Their semi-nomadic lifestyle makes it difficult to obtain an accurate census, but recent estimates suggest that there are about 900,000 Maasai people living today across Kenya and Tanzania. The Maasai originated in the lower Nile valley near Lake Turkana and began migrating south during the 15th century.
Their society was based entirely on cattle herding — a role that the Maasai believe was bestowed on them by a single god, whom they call Engai (or Ngai). Until recently, the Maasai were notorious cattle rustlers, frequently raiding neighbouring tribes to poach the precious livestock. The ensuing fights added to the Maasai’s reputation as fierce warriors, though the Maasai themselves did not view this as thievery, since they believed they were merely reclaiming their rightful legacy.
A MAASAI’S COMING-OF-AGE
Of course, cattle need to graze, so the Maasai became semi-nomadic people, moving with the herds as they sought greener pastures. Families traditionally live in kraals or manyattas, which are clusters of circular huts surrounded by stockade fences, with corrals for livestock. Women build the dwellings, fetch water and firewood, feed livestock, milk cows, and cook, while the men tend to the cattle. By the age of four, a young Maasai boy may be in charge of calves or goats; by twelve he will be taking them far afield to new pastures.
It’s also about this time when the young Maasai boys begin preparation for the most important rite of passage: becoming a warrior. They will spend months at a time in the bush, living together with members of their age-set (the central social unit) in special manyatta where they undergo many trials to help overcome pride, selfishness, and egotism. They must learn to share their cattle and make periodic visits back to the village where they are expected to provide cattle for celebrations and sacrifices. For Maasai children, the endurance of pain is meant as preparation for adulthood — removal of canine teeth, ear and body piercing, tattooing, ritual body burns, and even beatings. The process culminates with emorata, or ritual circumcision, which boys must undergo without anesthesia.
Until recently, most Maasai girls also underwent circumcision, or more accurately, excision, in which the clitoris and labia were cut. For girls, the ritual is longer and more painful, with more debilitating after-effects. Still, it was considered essential preparation for marriage and childbirth, ensuring that the girl would fetch a handsome bride price (which warriors must pay for the privilege of marrying). If a girl became pregnant prior to circumcision, she was banished for life. The practice is highly controversial, and though it is now illegal in Kenya and Tanzania, it persists in many enclaves. Recently, activists have had some success introducing a new “cutting with words” ceremony that replaces the physical mutilation with singing and dancing — while still conferring marriageable status upon the girl.
Marriage is a hugely important institution, though a far different one from in the west. Since wealth is measured not just in cattle but also in children, Maasai men were traditionally encouraged to take several wives — a practical adaptation to high infant and warrior mortality rates. By the same token, men must share their wives with any visiting member of their age-set and accept any resulting child as their own. (Women do have a say as to whose bed they will share, and their ability to produce many children is a badge of honour.)
SURVIVING IN THE MODERN WORLD
To everything there is a season, and now the Maasai must turn from their pastoral culture to new ways of living. From their peak in the mid-19th century, Maasai territories have been reduced to a fraction of their size. British and German colonialists forced the Maasai into smaller settlements; later, the governments of Kenya and Tanzania began taking more and more Maasai land for game parks, private farms and ranches, and hunting concessions. The problem of dwindling pasture land has been compounded by conservation efforts, which make it illegal for Maasai (or anyone) to kill lions and other predators that frequently attack their cattle.
It’s not the first time the Maasai have faced privation. The tribe was nearly decimated between 1887 and 1903, a period called the “Maasai Emutai,” when epidemics of rinderpest and bovine pneumonia killed off eighty percent of their herds, causing widespread famine. This was followed by a smallpox epidemic and drought. Nearly two thirds of the Maasai perished during this scourge. Ironically, the Maasai’s ability to herd and farm in desert and scrubland has recently prompted many global experts to view it as a model for adapting to climate change.
Will the Maasai prevail? Today, many have turned to farming or selling traditional medicines, crafts, and dairy products. More and more children are seeking formal education and gravitating towards urban areas to work as security guards, store clerks, or other wage earners — occupations once scorned as undignified. Still, even the most assimilated of this generation routinely visit their old villages, don Maasai robes, and celebrate the traditions of their youth. That goes for the privileged few who receive educations abroad, too. As the old Maasai proverb says, “A zebra takes its stripes wherever it goes.”