On the massive continent of Africa, there are several different tribes of people, many of which are still living in a way that’s loyal to its own traditional customs. One of these is the Maasai tribe and when you go on an African safari in Tanzania it’s possible to pay a visit to their land to have a firsthand peek at their lifestyle.
Along the safari routes on my trips to Tanzania with Shadows of Africa, I saw the Maasai people dozens of times. Their blue and red frocks gave them away every time. Not only are they scattered throughout the main roads, mostly herding their cattle. Their villages are also sporadically spread on the long stretches of land. But, what is Maasai culture all about?
Who are the Maasai People & History
The Maasai tribe is a semi-nomadic ethnic group from East Africa, mostly settled in northern Tanzania and Kenya. Their spoken language is Maa, derived from Nilotic languages, most specifically falling under the category of Eastern Nilotic.
According to their own oral history, their tribe originated near Lake Turkana, an East African lake located mostly in Kenya’s territory. Their migration to their current territory happened between the 17th and 18th centuries. They’ve been known across history as formidable warriors and hunters, although raising cattle has been, and still is, their main activity.
By the mid-19th century, they had grown to their largest in size and territory. However, unfortunately the last two decades of the 19th century wiped out more than half of the tribe – according to estimations – due to a mix of smallpox, drought and starvation, the latter of which was brought on by nearly all of their cattle dying from an animal disease called rinderpest.
Then the 20th century came along and turned much of what was known as Maasai territory into wildlife reserves and national parks. This also led to the government beginning to pressure the tribe to give up their traditional semi-nomadic lifestyle revolving around herding, in favor of adopting a more settled and sedentary lifestyle of farming. However, apart from some exceptional cases of Maasai people who moved into the city to get educated, to this date the tribe has remained persistent in their pursuit of their traditional way of living.
As I already briefly mentioned, besides raising and herding cattle, the Maasai tribe also has a long withstanding history as warriors. Their warrior caste is called il-murran in their native Maa language, with a new group of soldiers, from the age groups of 12 to 25, getting formed every 15 years or so.
There is a strict training period they must undergo, concluding in a variety of initiation rites, among which the most important one is circumcision. This rite is carried out with traditional instruments, without anesthetics, due to their belief that the ability resist pain is an integral part of these young warriors’ transition from boy to man.
Becoming a Maasai warrior is a source of great pride for the boys of the tribe. In addition to providing security for their families, a Maasai warrior’s duty lies in protecting their animals from predators, both animal and human. They also build kraals, which are Maasai homes.
Maasai Tribe Culture
As the Maasai tribe is accustomed to moving every 3 to 4 years, after the pastures of their current location has been used up, their huts are built from small branches and brushwood, covered by manure, clay, mud and dry cattle dung, with the intention of the home only lasting for a temporary period of time.
These homes are easily identifiable by the small cluster of cow dung huts with straw roofs. There are no windows, but there is typically a fireplace. Animal skins on top of the mud floor serve as their sleeping place. It is often the women’s job to build these huts, also carrying the material needed for it on their shoulders from one place of living to another.
During my visits with the Maasai, I was able to tour two of these homes, which were made entirely by the women of the tribe. The interiors consisted of two to three tiny rooms, typically one for the husband and wife, one for the children and the main area was a kitchen. It was very dark since there were no windows and each of the rooms could not have been larger than 5’x6′.
The bedrooms were mostly vacant besides the blue tarps that lined the floors. The “kitchens” had dirt floors and were only equipped with a necessities, like ceramic mugs, teapots, plastic bowls and towels.
The Importance of Cattle to the Maasai People
One of the reasons that the Maasai’s cattle hold so much value because it is a form of currency, being traded for an array of goods. Another reason is because it’s their main source of food and resources—skin and leather is used for shields and bedding, while dung is smeared on the walls of the houses. But beyond that, they have a genuine and deep relationship with their cattle, withholding the belief that it’s their duty to take care of all the cattle in the world. As such, they lean into their semi-nomadic lifestyle in search of pastures with food and water for the cattle.
It is also believed among the tribe, as well as some other African ethnic groups, that a man’s wealth is measured by the quantity of their wives, children and cattle.
Maasai Food, Drink & Diet
At the center of the Maasai tribe’s diet is milk, meat and drinking the blood of their cattle. Though their cattle is the main source of nourishment, other animals like goats and lambs may be occasionally eaten.
Drinking Cattle Blood / / On special occasions or to help with nourishment during healing, they will also drink the blood of their cattle that is acquired by nicking the jugular vein. This is especially true are the circumcision of young boys.
Their traditional belief system is monotheistic, with their god carrying the name Engai, and having manifested in two forms: the benevolent black god and the vengeful red god. Laibon, similar to a priest or a shaman, is the religion’s most important figure, with a role of healing and prophecy, among others. Today, some of the Maasai tribe are Christian and they also have a Muslim minority.
Maasai Songs and Jumping Dance
In traditional Maasai music, there is an olaranyani, who is the song leader and in charge of singing the melody of the song. They begin singing the namba of the song, which is a call-and-response pattern, and a chorus will respond in harmony.
Dance is also a big part of the Maasai culture. They are known for their dance which resembles jumping, typically performed by warriors.
During each of my visits were were immediately welcomed by the residents with a lively dance, which consisted of chanting in combination with the men jumping high and the women performing in a rhythmic bouncing motion. I was brought into the center of the group to participate into this tradition, which confirmed I have no rhythm, even when it comes to simply bobbing up and down.
This video is from one of my visits and there’s lots of the Maasai jumping dance going on!
Previously, much of Maasai people’s clothing was made of animal skins. However, today the typical way of attire are shuka, a sheet of fabric wrapped around the body, often the color of red or blue. It’s also common for them to wear a lot of beaded jewelry around their neck and arms. Ear piercings and stretching of earlobes are seen as beautiful by the tribe members, and thus many, both men and women, wear metal hoops on their stretched earlobes.
Apart from red and blue, young men who have just been circumcised will commonly wear black, while women often like to dress in checked, striped or other patterned pieces of clothing.
The women actually do most of the work inside of each village, while the men are in charge of creating wealth, with their herds of cattle and being the warriors. The Maasai women by no means have an easy life. They marry young, have many children and are responsible for a lot of the hard labor.
The tribe’s live a polygamist lifestyle, the more wives the chief has, the more respected he is. And the more wives, the less work each one is responsible for, so we were told that many of the women did not mind when another lady was brought into their community.
Learn more about the Maasai women:
As you have read here, the Maasai tribe culture and its people have a long withstanding history, one that can still be seen in nearly full effect today.
If you want to read more about the Maasai, there are many autobiographical books on the market. but, two of the top ones are Facing the Lion: Growing Up Maasai on the African Savanna and Among the Maasai.
This experience was provided in collaboration with Shadows of Africa.
All opinions my own. This post may contain affiliate links. You can read my disclosure here.
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