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The Maasai: A Tribe That Defied the Odds of Civilization

The Maasai people

The Maasai people

An Overview of the Maasai

A vacation to Kenya is more than just about seeing the wildlife and stunning scenery. If you are planning a trip to the east African country, be assured that the real uniqueness of Kenya is found among the combined faces of its many cultures.

One group of people in Kenya are called the Maasai, and they have a fascinating and long history of residing and thriving in the land. They are among the 42 tribes within Kenya's borders, though tribes, in a Kenyan sense, actually refer to ethnic groups. The term does not always mean people living in tribal-like communities as it typically implies in a western hemisphere's context.

Who are the Maasai?

The Maasai have defied the odds of civilization. These people uphold their ancient cultural and traditional ways of life and are actually quite well known throughout the world for their distinctness. They are Nilotic, semi-nomadic people, and though many of them live in southern Kenya, there is a substantial population in northern Tanzania as well. Population numbers are hard to gauge, but it is estimated that there are roughly one to two million Maasai people living between the two nations. It is important to remember that the Maasai settled in the area far before the modern borders between the countries were established.

The Maasai speaks the Maa language, an Eastern Nilotic tongue, and the name Maasai means “my people”. As a byproduct of globalization and colonialism, many Maasai people also speak Swahili—spoken heavily throughout eastern Africa—and English—a result of British rule.

Through the years, the Maasai have generally created wealth by keeping cattle, and have continued to live throughout a large chunk of arid and semi-arid lands that hug the border connecting Kenya and Tanzania.

In this article, I'll discuss the ways their culture has survived through the centuries, distinct cultural practices and ways the Maasai people have adapted to globalization and the modern world.

Maasai people welcoming tourists visitors.

Maasai people welcoming tourists visitors.

A young Maasai warrior

A young Maasai warrior


According to the oral histories told by the Maasai, they originated from the lower Nile valley, north of Lake Turkana in northwestern Kenya, and began migrating south during the 15th century. They appear to have arrived and begun occupying the vast lands in the southern part of Kenya and the central part of Tanzania between the 17th and 18th centuries.

These new Maasai lands were likely already occupied by other ethnic groups who were either forcibly displaced or ultimately assimilated into the new and dominant society. The Maasai also cultivated long-lasting and peaceful relationships with neighbouring agricultural communities who would eventually come to their aid during famines and other disasters.

Although the Maasai do not have a written history of how they migrated to their present lands, it's almost guaranteed the process took a long time. It's assumed they were guided south by Kenya's Kerio River in the Rift Valley until they reached the watered range lands just east of Mt. Elgon on the border of Uganda and Kenya.

At the height of their ascendancy in the mid-18th Century, the range of land they occupied included the fertile volcanic areas in the Great Rift Valley, an area of more than 400,000 kilometres squared.

Population Destruction and Cattle Loss Due to Rinderpest

Today, the Maasai don't hold nearly the amount of land they did a few centuries ago and there are several reasons for this. Following decades of natural disasters (Emutai) and colonization, the Maasai population and much of their cattle were killed off and much of the lands they occupied were destroyed or taken.

Many deaths were the consequences of a string of natural and historic calamities including droughts, smallpox outbreaks and pests that ultimately killed off their cattle and caused famines.

It was estimated that at the beginning of the 1890s, 90% of the Maasai's cattle and half of the wild animals perished from Rinderpest (a viral disease that affects cloven-hoofed animals). The devastation to their cattle populations caused a famine, that effectively killed many Maasai while weakening others' immune systems, therefore making them more susceptible to numerous diseases like smallpox.

These disasters were made even worse as this period coincided with the 1897 and 1898 droughts where rain was essentially nonexistent. This caused the Maasai to relocate further, ultimately losing even more land. According to some estimates, two-thirds of the Maasai died during this period and today, the Maasai occupy a total land area of fewer than 160,000 kilometres squared.

The Impact of European Colonialism

Maasai lands in Kenya were reduced further when the British colonialists evicted them to make room for settler ranches, subsequently confining them to present lands in the south of Kenya and north of Tanzania.

British Kenya was formally established as a Crown colony in 1920 and the country did not gain independence until 1963. Tanzania was ruled by Germany during the late 1800s and by Britain during World War I, eventually gaining independence in 1961.

