Origin, migration and assimilation
According to their own oral history, the Maasai originated from the lower Nile valley north of Lake Turkana (Northwest Kenya) and began migrating south around the 15th century, arriving in a long trunk of land stretching from what is now northern Kenya to what is now central Tanzania between the 17th and late 18th century. Many ethnic groups that had already formed settlements in the region were forcibly displaced by the incoming Maasai, while other, mainly Southern Cushitic groups, was assimilated into Maasai society. The Nilotic ancestors of the Kalenjin and Samburu likewise absorbed some early Cushitic populations.
Settlement in East Africa
The Maasai territory reached its largest size in the mid-19th century, and covered almost all of the Great Rift Valley and adjacent lands from Mount Marsabit in the north to Dodoma in the south. At this time the Maasai, as well as the larger Nilotic group they were part of, raised cattle as far east as the Tanga coast in Tanganyika (now mainland Tanzania). Raiders used spears and shields, but were most feared for throwing clubs (orinka) which could be accurately thrown from up to 70 paces (appx. 100 metres). In 1852, there was a report of a concentration of 800 Maasai warriors on the move in what is now Kenya. In 1857, after having depopulated the “Wakuafi wilderness” in what is now southeastern Kenya, Maasai warriors threatened Mombasa on the Kenyan coast.
Because of this migration, the Maasai are the southernmost Nilotic speakers.
The period of expansion was followed by the Maasai “Emutai” of 1883–1902. This period was marked by epidemics of contagious bovine pleuropneumonia, rinderpest (see 1890s African rinderpest epizootic), and smallpox. The estimate first put forward by a German lieutenant in what was then northwest Tanganyika, was that 90 percent of cattle and half of wild animals perished from rinderpest. German doctors in the same area claimed that “every second” African had a pock-marked face as the result of smallpox. This period coincided with drought. Rains failed completely in 1897 and 1898.
The Austrian explorer Oscar Baumann travelled in Maasai lands between 1891 and 1893, and described the old Maasai settlement in the Ngorongoro Crater in the 1894 book Durch Massailand zur Nilquelle (“Through the lands of the Maasai to the source of the Nile”): “There were women wasted to skeletons from whose eyes the madness of starvation glared … warriors scarcely able to crawl on all fours, and apathetic, languishing elders. Swarms of vultures followed them from high, awaiting their certain victims.” By one estimate two-thirds of the Maasai died during this period.
Starting with a 1904 treaty and followed by another in 1911, Maasai lands in Kenya were reduced by 60 percent when the British evicted them to make room for settler ranches, subsequently confining them to present-day Kajiado and Narok districts. Maasai in Tanganyika (now mainland Tanzania) were displaced from the fertile lands between Mount Meru and Mount Kilimanjaro, and most of the fertile highlands near Ngorongoro in the 1940s. More land was taken to create wildlife reserves and national parks: Amboseli National Park, Nairobi National Park, Maasai Mara, Samburu National Reserve, Lake Nakuru National Park and Tsavoin Kenya; and Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tarangire and Serengeti National Park in what is now Tanzania.
Maasai are pastoralist and have resisted the urging of the Tanzanian and Kenyan governments to adopt a more sedentary lifestyle. They have demanded grazing rights to many of the national parks in both countries.
The Maasai people stood against slavery and lived alongside most wild animals with an aversion to eating game and birds. Maasai land now has East Africa’s finest game areas. Maasai society never condoned traffic of human beings, and outsiders looking for people to enslave avoided the Maasai.
Essentially there are twelve geographic sectors of the tribe, each one having its own customs, appearance, leadership and dialects. These subdivisions are known as the Keekonyokie, Damat, Purko, Wuasinkishu, Siria, Laitayiok, Loitai, Kisonko, Matapato, Dalalekutuk, Loodokolani and Kaputiei. Recent advances in genetic analyses have helped shed some light on the ethnogenesis of the Maasai people. Genetic genealogy, a tool that uses the genes of modern populations to trace their ethnic and geographic origins, has also helped clarify the possible background of the modern Maasai.
