The Masai - also spelled Maasai - are with distance Africa's most famous tribe. Unlike most other Kenyan tribes they, together with the Turkana and Samburu (who are closely related to the Maasaia) have remained their traditional lifestyles - living like their ancestors have been doing for thousands of years. This is contrary to most other Kenyan tribes, who have adapted more western life styles.
If you've ever watched any documentaries on the people of Africa, it's almost guaranteed that you have seen this tribe with their great warrior tradition. These tribal people who live in the grasslands between Kenya and Tanzania are a popular topic and a favorite among travelers. They are recognized by their bright red clothing and beaded jewelry. Their jumping dances are famous. Through their dances and songs, the warriors show off their strength.
The Maasai people are very independent and their society revolves around each generation of men becoming warriors. Their customs are very specific, and involve many "coming of age" rituals, that include both the men and the women. The men protect the villages and the cattle, whereas the women build the houses, cook and maintain the households. The roles of the sexes are pretty balanced.
Living Like Their Ancestors
The history of the Maasai stretches back hundreds of years, and today they are living much the same way as they always have. Their herds of cattle are the most important thing they own, which is why they need so much land. They are nomadic people, who travel with their herds to find pasture. The Masai live almost exclusively off their cattle, eating meat, milk and even the blood of their cows. Agriculture and crop growing isn't normally part of their way of life, but is becoming necessary as their territory shrinks.
The Warrior Tradition
Warriors are of crucial importance. Each Maasai man goes through the warrior stage: a period in their life between boyhood and becoming tribe elders. The duty of a warrior is protecting the village and their cattle, while the women do most household and farming work.
They can only become a warrior through several rituals, including being circumcised and living apart of their families for many years. Only then can they have their own family. Warriors prove their strength through killing a lion with only a spear.
The Masai call their god Enkai, who is believed to appear in many forms and objects, among which are the moon, mountains and colors. An interesting point is that Enkai is believed to be both male and female – uncommon to many other religions.
A priest is called a Laibon. The priests are believed to descend from God – that’s why they have authority over religious matters. They are ascribed the power to give prophesies and to heal.
Visiting Masai Land
A large portion of their traditional land has been used to create the Masai Mara National Reserve, which is a particularly hot spot for tourists looking to see some wildlife.
Masai Culture - Introduction
Masai culture is steeped in tradition, and their way of life is a lot like it's been for thousands of years. Even when you don’t recognize the name of the Masai, it's pretty likely that you've seen them.
Times are changing even for them, but mostly they still follow the same lifestyle as they always have. Not surprisingly, Masai culture is a far cry from the way we live in North America or Europe.
Who are the Masai?
The Masai live in Kenya and Tanzania, and most photographs of them show the tall, lean warriors dressed in red, and wearing beaded jewelry. They herd cattle, and live in huts made from mud and cattle dung. Masai gender roles are very distinct, with the men (warriors) protecting the people, and the women doing the household work. Though primitive in our eyes, they have a very interesting culture and way of life.
Religion of the Masai
The Masai god is called Enkai. Enkai is seen as male and female at the same time. In the Masai religion, Enkai is believed to manifest in many forms, including in mountains, colors and the moon. A religious leader of the Masai is called a Laibon. They are believed to descend from Enkai and therefore have religious authority. They are believed to have the power to heal and to give prophesies. A Laibon isn’t a political leader but he does have the right to declare wars.
The Masai Warrior
A big part of the Masai culture is the role of the warrior, which is a period of life all men go through between boyhood and when they finally become elders. A Masai warrior is responsible for protecting the herds of cattle, as well as the villages themselves.
The steps to becoming a warrior involve a number of age-based rituals and ceremonies, including circumcision. Living first apart from the rest of the tribe for many years, the role of the warrior changes as they finally get to have a wife and family, before then moving to the role of elder. A warrior can have more than one wife, providing he has enough cattle to feed such a large family.
The Value of Cattle
The center of all Masai culture is cattle. Wealth is measured in cows, and the majority of Masai diet is made from what they can get from their cows. They eat the meat, drink the milk, and on occasion will also drink the blood collected from the live cows. Their entire way of life revolves around the care of their herds. These people are nomadic and travel over large parts of territory in order to find fresh pasture and water for their cows.
In fact, they believe that their god specifically created cattle for the use of the Masai. This belief led to widespread theft of cattle from other tribes and ranchers, as they reclaimed what they figured was already theirs. This is rarely an issue in modern-day Masai culture.
The land held by the Masai people today has been reduced by the Kenyan government to create some of the world-famous wildlife parks, like the Masai Mara game preserve. Their lifestyle as nomads requires huge tracts of land, mainly to herd their cattle. Loss of land has forced some Masai to change how they live.
The stretch of land between Kenya and Tanzania is known as the Serengeti plains, and make up most of the Masai territory. The region is mostly dry grasslands, and is particularly known for the wildebeest migration that takes place through here every year.
As Western ways slowly change how they live, the Masai culture continues on it's own.
Traditions of the Masai: Dance and Music
The Masai dance that is repeatedly seen in African documentaries is usually called the "jumping dance". This particular dance is performed by the men of the village, who leap into the air to show their strength and stamina as tribal warriors.
The famous Masai jump dance
The Masai Jumping Dance
Each young man will jump as high as he can while the others stand in a circle and sing. The voices of the men get higher as the jumping increases. This jumping dance is as familiar to the Western world as the red-clad and beaded Masai warriors themselves. In the Masai language, this dancing competition is called the "adumu".
