Maasai Culture

The Maasai are a tribe in East Africa, stereotypically seen wearing a red cape and balancing on one leg holding a long spear, staring into the distance. The truth is that Maasai culture is complex and intricate. The Maasai originate from southern Sudan. During the first millennium CE they emigrated, and traveled along the African Rift Valley through the countries we now know as Kenya and Tanzania. They eventually supplanted all the other tribes living in the area. They were originally agro-pastoralists and as well as raising cattle and other small stock, they also harvested sorghum and millet.

Maasai live in a patriarchal society, with a governing body of older men, and in some cases retired elders, making most decisions for each Maasai group. The Maasai have an oral law that covers behavior of the tribe. If a transgression is committed then the tribal leaders will make a decision as to what reparations must be made. Normally, the compensation is paid in a number of cattle. Alternatively, they may make the perpetrator make an ‘arop' which is a substantial public apology or an ‘amitu' where the two parties have to make peace. Even for extreme cases there is no tradition of capital punishment.

The Maasai are monotheistic, worshiping only one God known as Engai or Enkai. Engai is a single being but has two distinct attributes; Engai Nanyokie (Red God) is the vengeful side, while Engai Narok (Black God) is the benevolent side. The home of the God is known as Ol Doinyo Lengai or ‘Mountain of God' and is located in the northern part of Tanzania. In traditional Maasai tribes the priest is known as a laibon and has a role similar to a shaman and is responsible for his tribe's success in war and for ensuring that there is enough rainfall for the cattle and crops. He also is believed to have powers of healing, divination and prophecy. However, in recent years many Maasai have converted to Christianity or, in rare cases, Islam.

The traditional Maasai lifestyle revolves around their herds of cattle, which are their primary food source. Wealth in Maasai society is measured by the number of cattle and children a man has. A ‘respectable' amount of cattle to have is 50. If a man has many cattle but few children, or many children and few cattle, he is still considered poor.

Since the Maasai are relatively undeveloped they have a high infant mortality rate. Therefore their children are not properly acknowledged until they reach the age of three months. Maasai society is structured by age. As soon as the boys can walk they are sent out to look after the young calves and lambs of the herd. While most of their time is spent playing, they also are given ritual beatings to test their courage and endurance. The girls spend their time learning to cook and milk animals and are taught by their mothers. Approximately every 15 years, all the boys aged 12-25 who were not in the previous generation and have reached puberty are initiated as Morans or Il-murran, which can be translated as warriors. In the coming of age ceremony, the boys are circumcised by a village elder, and they are forbidden from crying out otherwise they will be dishonored, though only temporarily. After the ceremony the new warriors wear black for between four to eight months. Before lions became endangered, boys had to hunt and kill one before the ceremony. After the new class of warriors is inducted, the previous generation moves up to become junior elders in the tribe.

When Maasai die, their bodies are left for scavengers such as hyenas to eat. If the body is not eaten this can be interpreted as social disgrace so to avoid this insult they cover the body in fat and blood from a slaughtered ox. Only the greatest chieftains are buried as the Maasai believe the soil is damaged by burial.

Maasai Culture: Selected full-text books and articles

Being Maasai: Ethnicity & Identity in East Africa
Thomas Spear; Richard Waller.
James Currey, 1993
The Maasai of Matapato: A Study of Rituals of Rebellion
Paul Spencer.
Routledge, 2004
Time, Space, and the Unknown: Maasai Configurations of Power & Providence
Paul Spencer.
Routledge, 2003
From True Dorobo to Mukogodo Maasai: Contested Ethnicity in Kenya (1)
Cronk, Lee.
Ethnology, Vol. 41, No. 1, Winter 2002
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
The Maasai's Education and Empowerment: Challenges of a Migrant Lifestyle
Phillips, Jacqueline S.; Bhavnagri, Navaz Peshotan.
Childhood Education, Vol. 78, No. 3, Spring 2002
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Development among Africa's Migratory Pastoralists
Aggrey Ayuen Majok; Calvin W. Schwabe.
Bergin & Garvey, 1996
Librarian’s tip: "Maasai Migrations" begins on p. 33
Revealing Prophets: Prophecy in Eastern African History
David M. Anderson; Douglas H. Johnson.
James Currey, 1995
Librarian’s tip: Chap. Two "Kidongoi's Kin Prophecy & Power in Maasailand"
The Maasai Ornithorium: Tropic Flights of Avian Imagination in Africa
Galaty, John G.
Ethnology, Vol. 37, No. 3, Summer 1998
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Women's Income and the Livelihood Strategies of Dispossessed Pastoralists near the Mkomazi Game Reserve, Tanzania
Brockington, Daniel.
Human Ecology, Vol. 29, No. 3, September 2001
Producing Nature and Poverty in Africa
Vigdis Broch-Due; Richard A. Schroeder.
Nordic Africa Institute, 2000
Librarian’s tip: Discussion of the Maasai begins on p. 148
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