The Maasai people are an ethnic group in East Africa that live in Kenya and Tanzania. These tribes can be very different depending where you are visiting. They divide into twelve sectors, each one of them with different customs, appearance, leadership and dialects.
Since I heard there was a way I could go and visit, I immediately said yes, being the culture geek that I am. Many tribes welcome visitors to their villages for a small fee. I paid 10$ to visit one of the villages in Maasai Mara and I can tell you it was one of the most fascinating things in the whole trip to Africa.
Nothing could ever prepare me for what I was about to see. A complete culture shock, in so many ways. The reception was made by the tribe chief and a group of the older men. These men were speaking in English to us, but most of the tribes speak Swahili and mainly the Ma language. They explained to us why it was important our visit to their tribe and why they think it’s important to show us their way of living and traditions.
At the start of our visit I was immediately touched by this little nine month old baby. From the minute I have seen him until now I still think about it. With flies all over his face he wouldn’t even blink as he was used to it, yet he was playful and smiley. I felt sad, angry, my head was spinning. Having being raised in completely different conditions I could not imagine living like that, but this is where opening your mind comes in place. So, I open up to get to know them and realize that not everyone lives the way we think they should. They were happy and even with pressures from the modern world they want to keep their main traditions.
Living in the Maasai village
Living in a Maasai village is centred in sharing the tasks every day in between women and men. Most of the tasks are related with their bovine animals, the cattle, which is their main source of food and also shows the wealth of a family.
In the beginning of the visit, the older men showed us how they make fire from sticks, something that they take great pride in. They told us that they keep a big fire always on in a part of the village and that everyone will get their fire to each house from that big one.
The Maasai Houses
During my visit I was honoured to be able to enter one of the houses where inside I had a better understanding on how the Maasai live. It is a reality check to see the houses, were sometimes they squeeze up to 10 people.
The conditions are very basic, with the houses build in sort of a rectangular shape by the women in the village, using mud, sticks, grass, cow faeces and urine. Inside the dimensions are small and to move around I had to lean down, considering my size they are very small.
Inside we gathered around the dining area, that was surrounded by two rooms, one for 2 adults and the other for 2 children with wooden beds. The smaller part of the house was designed to hold the young cattle overnight. There was a small fire that they keep on to cook their meals.
In one part of the village there was a big round face made of acacia thorns, designated to keep the cattle at night in order to protect them from predators. The man has this task. Sometimes they are attacked by lions and cheetahs but they fight them back.
Their primary source of sustain is the cattle. They also use them for trade with other tribes when they want to get products such as milk and grain. When inside the house, it was explained that when they do not have meat available for protein, they mix milk, starch and blood in a sort of porridge. Also, plants play a very important role in their diet and they are thought how to know which ones are the best to eat and make soup. They also include potatoes and cabbage that they get from other tribes, as they do not cultivate themselves in their land.
This is controversial amongst the tribes. The cultivation of the lands was encouraged by governments as a form of employment, in a growing civilized world. The Maasai think that this is against nature because when the land it’s cultivated, they take away areas of grazing and by that, reduce the areas were the cattle can feed.
During the visit I was curious about their diseases and how do they treat certain conditions. I went to meet the village doctor; he could not speak English so one of the older boys was translating to me. The doctor shown me 5 different plastic bottles with different colours, each one of them was designated to treat a condition. The conditions are mainly acute diarrhoea, joint/bone problems and flu. I asked about cancer and he did not know the concept. The doctor told us that sometimes they send people to the hospital when they have broken bones or they need vaccines. They follow the government vaccination regime. Beside that everything is treated there and they have a ‘midwife’ in charge of births which is someone who has done many births, so has the experience.
Within the Maasai society things are pretty much organized in age groups. It starts from the top with the elder men deciding what is best for the tribe. The younger boys have the responsibility of taking the cattle out and the girls cook, take the milk and learn how to build the houses while taking care of the kids.
I have learned some peculiar things during my visit such as that they are polygamous; although not all of them follow this, like for example the chief of the tribe I have visited.
The women came from other tribes to marry in this village and she marries not just her husband but the age group. These means that they allow a wife to have affairs with men in the same age group and any child that may result from this is the husband’s child.
It’s not uncommon to see the Maasai wearing all sorts of colours in their clothes. Typically they were red but can also wear blue, green and patterns of different colours in a wrapped one piece around their bodies. Both men and women wear bracelets made with beads. They either walk barefoot or wear sandals made of cow, although I spotted some wearing plastic sandals in Tanzania. Warriors wear their hair long; once they become older it must be shaved off.
A decreasing practice that the Maasai are famous for is the piercing and stretching of the earlobes using different beaded ornaments to do that. The tribe chief told us that they do not support this practice anymore but there were still a lot of women with stretched earlobes.
Maasai have monotheistic beliefs and their God, the Enkai had two forms, the Black God was benevolent and the Red God was vengeful. Some of the more young boys in the tribe said that they only believed in the nature and what the nature gives to them they have to give it back by protecting it. Most of the tribes are now Christians and some Muslims.
Another curious belief is the way they face end of life. They leave the dead out to scavengers like hyenas. Burry a body is only for very important people in the tribes, like the chief.
Ceremonies and Rituals
There are many ceremonies and rituals practiced by the Maasai but I will just explain the ones that were explained to me. I loved the stories on how the young boys need to spend time in the wild before they become warriors, learning how to survive and look for food.
The circumcision ceremony or Emuratare marks the passage to adulthood. Both men and women are included in this tradition. Although, facing changes over the years the many young Maasai women no longer undergo through circumcision and in the village I visited it’s not allowed. Young boys undergo circumcision without anaesthetic and can’t show pain because to do so would be a sign of weakness. After this, when they are healing they wear black clothes.
Killing a lion
Kill a lion is a ritual of passage considered very important in the Maasai culture, meaning that the young boy is ready to be and adult and also shows bravery. This practice has been abandoned, at least in the tribe that I visited, because of increase concerns about the lion populations. Hunting any wildlife has been banned in East Africa, so nowadays even when lions attack the cattle they can get compensation from the government instead of killing the lion.
The traditional jumping dance from the Maasai warriors is performed as initiation as a warrior. They form a circle and one by one go into the middle jumping high as they can while others sing and clap on the background. The higher the jumps the better warrior they will be and also pay less for the bride they choose.
With years of change, many introduced by local governments, the Maasai tribes face uncertainty. A lot of projects are in practice nowadays in order to help them educate the children at the same time as allowing them to keep their traditions. They have also learned how to use their traditions in their own benefit by allowing tourists and others into their communities.