Though the jumping dance is the most unusual and best known, there are plenty of other traditional dances that the Masai perform. Masai dances are very structured and are performed for certain occasions.
There are dances for celebration when a lion is killed by the warriors, a dance for the blessing of cattle, and dances performed at wedding ceremonies. Most of the Masai dances are pretty simple, and consist of a lot of bending, but with the feet staying still on the ground.
Traditional Masai dance
Vocals Without Instruments
The Masai generally don't use musical instruments when they are singing or dancing. All of their music is vocal, except for a large horn that is used for certain songs. The beads that both the men and women wear create a jingling sound themselves while the Masai jump and dance. The women occasionally wear bells or rattles for added accompaniment to the singing.
During singing and dancing performances, the movements of the head and neck are important. As the singers breathe out, the head is stuck out and then tipped farther back when they breathe in. This pattern creates a uniform "bobbing" of the Masai's heads as they sing. Kind of like teenagers at a rock concert. Many Masai songs are sung in a call and response pattern, with the women singing one part and the men responding.
Teaching Through Dance
In recent years, the Masai have been performing their customary songs and dances for outsiders as a way of educating foreigners about their life and ways. These performances are one way of helping to keep their traditions alive as their way of life is slowly being changed by modern society. Much of their territory has been taken from them for ranchers and settlers, leaving the nomadic Masai without the space their cattle need. So they have to adapt.
If you are ever lucky enough to travel to Africa, and see the Masai yourself, try to find a tour guide who is familiar with the local villages. Quite often, the people are willing to perform their dances for visiting tourists. A true Masai dance is something not to be missed. Against the roasted brown backdrop of the African plains, the bright scarlet dancers are quite a sight.
The Masai Warrior – A Key Tradition of the Masai Tribe
You may not even know it, but you have likely seen photos of a Masai warrior. They are tall and lanky, usually dressed in bright red cloth and lots of beads. Few Western people would fail to recognize the jumping dance of the Masai warrior, where the men leap into the air to prove their strength.
The Masai are a semi-nomadic people who travel over great portions of their territory, herding the cattle that are the center of their economy.
Masai Age Sets
The society of the Masai people is defined by age groups or sets, especially among the men. The groups are young boys, junior warriors, senior warriors, junior elders and senior elders. Men don't move from one stage to the next at any one exact age.
They shift in groups, usually every 15 years or so. When the tribe decides to create a new warrior group, all the groups shift to their next role. So when boys are initiated into warriors, the previous generation of warriors become the new junior elders, and so on.
Becoming a Warrior
Boys get to be boys until they are somewhere between 12 and 25, when they go through the painful rituals of circumcision to become junior Masai warriors. Then they live apart from the village for several months, for training and further ceremonies.
They continue to live in their own camps for up to 10 years, at which point them become senior warriors. The mothers of the junior warriors will shave their sons’ heads, to mark their graduation to senior status. That's when they get to return to the main village and take a wife.
A warrior may take more than one wife, providing he has the wealth to support them. By wealth, I mean herds of cattle.
Role of the Masai Warrior
The role of both junior and senior warriors is the protection of their villages and their pasture lands. While the women of the tribe tend to most household matters, the fences surround the villages are built by the warriors. They are well-known as fierce fighters, and once made it a tradition to raid other tribes for their cattle
One of the traditional accomplishments of a warrior, often performed as part of one of the many coming-of-age ceremonies, is the killing of a lion with only a spear. As lions can easily kill and devour a human, you can imagine how dangerous this is. This was how a junior warrior proved his ultimate manhood and the right to become a senior warrior. But in modern times, this practice has become illegal due to the threatened status of the lion populations in the Kenya and Tanzania regions.
The Importance of Masai Cattle
For the nomadic Masai cattle is the most valuable and important thing they own. Traditionally, they don't grow crops or even do much hunting. They entire way of life revolves around their herds of cattle.
Masai Cattle for Food
The Masai get nearly all of their food from their herds of cattle, in the form of either milk or meat. Though they do drink the blood as well, it's not really something that's done as a regular meal-time event. They generally don't hunt or grow their own crops. The cattle are literally their bread and butter. In each village, the cows are protected and herded by the men, but the milking is done by the women.
Cows are Also a Form of Wealth
Because of their importance, the Masai use cattle as their form of currency and wealth. On average, each individual of the Masai tribe owns around 15 head of cattle, which makes these people among the wealthiest in Kenya, if a dollar value was placed on their herds. Cattle change hands for any major transaction, specifically when a warrior seeks to marry. He must pay a bride price in cattle.
According to the legends of the Masai, their cattle were given to them by their god and therefore are considered property of the Masai tribe. In the past, this idea led to a lot of cattle poaching from surrounding tribes and ranches. After all, what harm is there taking back something that was theirs in the first place? Today, the practice of cattle theft has pretty much come to an end.
But after generations of stealing cattle from other tribes, the Masai cattle are not strictly one particular breed. Their cows are quite a mixed bag. Along with their herds of prized cows, the Masai also keep other livestock, like goats and sheep. The Masai are very observant with their cows and can recognize each one by their color and body shape. Some groups use cuts on the cows' ears to help identify them.
The Masai's Land
The herds of cattle require large amounts of land in order to get the pasture and water that they need. Once, the Masai territory spread all through the Great Rift Valley region of Kenya and Tanzania. Since the late 1800s, their numbers have shrunk due to drought and small pox epidemics.
Large chunks of their land were taken by the Kenyan government to create large game preserves, such as the Nairobi National Park, the Masai Mara game preserve, and the Serengeti National Park. So with less land, the Masai have less room to roam their cattle.