The Maasai people are a semi-nomadic ethnic group from the Nile Valley (Nilotic) located in both northern Tanzania and Kenya. They are among some of the notable African tribes for their vibrant attire, distinct customs, and close proximity to East Africa’s finest game parks. Though both governments have pushed for the Maasai to be free of traditional practices (many have adopted much more modern lifestyles) most have held on to their customs. They inhabit the areas surrounding the African Great Lakes.
History & Homeland
The Maasai people left the lower part of the Egyptian Nile Valley in the 15th century and traveling south, widened their range into northern Kenya and central Tanzanian grasslands in the 17th and 18th centuries. Their territories were expansive around the turn of the 20th century, holding most of the Great Rift Valley and bordering lands from Mount Marsabit and Dodoma. They were known as great and fierce warriors whose most iconic play was the throwing of a club called “orinka,” which is called a "rungu" in Swahili. Today a large number of Maasai still live in the area south of Nairobi through northern Tanzania.
Maintaining their language, they became the southernmost people speaking their language, the Maa language, in Africa. The Maasai suffered huge losses from the Emutai between 1883 and 1902 when the tribes were plagued with epidemics including rinderpest, a disease that wiped out many Maasai and their livestock. Simultaneously, they and their land suffered from a massive drought.
The Maasai homeland was cut back by 60% following a 1904 treaty and a subsequent 1911 treaty by the British evicting them to create space for new settlers and ranches. In Tanzania during the 1940s, they were pushed out from farmlands between Mount Meru and Mount Kilimanjaro and the majority of bountiful mountainous areas close to Ngorongoro. Further still, even more Maasai land was taken to create wildlife reserves and national parks including the Serengeti, Samburu, Lake Nakuru, Tarangire, and Maasai Mara.
Culture & Customs
Culture & Customs Image: wwarby (flickr)
Once more predominantly pastoral and semi-nomadic, Maasai people live in a patriarchal society with the males determining the tribe’s paramount matters. Monotheistic, the Maasai believe in the God named Enkai, or Engai. In traditional life, those who pass are left to be scavenged by animals rather then buried (which they believe harms the soil). Maasai lifestyle focuses on cattle which comprise their main food source; the wealth of any Maasai is mainly judged by the amount of cattle and children. A man who lacks children but owns many cattle is considered poor. Many other Maasai groups settled in different areas of Maasailand speak an array of Maa dialects and developed their own unique cultural traditions. For centuries the Maasai diet consisted of raw milk, raw blood, and raw meat. Modern times have seen a shift to a large percentage of grains.
Dress, Jewelry & Body Modification
Dress, Jewelry & Body Modification Image: Sarah.Ahearn (flickr)
Maasai clothing varies by age, sex, and location. Young tribesmen don black following circumcision for many months. Blue, black, checkered and striped fabrics are worn with red being the most favored. These are paired with multicolored African clothing. In recent decades commercial materials have replaced traditional calf hides, sheep and other animal’s skins worn. The traditional male body wrap in the Maa language is “shuka.” Body modification includes stretching and piercing earlobes and is done with stones, bones, twigs, thorns, and metal. Beaded earrings are worn by the women in both the lower and upper lobes. The individual’s position and identity in society is articulated though body painting and body ornaments. Deciduous canine tooth buds are removed at a young age; the Maasai believe they cause several early childhood ailments and diseases.
Maasai People Tourism
Considered one of Africa’s most authentic tribes, the Maasai are a favorite of the tourist industry. A village (Manyatta) visit will usually consist of a look around a traditional Maasai home, a look at activities of daily life, and enjoy a traditional Maasai dance. Jewelry and basketwork are often offered for sale, made by the Maasai women. Walking safaris and trekking with the Maasai are also popular in areas like Ngorongoro, Simanjiro and several mountainous regions where local Maasai experts lead the way.