Understanding cultures is key to peace and life enjoyment
The Maasai (importantly spelled with two a’s) are a beautiful pastoralist people inhabiting much of southern Kenya, and Northern Tanzania, along the Great Rift Valley.
Frequently photographed by travellers and painted by artists, Maasai are known the world-over because of their unique culture, dress and residence around major wildlife reserves in East Africa. A Maasai may well be your guide on safari.
But what lies beneath the Maasai? What is their cultural significance? And is their portrayal in the media reflective of their modern day lives?
What Maasai Life is Like
The Maasai are a semi-nomadic people who live primarily around the Masai Mara Game Reserve in Kenya and the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.
Maasai are farmers, with livestock such as cattle, goats and sheep their primary source of income. Livestock serves as a social utility and plays an important role in the Maasai economy; livestock are traded for other livestock, cash or livestock products such as milk. The movement of livestock is based on seasonal rotation, this communal land management system allows the Maasai to utilize resources in a sustainable manner.
The men have the job of protecting the enkang, which is the Maasai word for village. They also search for better pastures and watering holes for their cattle. The men do not steal cattle from other tribes like they once did, which means being able to fight is not as important as it used to be. Even so, the Maasai warriors need to be trained to fight so they can protect their cattle from predators.
The women have many different jobs. They feed and milk the cows. They also make houses. Maasai homes are called Inkajijks, and are built with sticks, cow dung, cow urine and mud. Another job that the women have is to cook. They also find water and firewood and make clothes and beaded jewellery.
Whilst much of Maasai life is traditional, make no mistake that both the men and women are equally strong in their culture.
Back at the beginning of the 20th Century, the Maasai were the dominating tribe and are one of the very few tribes who have retained many of their traditions and lifestyle.
The Maasai speak the Maa language (the word Maasai means “people speaking maa””, with the language being member of the Nilotic language family that is related to the Dinka, Kalenjin and Nuer languages. Except for some elders in rural areas, most Maasai people speak the official languages of Kenya and Tanzania, which are Swahili and English.
Maasai society is comprised of sixteen sections (known in Maasai as Iloshon): Ildamat, Ilpurko, Ilkeekonyokie, Iloitai, Ilkaputiei, Ilkankere, Isiria, Ilmoitanik, Iloodokilani, Iloitokitoki, Ilarusa, Ilmatatapato, Ilwuasinkishu, Kore, Parakuyu, and Ilkisonko, also known as Isikirari (Tanzania’s Maasai).
To become a Maasai Warrior, young boys will follow the lead of their father and elders, who teach them everything from farming, herding, cultural practices and responsibilities. Upon becoming a Warrior, boys will “graduate” with a traditional ceremony called ‘Eunoto’. The fence around the kraal (traditional homestead) is made of acacia thorns, which prevent lions from attacking the cattle. Maasai Warriors are in charge of security while boys are responsible for herding livestock.
‘Shuka’, affectionately known as the “African blanket” and is the traditional attire worn by the Maasai people of East Africa. While red is the most common colour worn, the Maasai also use blue, striped, and checkered cloth to wrap around their bodies. It’s durable, strong, and thick – protecting the Maasai from the harsh weather, dust and terrain of the savannah.
Lion hunting was symbolically a rite of passage of the past. Lion hunt was a traditional and historical practice that played an important role in the Maasai culture. The practice was different from trophy hunting; it was symbolically a rite of passage rather than a hobby and up until recently, the only way for a Maasai boy to achieve warrior status was to single-handedly kill a lion with his spear.
Losing cattle to lions is a tragedy to a Maasai family. Maasai income comes, solemnly, from the cows. Therefore, protecting the cows from lions has always been a matter of grave concern to every Maasai. With compensation for cattle killed by lions, the warriors have been leaving the lions alone. A share of revenue generated from game reserves in Maasai land could only improve the situation.
The practice of lion hunting and other wildlife has been outlawed in East Africa. Yet human-wildlife conflict is one of the leading causes of wild animal deaths, whether it’s lions killing cattle, or elephants trampling crops, understanding how important livelihoods are to local communities is crucial to developing new tools for conservation and sustainable tourism best practices.
The Maasai are predominantly situated in the African Great Rift Valley, a world-renowned ecosystem that includes vast open grasslands, riverine forests, woodlands, swamps, non-deciduous thickets, and rocky escarpments. So it’s critical that the Maasai are an integral part of any conservation efforts.
In fact, in recent years, organisations have encouraged embracing Maasai way of life as one remedy to help tackle climate change, due to the Maasai’s ability to produce foods in desert and scrub land.
The largest loss of land for the Maasai people, has been to national parks and reserves, in which the Maasai people are restricted from accessing critical water sources, pasture, and salt lick. As a result, the Maasai, which once was a proud and self-sufficient society, is now facing many social-economic and political challenges.
One solution has been the growth of eco-tourism and the various profit-sharing management schemes that have been initiated in both Kenya and Tanzania. One such example is the conservancy model; a tourism system whereby local Maasai lease their land to tourism entities such as safari camps, staying guests pay towards the various conservation and conservancy levies, these are then directly funnelled to the Maasai land owners, in turn creating employment and financial revenue to build schools, clinics, implement anti-poaching patrols, promote other economic incentives and importantly conserve habitat for wildlife to roam freely.
Whilst no solution is a “silver bullet” for conservation, including local people such as the Maasai in the conversation and management of the land is a perfect start.
Visit Africa in 2022 or 2023
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