Tuesday, November 11, 2008

What it means to be a Maasai

I’ve wanted to write a post for a long time about the culture of the Maasai, the ethnic group that lives in our area of Kenya. I’ve hesitated for fear of being unwittingly politically incorrect, but that seems like a silly reason to deprive readers the opportunity to increase their worldviews. I figured the best approach would be to talk to a Maasai and get the story straight from the horse’s mouth. So I spoke with John (pictured below), a Maasai man who has worked at Fisi Camp for over a decade, and asked him to describe his people as completely and objectively as possible, and he did a great job. So if anyone is uncomfortable with my general depiction or specific word choice (ex, use of “tribe”), please understand that the information is all from a Maasai person himself, and he approved this post before I published it.

The Maasai people are nomadic pastoralists, which accounts for their generally tall and thin body types. According to legend, the first Maasai came from the sky with a cow, so Maasais believe that all cows everywhere (yes, even the ones in Vermont) really belong to them. They therefore have a very strong attachment to these cows: as John put it, “A Maasai without a cow is not a Maasai.” In fact, cows are the standard of currency among Maasai: one average-sized cow is equivalent to about 10,000 Kenyan shillings or about $150 USD.

The traditional roles of men and women are pretty, well, traditional. Men are the heads of families and the community leaders, and are in charge of the cows and providing security for the family. Women (“mamas”) care for the children and the house, collect firewood and water, do all the cooking and washing, buy food at the market, and build all the huts out of dried cow manure (it can take two women about six months to build one home). Boys often herd cows, but girls have many more responsibilities, as they are expected to help their mothers pretty much as soon as they are physically able to (it’s not uncommon to see a child as young as four or five caring for a younger sibling).

Historically, education has not been a priority for the Maasai. There is much more to be said on this topic, so I’m going to save it for my next post, so stay tuned for that. For now, suffice it to say that the Maasai have traditionally been unenthusiastic about educating their boys, and extremely reluctant to educate their girls. Instead, girls are circumcised at the young ages of 10-13 years old (more on this next time, too). Once they have been circumcised, they can then be married off to men of between 16-40 years old. The bride is not given a choice in whom she marries, and the bride’s family typically receives between five and ten cows as payment. Mamas then begin bearing children at around age 15. Multiple wives are seen as a sign of affluence, although as more and more Maasai become Christian, this custom is becoming less common.

Maasai men are typically grouped in “age sets,” which are cohorts consisting of men who are all within several years of each other. A person’s cohort is a big part of his identity, and each cohort has its own songs and dances that are used in celebrations. The time-honored custom has been that when boys are between 16-20 years old, thousands of them will be circumcised together as one cohort. This cohort will then live together and train to become Maasai warriors, and those who are able to kill a lion single-handedly become the most superior warriors. Warriors are then responsible for protecting the tribe from other marauding tribes. However, in recent decades, since the Maasai’s inter-tribe conflicts have subsided almost entirely, the need for warriors is diminished. That fact, combined with the government’s credo that “all children must attend school” (a law that is not enforced in rural areas), has made Maasai warriors slightly obsolete and much less common.

The spoken language of the Maasai is Maa, and although John, who speaks four languages fluently, happily claims that it is “not hard,” I can attest that for native English speakers, it is extremely difficult, because many of the phonemes are so different that we physically can’t form them with our mouths. (Swahili is much easier, because it’s based on the same alphabet and phonemics as English.)

The predominant foods are milk (cow’s) and meat (cow and goat), and chai tea is both a nutritional and social staple. Fresh cow’s blood is also a popular traditional drink, especially for women who have just given birth so that they might replace the blood they have lost. Fruits and vegetables have really only entered the menu in a substantial way in the past decade as imports and transportation to rural areas have increased.

Maasai mamas usually wear wrapped skirts and cloths, and both men and women wear “shukas,” which are all-purpose shawls that can protect against the sun and the cold. Interestingly, Maasai in different areas have different colors that dominate their wardrobes. In our area, the major color is red with hints of yellow, but the Maasai in Tanzania wear predominately blue with hints of white. The Maasai are also famous for their beaded jewelry, which comes in all colors and can be quite elaborate. The mamas are very skilled and make all of the jewelry by hand. Some of it has special significance: for example, the large circular necklaces are bridal necklaces, and men who have lost their father will wear a metal bracelet on their right arm to honor him. On special occasions, Maasai will wear their most formal garments and adorn themselves with dozens of pieces of this beautiful jewelry.

As I’ve hinted throughout this post, these times, they are a-changin’. Since the Kenyan government privatized most of the grazing land, the Maasai have become significantly less nomadic and have formed more permanent communities. Some are branching out and have started to cultivate crops such as wheat and maize (not in Talek, our local Maasai community, but in other parts of Kenya). Likewise, as more Maasai get educated, more are opening small businesses and shops. Additionally, the increase in education has started to reverse what has historically been a lack of involvement and interest in politics. It’s also getting more common to see Maasai wearing western clothing.

I asked John what, above all, he wanted to communicate to Americans about the Maasai people. He said that they are very brave, very proud, and very honest. He said they are not as prone to theft as other tribes, and have excellent manners. They are also extremely friendly, and welcome members of other tribes who come to live among the Maasai.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.


Anonymous said...


Great post and insight into a truly different culture.

Dan said...

Nice t-shirt. ;)

Anonymous said...

What would be the connection between pastoral herding and long, lean body type?

Leslie said...

pastoral herders spend a lot of time walking around, whereas tribes that are more traditionally farmers, such as the Kikuyu, are often stereotyped as more...robust

David said...

You didn't mention what a fabulous cook John is! It's no surprise that you and Andy look well fed. His birthday cake for me was the best!

Leslie said...

dad, here's a thought: most girls don't like being described as "well fed." what's the matter with you!?!

Dana said...

Thank John for a very informative post. Interesting note about the metal bracelet on the right arm signifying the death of his Father.

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