Maasai society is strongly patriarchal in nature, with elder men, sometimes joined by retired elders, deciding most major matters for each Maasai group. A full body of oral law covers many aspects of behavior. Formal execution is unknown, and normally payment in cattle will settle matters. An out-of-court process is also practiced called ‘amitu’, ‘to make peace’, or ‘arop’, which involves a substantial apology. The Maasai are monotheistic, worshipping a single deity called Enkai or Engai. Engai has a dual nature: Engai Narok (Black God) is benevolent, and Engai Nanyokie (Red God) is vengeful. The “Mountain of God”, Ol Doinyo Lengai, is located in northernmost Tanzania. The central human figure in the Maasai religious system is the laibon whose roles include shamanistic healing, divination and prophecy, and ensuring success in war or adequate rainfall. Whatever power an individual laibon had was a function of personality rather than position. Many Maasai have also adopted Christianity and Islam. The Maasai are known for their intricate jewelry.
Maasai people and huts with enkang barrier in foreground – eastern Serengeti, 2006
A high infant mortality rate among the Maasai has led to babies not truly being recognized until they reach an age of 3 months ilapaitin. For Maasai living a traditional life, the end of life is virtually without ceremony, and the dead are left out for scavengers. A corpse rejected by scavengers is seen as having something wrong with it, and liable to cause social disgrace; therefore, it is not uncommon for bodies to be covered in fat and blood from a slaughtered ox. Burial has in the past been reserved for great chiefs, since it is believed to be harmful to the soil.
Traditional Maasai lifestyle centres on their cattle which constitute their primary source of food. The measure of a man’s wealth is in terms of cattle and children. A herd of 50 cattle is respectable, and the more children the better. A man who has plenty of one but not the other is considered to be poor. A Maasai religious belief relates that God gave them all the cattle on earth, leading to the belief that rustling cattle from other tribes is a matter of taking back what is rightfully theirs, a practice that has become much less common.
All of the Maasai’s needs for food are met by their cattle. They eat the meat, drink the milk and on occasion, drink the blood. Bulls, oxen and lambs are slaughtered for meat on special occasions and for ceremonies. [Though] the Maasai’s entire way of life has historically depended on their cattle… more recently, with their cattle dwindling, the Maasai have grown dependent on food such as sorghum, rice, potatoes and cabbage (known to the Maasai as goat leaves).
Influences from the outside world
Maintaining a traditional pastoral lifestyle has become increasingly difficult due to outside influences of the modern world. Garrett Hardin’s article, outlining the “tragedy of the commons”, as well as Melville Herskovits’ “cattle complex” helped to influence ecologists and policy makers about the harm Maasai pastoralists were causing to savannah rangelands. This concept was later proven false by anthropologists but is still deeply ingrained in the minds of ecologists and Tanzanian officials. This influenced British colonial policy makers in 1951 to remove all Maasai from the Serengeti National Park and relegate them to areas in and around the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA). The plan for the NCA was to put Maasai interests above all else, but this promise was never met.The spread of HIV was rampant.
Due to an increase in Maasai population, loss of cattle populations to disease, and lack of available rangelands due to new park boundaries, the Maasai were forced to develop new ways of sustaining themselves. Many Maasai began to cultivate maize and other crops to get by, a practice that was culturally viewed negatively. Cultivation was first introduced to the Maasai by displaced WaArusha and WaMeru women who were married to Maasai men; subsequent generations practiced a mixed livelihood. To further complicate their situation, in 1975 the Ngorongoro Conservation Area banned cultivation practices. In order to survive they are forced to participate in Tanzania’s monetary economy. They have to sell their animals and traditional medicines in order to buy food. The ban on cultivation was lifted in 1992 and cultivation has again become an important part of Maasai livelihood. Park boundaries and land privatisation has continued to limit grazing area for the Maasai and have forced them to change considerably.
Over the years, many projects have begun to help Maasai tribal leaders find ways to preserve their traditions while also balancing the education needs of their children for the modern world.
The emerging forms of employment among the Maasai people include farming, business (selling of traditional medicine, running of restaurants/shops, buying and selling of minerals, selling milk and milk products by women, embroideries), and wage employment (as security guards/ watchmen, waiters, tourist guides), and others who are engaged in the public and private sectors.