During the rule of the British in 1904, the Anglo-Maasai Treaty was signed. As a result, the Maasai people agreed to cede possession of pastures in the Central Rift Valley and, in turn, were granted the sole rights to two reserves: one in Kajiado and one in Laikipia.

Over the years that followed Kenya’s independence in 1963, more land was taken to create wildlife reserves and national parks. The Maasai are involved with the Kenyan government and often work in efforts to conserve wildlife. Their wildlife sanctuaries are some of the best managed and most productive conservation areas to visit in Africa.

Cultures and Traditions

The Maasai people's primary source of economic gain involves keeping livestock. They are cattle and goat herders, and their economy is almost exclusively based on animal stock. The animals are where they get most of their food and milk, and they use resources from them to build their living spaces; they are typically communal, hut-like dwellings (Kraal) and are built from dried cattle dung. They also use the blood of cows for certain sacred rituals, which you can find more about in the next section.

Years ago, the Maasai were considered fierce warriors and were feared by many tribes. Their reputation as fierce warriors came from their spiritual beliefs that their rain god Ngai gave them all of the cattle, and therefore anyone else who possessed their own must have stolen from the Maasai. This led to fatal altercations with neighbouring tribes for centuries when the Maasai attempted to reclaim their “stolen possessions”.

The Drinking of Cow Blood

The Maasai people value cow blood and they drink it on various occasions. For example, blood is given to a circumcised person (olesipolioi), a woman who has recently given birth (entomononi) or someone who is sick (oltamueyiai).

Blood is very rich in protein, good for the immune system and is often drunk in a combination with cow's milk. The blood is obtained in small quantities by making a small incision in the jugular artery of the animals and drained through bamboo placed at the incision point. This cut typically heals in just a few days and cattle rarely have to die in the process of obtaining blood.

A Culture That Endures

Despite modern civilization, the Maasai people have largely managed to maintain their cultural and traditional ways of life. With each passing year, this has become more and more of a challenge due to varying external factors.

Maintaining a pastoral lifestyle has become increasingly difficult due to outside influences of the modern world. The combination of an increasing population, the loss of cattle to disease, and the lack of available grazing range lands due to government park boundaries have forced the Maasai to develop new ways of sustaining themselves.

Still, the Maasai have upheld many traditional rituals. There are numerous traditions and ceremonies that are performed by Maasai men; the best known is the warrior "jumping" dance, where young Maasai warriors (morans) leap into the air from a standing position, in order to demonstrate their strength and agility.

Another famous ceremony that was performed during marriages was the act of a moran being required to kill a lion before being able to get a wife, though, with new laws and increased scrutiny about protecting wildlife, this practice has largely been stopped.

Circumcision in Maasai Culture

Circumcision in Maasai is an important rite of passage to adulthood and the ceremony is performed for both young men and women. It is done according to generations of every 15 years or so, or when a new and individually named generation of Morans is set to be initiated.

Young Men

A generation generally comprises of boys between the ages of 12 and 25 who have finished puberty. Elder men perform circumcision on teenage boys who have attained the age of adulthood.

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. In the week leading up to the ceremony, the young men are supposed to show responsibility, often in the form of herding cattle, and on the eighth day, the circumcision is done.

The boy receives a cold shower and then, as he walks toward where the operation will occur, other young men and friends shout everything from words of encouragement and threats. The young men are not supposed to moan or make any noise during the cut and are not given any drugs or anaesthesia. The boy must endure the operation in silence and expressions of pain can bring about dishonour.

Young Women

Circumcision for teenage girls is done differently than for young men. It is performed by elder women and the girls are permitted to cry.

Despite the Kenyan government's efforts to stop this—there is even a Nairobi International Conference on Female Genital Mutilation that urged jurisdictions to adopt political, legal and social measures to stop the tradition—the attempts have failed. Efforts to stop the practice have often caused the practice to only be done earlier in the woman's life, therefore avoiding speculation from authorities.

Many parents marry their daughters off at a young age in an attempt to help them escape poverty and the practice is often sponsored by their prospective partner. The act even includes a ceremony that brings the community together.

Maasai Education Discovery or MED is an organization created by the Maasai that is working to find alternatives to female circumcision. They have attempted to allow girls to speak out about their feelings before they undergo the procedure and have encouraged young men to refuse to marry circumcised women. These efforts have been taken in an attempt to remove the expectation that women should be circumcised without criminalizing the procedure and those who do it.