you know our children.”

The tradition of warrior protectors of society with long braided hair, multi-coloured beaded breast plates and necklaces, as well as lobed ears, can still be seen in the ruins of the ancient dynasties of Egypt and the Sudan. In New Kingdom times, pharaohs like Tutankaman whose reign started 3362 years ago in the 18th Dynasty, and Ramses II, whose reign started 3311 years ago in the 19th Dynasty, are constantly celebrated as the symbolic conquerors of long haired warriors from Nubia. By the 25th Dynasty under the black pharaoh Taharqa, it’s clear that Nilotic people from the Sudan ruled all of Egypt and for an important short period turned the tables of thousands of years on the Egyptians.

Stone sculpture referred to as both Korus and Kore that dates between 2800 and 2500 before present can be found in Cyprus, Greece, and on the coast of Turkey which is strongly evocative of the hairstyles, ornaments and pastoral character of Samburu warriors today. The hallmark of warriors as protectors is that their activities be defensive so as not to incur the pollutions of guilt and which through age set development and maturity leads to a longer peaceful of elderhood where the primary protection of society is through prayer, blessings and teaching.

It’s impossible to know when the precursor cultures of the Maasai and Samburu moved out of the Central Sudan from as far north as Wadi Howar and the hills of Darfur.

But it is clear to me that they would have fled to protect themselves and their people from the raids for ivory and people from Egypt that date back from the 6th Dynasty, more than 4000 years ago and which have continued intermittently ever since. They also fled to escape having their livestock buried 4000 at a time by the rulers of Sudanic Kerma culture.

Their passage through the Southern Sudan is evident so far only by Maa place names such as the Sobat (the river of holiness) River that flows into the Nile at Malakal, and Torrit (the place of dust) on the plains below the Imatong Mountains which is the rangeland of the Lotuko people whose language is more than 40% cognate with Maasai spoken today.

The Maasai/Samburu oral tradition starts at Oto which is probably near the Ndoto Mts. Overlooking present day Addis Abbaba and the narrow passage out of the desolate of the Suguta Valley along the pathway of the Kerio River through the Indikirr Ekerio, “the gap of the Kerio”, into what became the range of the Uasin Ngishu Maasai before they were pushed further south by Kalenjin speakers.

The clearest modern mark of the passage of these people who dominated the Kenyan and Tanzanian Rift Valley for the last 300 to 400 years at least, is that their presence prevented Swahili and Arab slave raiders from the coast as far north as Mogadishu to as far south as Kilwa in Southern Tanzania from moving their caravans across Greater Maasailand and thus protecting the other East African people from the slave trade. This protection undoubtedly laid the foundation of the greater stability that Kenya and Tanzania have enjoyed in post Colonial times in contrast to their less fortunate and less well protected neighbours who bore the disastrous brunt of the slave trade.

It is also no accident that the traditions of the Maasai speaking peoples are so intermingled with their custody of the wildlife that shares the same semi-arid environment too dry for rain fed agriculture with wildlife, which is most abundant in Kenya and Tanzania today in areas close to the historical range of the Maa speakers.

There are plenty of modern present day conflicts of Maasai people and their livestock with wildlife, but these are recent and the result primarily of rapid human population growth and attending decline of individual per capita wealth at the same time that revenues from conservation and tourism flow out of their traditional rangelands, rather than being used for economic development of post pastoral societies.

Maasai Culture

Maasai DanceMaasai society is patriarchical in nature with the elders deciding most matters for each Maasai group. The laibon or spiritual leader acts as the liaison between the Maasai and God, named Enkai or Engai, as well as the source of Maasai herblore. The Maasai are mostly monotheistic in outlook, but many have become Christian under the influence of missionaries.

Traditional Maasai lifestyle centers around their cattle which constitutes the primary source of food. They also believe that God gave them his cattle to watch over. The Tanzanian and Kenyan governments have instituted programs to encourage the Maasai to abandon their traditional semi-nomadic lifestyle and adopt an agrarian lifestyle instead.

The Maasai measure a man's wealth in terms of cattle and children rather than money - a d 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. The Maasai believe that they own all the cattle in the world.

As a historically nomadic and then semi-nomadic people, the Maasai have traditionally relied on local, readily available materials and indigenous technology to construct their housing. The traditional Maasai house was in the first instance designed for people on the move and was thus very impermanent in nature. The Inkajijik (Maasai word for a house) are either loaf-shaped or circular, and are constructed by women.

The structural framework is formed of timber poles fixed directly into the ground and interwoven with a lattice of smaller branches, which is then plastered with a mix of mud, sticks, grass, cow dung and urine, and ash. The enkaji is small, measuring about 3m x 5m and standing only 1.5m high. Within this space the family cooks, eats, sleeps, socializes and stores food, fuel and other household possessions. Small livestock are also often accommodated within the enkaji. Villages are enclosed in a circular fence (Enkang) built by the men, usually of thorned Acacia. At night all cows and goats are placed in an enclosure in the center, safe from wild animals.

The central unit of Maasai society is the age-set. Every 15 years or so, a new and individually named generation of Morans or Il-moran (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. Every boy must undergo the Emorata (circumcision ceremony), which is performed without anaesthetic, before he is accepted as a warrior. When a new generation of warriors is initiated, the existing il moran will graduate to become junior elders, who are responsible for political decisions until they in turn become senior elders.
Warriors are in charge of society's security while boys are responsible for herding livestock.

During the drought season, both warriors and boys assume responsibility for herding livestock. The elders are directors and advisors for day-to-day activities. Women are responsible for making the houses as well as supplying water, collecting firewood, milking cattle and cooking for the family.
Maasai traditional dance, Adumu

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

Increasing concern regarding lion populations has given rise to at least one program which promotes accepting compensation when a lion kills livestock, rather than hunting and killing the predator. Nevertheless, killing a lion gives one great value and celebrity status in the community. Women can only marry once in a lifetime, although men may have more than one wife (if enough cows are owned, they may have more than one at a time).

Young girls undergo Female genital cutting (FGC) in 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 a hired local expert without anesthetic using crude knives, glass or other sharp implements available for as much as US $6.00 per girl. Girls are married off early, sometimes as young as seven years old.

The practice of FGC draws a great deal of criticism from both abroad and many women who have undergone it, and in some cases has recently been replaced by a "Cutting with words" ceremony involving singing and dancing in place of the mutilation. However, the practice remains deeply ingrained and valued by the culture, as well as being held as necessary, since Maasai men typically reject any woman who has not undergone it as either not marriageable or widow.

Maasai Diet

Traditionally, the Maasai diet consisted of meat, milk, and blood from cattle. However, the inclusion of blood in the traditional diet is waning due to the reduction of livestock numbers. More recently, the Maasai have grown dependent on food produced in other areas such as maize meal, rice, potatoes, cabbage (known to the Maasai as goat leaves), etc. The Maasai who live near crop farmers have engaged in cultivation as their primary mode of subsistence. In these areas, plot sizes are generally not large enough to accommodate herds of animals; thus the Maasai are forced to farm.

Maasai Clothing

Red is a favored colour among the Maasai. Many Maasai in Tanzania wear simple sandals, sometimes soled with pieces of motorcycle tires. Both men and women wear wooden bracelets. The Maasai women regularly weave and bead jewellery. This bead work plays an essential part in the ornamentation of their body.


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