The Maasai are one of Africa’s most iconic tribes. In this blog we will dive into who the Maasai are, and the fascinating history and culture of the tribe.
Where are the Maasai from?
The Maasai are semi-nomadic. This means they spend time living in temporary dwellings and practice seasonal migration, but they often have a semi-permanent settlement too. They live in the Great Lakes region of Africa, between southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. Recent records show there are over 800,000 Maasai people in Kenya and 430,000 in Tanzania. The Maasai lifestyle is largely similar to that of their ancestors, but modern influences are beginning to impact the tribe.
The History of the Maasai
The Maasai oral history tells us that the tribe originated in northwest Kenya, in the lower Nile Valley. Around the 15th century, the Maasai began migrating south. Between the 17th and late 18th centuries they arrived in the area that stretches from what is now northern Kenya to central Tanzania
Tepilit Ole Saitoti, a renowned Maasai writer, is famously quoted to have said, “Without the land and cattle, there will be no Maasai”. Cattle are a main pillar of Maasai society. Cattle herding contributes a large part of their identity, and livestock ownership is a sign of status. The animals provide resources such as raw meat, milk, and blood, which are staples of the Maasai diet. The purpose of their movement as semi-nomads is to find new grazing land for their cattle, as well as their other livestock, which includes goats and sheep. They relocate themselves and their livestock in a communal land management system that is based on seasonal rotation. Moving across vast areas also allows the Maasai to trade and barter with other tribes.
In terms of social organization, Maasai culture is very focused on tradition. As people grow from childhood to adulthood to old age, responsibilities, roles and titles are passed on. These rites of passage are usually accompanied by ceremonies and rituals. Maasai men and women have performed the same roles for centuries. Men perform the duties of acting as warriors and livestock herders. Women complete household chores, milk cattle, and gather firewood.
The Maa language spoken by the Maasai people is closely related to that of neighboring tribes, such as the language of the Samburu people of central Kenya, and to Camus spoken south of Lake Baringo, and the Latuko language spoken in South Sudan. In simple terms, the name ‘Maasai’ itself translates to ‘people who speak Maa’. The Maa language is spoken only, not generally written down. This oral tradition is how their history has been passed from generation to generation throughout the centuries.
Maasai Song and Dance
The Maasai are famous for their traditional jumping dance, known as “Adumu”, a symbol that many people associate with their culture. Maasai music is traditionally made up of rhythms and harmonies by a chorus of vocalists, and a melody sung by the olaranyani, or song leader.
Historically, the Adumu dance is done during Eunoto, a coming-of-age ceremony when a young man makes his transition into a warrior. These 10-day events include competitive dancing, as well as singing and rituals.
Distinctive dress and body adornment give the Maasai a unique visual aesthetic. Traditional clothing and body modification are iconic parts of Maasai culture, however specific styles can vary greatly based on the tribe and region.
Maasai clothing is largely made up of draped robes, intricately adorned with beads. Maasai tribes traditionally wear colorful clothes and beads. The purpose of the colorful clothing is so people can easily be spotted from a distance. And if someone goes missing, due to wildlife encounters or other reasons, the fabric will be visible when their people go looking for them. Herders are sometimes attacked by wildlife and some women too fetching water – life in the bush can be dangerous!
Another cultural symbol of the Maasai is body modification, such as stretching earlobes. Shaving the hair is another ritual that is done as a rite of passage.
The Maasai people have held on to their traditional practices, while also adapting their lifestyle to modern times. The use of modern technology is becoming more common, with cell phones being useful for herders as tools to communicate and find grazing lands. More Maasai tribes have turned to farming to sustain their communities, rather than being exclusively livestock herders. Increasingly, some Maasai tribe members venture to cities and urban areas for work and to assimilate with modern life.
Governments in Tanzania and Kenya have urged the Maasai to abandon their traditions and join modern society completely, but the Maasai choose to modify their lifestyle based on their needs and remain largely independent.
Maasai Houses & Structures
A traditional boma, or Maasai village, is a group of huts surrounded by a thorny fence. Often, a smaller area in the middle of the huts is fenced off as an area where livestock can rest safely overnight.
The houses are typically oval or circular and made from all-natural materials. The building materials are collected from nearby areas. The frame is made from wooden poles that are fixed into the ground and interlaced with small branches. The lattice of smaller branches is then plastered with a mixture of water, mud, and cow dung.
Due to their semi-nomadic lifestyle, the structures are designed to be easy to maintain. It is the Massai women who typically build the huts, and it takes a few months to complete them.
Meeting the Maasai
The best way to learn about a culture is by meeting the people. A visit to a Maasai boma is a feast for the senses and a great way to enrich your time in Tanzania.
When you open your mind and learn about the Maasai, the Maasai open their boma to you and allow you to delve into their culture. A visit to a Maasai boma gives you the chance to see inside their homes, dance an Adumu with them, and support the communities through the Maasai Community Development Initiative.
Join us on one of our upcoming departures for our Tanzania: Great Migration Safari, and you’ll get to visit the Maasai in their boma.