The Nomadic Maasai

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It’s difficult for me to write a blog about Africa without mentioning one of its most photographed tribes people (and known to many touristsin the Western world-the Maasai). Why is this tribe in particular known more than others around the continent? Because the Maasai inhabit the area of Kenya and North Tanzania, places where National Game Parks and preserves are located. Tourists wishing to see our native African animals in their natural habitat visit these places frequently. The Maasai are a friendly people, and known for their ease mingling with people from the outside. In fact, it is becoming more difficult for this tribe to adhere to their nomadic lifestyle and deal with pressures from the modern world. Some Maasai have left the tribe for jobs including selling items in local stores, tour guides, security and other modern occupations.

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Tribal Culture 

  • They are a Patriarchal society, meaning it’s lead by men. The eldest male tribesmen make all-important decisions.
  • The wealth of a man is determined by the amount of children and cattle he has. The more of both, the richer he is. If he lacks one of these, he is considered “poor.’
  • They practice polygamy and polyandry. Men have many wives, to bare more children and women are considered married to all the men of the tribe.
  • They practice a monotheistic religion. They worship one deity, called “Enkai.” There are some Maasai who have adopted Islam and Christianity.
  • A central figure to tribal life is called the “laibon.” This man practices shaman healing and is known for predicting weather and other prophecies.
  • The Maasai do not believe in burying their dead. They think the dead bodies contaminate the earth. Often times, they will cover the dead with animal fats and blood, and set them out for scavengers. If scavengers reject a body, it brings shame to the family.
  • Maasai herd cattle, sheep and goats. Special celebrations include lamb slaughter, and the eating and drinking of raw meat and blood.
  • Their diets consist of meat. Included in this are rice, potatoes, and cabbage. They also consume porridge, maize and beans.
  • They believe in body adornment. Ears are pierced with thorns, tusks and other sharp objects. Heavy earrings of beads and metal are intended to stretch the earlobe. Piercings of the upper parts of the ear are common practice. The Maasai wear colorful beads around the neck and wrists.
  • Between the ages of 15-25, young people must undergo the ritualistic practice of male and female circumcision. These are public rituals signifying adulthood. The procedure is conducted without anesthesia and with sharp knives. The practice of female circumcision has become a hot button health and human rights violation according to people in the modern world. Despite protests, it’s still a common practice.
  • The Maasai number just over 800,000.
  • They speak Maa, but some are fluent in Swahili and English.
  • The governments of Kenya and Tanzania have attempted to intervene in the Maasai nomadic lifestyle, encouraging them to live a more senditary lifestyle. So far, the Maasai continue to resist this notion, and continue to practice their lifestyle and culture among an ever changing and invasive modern world.