Many Maasai have moved away from the nomadic life to positions in commerce and government. Yet despite the sophisticated urban lifestyle they may lead, many will happily head homewards dressed in designer clothes, only to emerge from the traditional family homestead wearing a shuka (colourful piece of cloth), cow hide sandals and carrying a wooden club (o-rinka) – at ease with themselves.
The central unit of Maasai society is the age-set. Young boys are sent out with the calves and lambs as soon as they can toddle, but childhood for boys is mostly playtime, with the exception of ritual beatings to test courage and endurance. Girls are responsible for chores such as cooking and milking, skills which they learn from their mothers at an early age. Every 15 years or so, a new and individually named generation of Morans or Il-murran (warriors) will be initiated. This involves most boys between 12 and 25, who have reached puberty and are not part of the previous age-set. Girls cannot be circumcised One rite of passage from boyhood to the status of junior warrior is a painful circumcision ceremony, which is performed without anaesthetic. This ritual is typically performed by the elders, who use a sharpened knife and makeshift cattle hide bandages for the procedure. The Maa word for circumcision is emorata. The boy must endure the operation in silence. Expressions of pain bring dishonor, albeit temporarily. Any exclamations can cause a mistake in the delicate and tedious process, which can result in lifelong scarring, dysfunction, and pain. The healing process will take 3–4 months, during which urination is painful and nearly impossible at times, and boys must remain in black clothes for a period of 4–8 months.
During this period, the newly circumcised young men will live in a “manyatta”, a “village” built by their mothers. The manyatta has no encircling barricade for protection, emphasizing the warrior role of protecting the community. No inner kraal is built, since warriors neither own cattle nor undertake stock duties. Further rites of passage are required before achieving the status of senior warrior, culminating in the eunoto ceremony, the “coming of age”.
When a new generation of warriors is initiated, the existing Il-murran will graduate to become junior elders, who are responsible for political decisions until they in turn become senior elders. This graduation from warrior to junior elder takes place at large gathering known as Eunoto. The long hair of the former warriors is shaved off; elders must wear their hair short. Warriors are not allowed to have sexual relations with circumcised women, though they may have girlfriends who are uncircumcised girls. At Eunoto, the warriors who managed to abide by this rule are specially recognized.
The warriors spend most of their time now on walkabouts throughout Maasai lands, beyond the confines of their sectional boundaries. They are also much more involved in cattle trading than they used to be, developing and improving basic stock through trades and bartering rather than stealing as in the past.
One myth about the Maasai is that each young man is supposed to kill a lion before he is circumcised. Lion hunting was an activity of the past, but it has been banned in Southeast Africa—yet lions are still hunted when they maul Maasai livestock, and young warriors who engage in traditional lion killing do not face significant consequences. Increasing concern regarding lion populations has given rise to at least one program which promotes accepting compensation when a lion kills livestock, rather than hunting and killing the predator. Nevertheless, killing a lion gives one great value and celebrity status in the community.
Young women also undergo excision (“female circumcision,””female genital mutilation,” “emorata”) as part of an elaborate rite of passage ritual called “Emuratare,” the ceremony that initiates young Maasai girls into adulthood through ritual circumcision and then into early arranged marriages The Maasai believe that female circumcision is necessary and Maasai men may reject any woman who has not undergone it as either not marriageable or worthy of a much-reduced bride price. In Eastern Africa, uncircumcised women, even those highly educated members of parliament like Linah Kilimo, can be accused of not being mature enough to be taken seriously. To others the practice of female circumcision is known as female genital mutilation, and draws a great deal of criticism from both abroad and many women who have undergone it, such as Maasai activist Agnes Pareiyo. It has recently been replaced in some instances by a “cutting with words” ceremony involving singing and dancing in place of the mutilation. However, the practice remains deeply ingrained and valued by the culture. The Maa word for circumcision, “emorata,” is used for both female and male genital mutilation. Female genital cutting is illegal in both Kenya and Tanzania. These circumcisions are usually performed by an invited ‘practitioner’ who is often not Maasai, usually from a Dorobo group. The knives and blades which make the cut are fashioned by blacksmiths, il-kunono, who are avoided by the Maasai because they make weapons of death (knives, short swords (ol alem), spears, etc.). Similar to the young men, women who will be circumcised wear dark clothing, paint their faces with markings, and then cover their faces on completion of the ceremony.