Settlement in East Africa
It is estimated there are around 600,000 – 800,000 in Tanzania today. The Maasai are a Nilotic group, migrating to eastern Africa by way of southern Sudan in the lower Nile valley around the 15th century. They settled in the Great Rift Valley stretching from what is today northern Kenya to central Tanzania between the 17th and late 18th century. They raided cattle using spears and shields, but were most feared for throwing clubs which could be accurately thrown from up to 70 paces. The Serengeti in northwestern Tanzania and the Masai Mara in southwestern Kenya is traditionally known as Maasai-land. Due to their nomadic pastoral character, the Maasai are not confined in these areas alone. The ethnic groups that had previously settled in the region were forcibly displaced by the Maasai. Southern Cushitic groups assimilated into Maasai society.
The Maasai are monotheistic, worshipping a single deity. The Maasai “Mountain of God”, Ol Doinyo Lengai, located in northernmost Tanzania near Lake Natron. The central human figure in their religious system is the Laibon (medicine man) who is involved in divination, shamanistic healing, and ensures rainfall. The Laibon’s power is a function of personality. Many Maasai have become Christian, and to a lesser extent, Muslim.
Maasai respect their elders and leaders. Maasai society is strongly patriarchal in nature, with elder men deciding most major matters for each Maasai group. The Maasai age set social system is traditionally polygamous and includes circumcision rituals. This is a long-standing and practical adaptation to high infant and warrior mortality rates. Polyandry is also practiced. A woman marries not just her husband, but the entire age group. Men are expected to give up their bed to a visiting age-mate guest but the woman decides strictly on her own if she will join the visiting male.
Maasai consider their livestock (cattle, sheep, goats and donkeys) a sign of wealth and precious resources. Traditional Maasai foods include meat, blood and milk. The mixing of cattle blood, obtained by nicking the jugular vein and milk is done to prepare a ritual drink for special celebrations and nourishment. Maasai knowledge of traditional medicinal plants, roots and tubers is well-respected. The central unit of Maasai society is the age-set. Young boys are sent out with the calves and lambs as toddlers. Girls are responsible for chores such as cooking and milking, skills they learn from their mothers at an early age.
The traditional Maasai houses, constructed by the women called a manyatta, are designed for a semi-nomadic people and are impermanent by nature. Their structural framework is formed by vertical timber poles fixed directly into the ground and interwoven with smaller branches, and plastered with a mix of mud, sticks, grass, ash, cow dung and human urine. The cow dung ensures that the roof is waterproof. Within this space, the family cooks, sleeps, socializes, eat, stores food, fuel, and other household possessions. A fence enclosure built by the men, usually of acacia thorns, surrounds the manyattas to protect the family, and the cows, goats, and sheep that are herded into its center from wild animals dusk until dawn. This compound is called a kraal.
A Colorful Culture
Maasai can be identified by distinctively colorful beaded jewelry worn by women, the piercing of ears, and colorful clothing. Maasai clothing varies by age and location. Young men, for instance, wear black for several months following their circumcision. However, red is a favored color. Blue, black, striped, and checkered cloths are also worn, as are multicolored African designs. Sheets are traditionally worn wrapped around the body, one over each shoulder, then a third over the top of them. These are typically red, though with some other colors and plaid patterns are used. The Maasai are known for their intricate jewelry. The Maasai women regularly weave and bead jewelry. This beadwork plays an essential part in the ornamentation of their body. Bead working done by women has a long history among the Maasai who articulate their identity and position in society through body ornaments and body painting
Singing and Jump Dancing
Maasai music traditionally consists of rhythms provided by vocalists singing harmonies while a song leader sings the melody. The song leader begins by singing a line or title of a song. The group responds with one unanimous response. The song leader sings a verse over the group’s rhythmic throat singing. Each song has its specific call-and-response structure.
Neck movements accompany singing. When breathing out the head is leaned forward. The head is tilted back for an inward breath. Both singing and dancing often occurs around manyattas, and involve flirting. Young men will form a line and chant rhythmically, “Oooooh-yah”, with a growl and staccato cough along with the thrust and withdrawal of their lower bodies. Girls stand in front of the men and make the same pelvis lunges while singing a high dying fall of “Oiiiyo..yo” in counterpoint to the men. Bodies come in close proximity but do not touch.
Warriors are well-known for competitive jumping while dancing. A circle is formed by the warriors and one or two at a time will enter the center to begin jumping while maintaining a narrow posture, never letting their heels touch the ground. Members of the group may raise the pitch of their voices based on the height of the jump. The girlfriends parade themselves in their most spectacular costumes as part of the dancing ceremony.
The piercing and stretching of ear lobes is common among the Maasai. Various materials have been used to both pierce and stretch the lobes, including thorns for piercing, twigs, bundles of twigs, stones, the cross-section of elephant tusks and empty film canisters. Women wear various forms of beaded ornaments in both the ear lobe and smaller piercings at the top of the ear.
Rites of Passage for Boys
According to Maasai tradition, each young man is supposed to kill a lion before he is circumcised. Lion hunting was an activity of the past but has been banned in East Africa. Lions are still hunted though when they maul Maasai livestock. 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 that promotes accepting compensation when a lion kills livestock rather than hunting and killing the predator. Nevertheless, killing a lion gives social status within the community.
At the age of 15 years or so, boys are initiated as warriors. One rite of passage is a painful circumcision ceremony performed without anesthesia and typically performed by an elder using a sharpened knife. Cattle hide bandages the wound. The boy must endure the operation in silence. Expressions of pain bring dishonor. Any exclamations can cause a mistake in the delicate and tedious process, which can result in life-long scarring, dysfunction, and pain.
The healing process takes 3–4 months, during which urination is painful and nearly impossible at times. The 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 that 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.
Rites of Passage for Girls
Young women undergo female circumcision as part of an elaborate rite of passage ritual in which they are given instructions and advice pertaining to their new role, as they are then said to have come of age and become women, ready for marriage. The knives and blades which make the cut are fashioned by blacksmiths. 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.
The Maasai in Transition
The wind of change have impacted the Maasai in Tanzania following the loss of much of their grazing land in the Serengeti to pave ways for tourism which is a major source of income to the Tanzanian government. The Tanzanian government relocated the Maasai of the Serengeti to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area in 1959 which includes the southern area of the Serengeti Plains. Since then, their population in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area has multiplied six-fold. Currently, most Maasai have succumbed to new forms of livelihood such as working as tanzanite and garnets gemstone dealers, security guards, and tour / culture operators. Some have joined farming (maize, beans, flowers, tobacco) in permanent homesteads. Over the years, many projects have begun to help Maasai tribal leaders find ways to preserve their traditions while balancing the education needs of their children for the modern world.