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The Maasai: Five Facts About the Ancient African Tribe

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Maasai man, wearing traditional blankets, overlooks Serengeti in Tanzania.

Maasai man, wearing traditional blankets, overlooks Serengeti in Tanzania.

Who Are the Maasai?

On the plains of Kenya lives a proud African tribe that has kept its ancient traditions alive for generations. Easily recognised for their crimson clothing, the Maasai are a semi-pastoral people whose cattle herds provide a source of wealth and sustenance.

In this article, we'll cover athesere five facts about the Maasai:

5 Facts About the Maasai

  1. They Worship One God
  2. Their Way of Life Depends on Their Cattle
  3. They Used to Hunt Lions
  4. They Practice Polygamy
  5. They Respect the Land
A lineup of Maasai men.

A lineup of Maasai men.

1. They Worship One God

The deity, whose name is Engai (which translates as "rain"), created three groups of people: the Torrobo (hunters), the Kikuyus (farmers), and the Maasai (herders). To the latter, he entrusted the care of all the world's cattle.

Engai lives on "the Mountain of God", which is believed to be located in Northern Tanzania. He has two aspects: a black, compassionate god and a red, vengeful god. The black god brings thunder and rain to replenish the land, while the red god brings lighting and wildfires.

The laibon is the high priest of the Maasai tribe. He is the intermediary between Engai and his people. He has no political power but holds significant influence as the tribe's prophet and medicine man.

The Sons of Mbatian

A particularly powerful laibon named Mbatian prophesied the coming of an "iron snake" that would split the Maasai lands in two. He was probably referring to the railway line that was completed shortly before his death in 1890.

Mbatian had two sons, Senteu and Olenana, who resemble the biblical siblings Jacob and Esau in that Olenana tricked their father into providing a blessing meant for his older brother. This led to a destructive civil war that reduced the Maasai population by half.

"Ol Doinyo Lengai" is an active volcano in the Great Rift Valley. Its name translates to "Mountain of God" in the Maasai language, and is believed by them to be the residence of the god "Engai".

"Ol Doinyo Lengai" is an active volcano in the Great Rift Valley. Its name translates to "Mountain of God" in the Maasai language, and is believed by them to be the residence of the god "Engai".

2. Their Way of Life Depends on Their Cattle

As mentioned, Engai entrusted the Maasai with the care of the world's cattle. Thus, they believe that all the world's cattle belong to them.

Cows provide a source of milk and beef. Cattle blood is drunk to provide salt intake and is also believed to possess healing properties.

Maasai also use cattle hide to make temporary shelters, bedding, and garments known as shuka. Cattle bones can be used to make tools and eating utensils.

Cattle are the currency of the Maasai. The more cattle a man has, the richer he is. They are used to forge political alliances and as a price to secure marriages (the groom pays the bride's father in cattle).

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Warriors who perform daring deeds may be rewarded with a few cattle, while those who have dishonored themselves may be forced to pay a price in cattle.

Young Maasai warrior, moran with cattle in the background

Young Maasai warrior, moran with cattle in the background

3. They Used to Hunt Lions

The lion hunt was a rite of passage for Maasai warriors.

A warrior could attempt to hunt a lion by himself, but the hunts usually happened in groups. Warriors would meet to plan the hunt in secret and would leave early in the morning before the elders and women could wake up and try to dissuade them.

Only male lions were hunted. Female lions were seen as a bearer of life and thus sacred. Furthermore, it was forbidden to kill lions that were caught in a trap, poisoned, or suffering from drought.

Ritual lion hunting is now outlawed in Kenya, so the Maasai only hunt lions that are threatening their livestock.

Maasai warriors with spears and traditional garb.

Maasai warriors with spears and traditional garb.

4. They Practice Polygamy

A Maasai man can marry as many women as he is able to afford, and it's not uncommon for a wealthy Maasai to have three or four wives, each performing different tasks within the household.

The BBC ran a story on a wealthy Maasai man named Isaya Ntokot, a 76-year-old with three wives: Alice, 62, Mary, 56, and Joyce, 54. The BBC reported that "The three wives claim to live harmoniously, though Alice, as the first wife, feels she has more authority than the others."

Polygamy was legalised in Kenya in 2014, which has granted wives in a polygamous marriage certain protections, including the right to inherit.

A group of women from a Maasai tribe near Masai Mara National Park.

A group of women from a Maasai tribe near Masai Mara National Park.

5. They Respect the Land

The Maasai don't engage in agriculture as they believe it damages land meant for grazing.

Furthermore, they migrate with the seasons to ensure the land has time to regenerate after each grazing period.

In this way, they have been proponents of a sustainable lifestyle long before everyone else caught on.

Maasai village with huts and "fence" of thorn bushes near Tarangire National Park in Tanzania.

Maasai village with huts and "fence" of thorn bushes near Tarangire National Park in Tanzania.

The Maasai Way of Life

The Maasai have been able to preserve their traditions for centuries, even in the face of British colonisation.

But the loss of land and the prevalence of the market economy is now posing the greatest threat to their way of life. The land, which was always managed collectively by the Maasai, is being divided and sold off to private ranchers. With their territory shrinking, the Maasai are unable to migrate their cattle herds, resulting in overgrazing.

Meanwhile, more Maasai attempt to compensate by taking up jobs in the farming or tourism industry.

The World Wildlife Federation (WWF) is driving efforts to promote conservation in Maasai Mara National Park and surrounding areas. These include efforts to cultivate coexistence and harmony in the region.

References

"Helping Maasai People and Wildlife to Live in Harmony." (n.d.). World Wildlife Fund, https://www.wwf.org.uk/success-stories/helping-maasai-people-and-wildlife-live-harmony.

"How Kenyans are reacting to legalised polygamy." (2014). BBC, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-27939037

"Lion." (n.d.). Maasai Association, http://www.maasai-association.org/lion.html.

"Maasai Beliefs and Legends." (n.d.). National Museums of Kenya, https://artsandculture.google.com/story/maasai-beliefs-and-legends-national-museums-of-kenya/PwXx2lgK0qHLLQ?hl=en.

"The Maasai Tribe, East Africa." (n.d.). Siyabona Africa, https://www.siyabona.com/maasai-tribe-east-africa.html.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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