The Maasai people are the tribe that live in the Mara area of Kenya, (and in some other areas as well) and are one of the most well-known tribes in Kenya. Originally from further north in the Samburu area, they travelling south several hundred years ago, and settled in the Mara region. They are notable warriors and hunters, and in the times before all of our modern technology, they were responsible for protecting the village and herds of cattle from the many predators that inhabit the Mara.
There are all sorts of fascinating facts to be found about the Maasai people (I highly recommend you take a look at Wikipedia for more info too). Here’s just a few of the fun facts I have so far discovered…
The Maasai have a very intense relationship with cows. They have large herds and value them almost above anything else. The traditional Maasai diet consists almost exclusively of cow-related products – milk and curdled yoghurt, cow’s blood and of course also the meat. This diet has kept them remarkably healthy, with almost no incidences of heart disease or any other issues – just meat, blood and milk, with very occasional snacks of fruit or vegetables. The Maasai in recent years have had to start including wheat and grains into their diet, and other carbohydrates, due to the decline of their nomadic nature and changes in their natural environment – everything from droughts to food parcels provided by aid workers have contributed to this change in diet. In general, they tend to look down on cultivation, and people that grow crops, as a “weak” way to live, although it is happening more now with the changes that history has brought upon their people.
One of my favourite facts so far is that the Maasai believe that all cows belong to them – they believe cattle are a gift to their people from god, and therefore cattle rustling is not stealing, it is simply re-acquiring what is rightfully theirs. An utterly brilliant justification if you ask me.
The most common clothing you’ll see them wearing is the shuka – a woven/woollen piece of cloth worn tied around the body. These are both warm in the cold nights and keep the sun off the skin in the heat of the day. Most are red, although blue and green are also found, and most have a tartan or checked pattern, or sometimes stripes. Almost all of the men carry a long, thin, stick with them all the time. It is a combination of many things – a walking stick, something to move along the cattle and goats with, something to beat aside the long grass or check for snakes – truly multipurpose! I think also in the more traditional villages, older men will carve their life stories into the stick – pictures of things that have happened to them, or animals they have hunted etc, so that the stick itself tells the story of their life, in a way that can be re-told and passed down to other generations.
The village they live in is usually encircled by an outer fence to keep out wild animals, and the huts are usually built in a ring, with a large open space in the centre. Inside this, there is usually an inner fence where the sheep, goats and cattle are kept at night. It shows exactly how important cattle are to the Maasai that the animal pens are in the very centre, behind 2 fences and a ring of people/houses to protect them!
Here’s a picture of the centre of the village:
The women of the village are responsible for building the houses, which are made from sticks woven together, with cow dung and mud plastered over the top. The dung provides a tight seal over the walls, and the inside of the houses are incredibly dark, with only 1 small window to allow for ventilation when cooking. The cow dung sealant helps to keep these huts remarkably warm at night, and cool during the day. According to the tribesman we met, they have to relocate and re-build the entire village every 9 years or so because of termites, which will eat the walls of their houses. So the poor women will have to build a new house every 9 years!
In the old days they might relocate to areas of new pasture to graze cattle, but they explained that nowadays they will not move very far, as they have build a permanent concrete/brick school in the village, and so would not move too far that their children could not continue to attend school there.
Inside the house it’s super-dark, but also warm. You can see here they have left decorative patches without cow dung, where the woven wood shows through, so you can see how the house was made.
At approx 15, the male boys are circumcised, and as true warriors, they are not supposed to flinch or yell while this is happening – partly as a macho thing no doubt, but also more practically because the person doing the circumcision is more likely to make a mistake or injure the boy if they yell suddenly or flinch/jerk. So I imagine the need to keep quiet and still is fairly logical! Sadly most of the women are also circumcised (although this practice is more commonly known as Female Genital Mutilation, or FGM, and is one I find utterly abhorrent and unnecessary). That’s not to say that the male equivalent isn’t also barbaric, but I’m led to believe such things are more socially acceptable and have certain health benefits for men – at least in some circumstances.
Approximately every 15 years, a new generation of warriors is initiated. These men usually range from 12-25, depending on how old they were when the last generation was initiated. Aside from the circumcision ceremony, this new generation have to go and live in a manyatta, a separate village built by their mothers, which has no outer fence surrounding it. This manyatta will symbolise the need for the boys to learn to defend the village (and themselves) from animals without the protection of the fence, so that they can learn to protect their families when they return to the village. The boys will also go on a long walkabout, usually accompanied by 2 or 3 older warriors, who will teach them how to hunt, and fight, and track animals, and make spears. The walkabout period is unclear – one man told me they are away for 5 years, while others said it is less – maybe 1 to 2 years. The boys will spend a lot of time hunting birds in the forest to add feathers to their headdresses, allowing them to demonstrate, on their return, their prowess as hunters.
Both Maasai men and women were decorative jewellry made from colourful beads. Originally these would have been made from bone, wood, stone and other locally found materials, and painted or dyed with natural colours, but nowadays they are made from the small glass beads that are mass-produced around the world. The elaborate necklaces and bracelets are made from beads woven in a variety of ways, but often stitched onto hard leather, making collars and bands. Here are some examples of Maasai beaded necklaces backed onto leather.
The men also have a tradition of stretching their earlobes – usually these are pierced with thorns, and then stretched with wood or pieces of tusks. However I’m told this practice is dying out somewhat, and fewer and fewer men are choosing to do this these days.
Another somewhat famous or well-known thing about the Maasai is their penchant for jumping. As part of their ceremonies and dances, the Maasai men will jump as high as they can, and many will practice for hours to see how high they can go from a standing start. It is viewed as something to be respected, and those people who can jump the highest will get their pick of the best wives, and will have to pay fewer cows as a dowry.
In addition to the jumping there is the singing and dancing (I’ll upload a separate video of that!) – it’s mostly throaty grunting sounds and hip-thrusting! The men all sort of shuffle towards the women, and it’s actually quite intimidating!
Also there was a man playing a Kudu horn which was very cool. Here he is blowing the horn while the other men dance in a circle around him.
While in the village, they also gave us a demonstration of how they make fire, using 2 different types of wood (the base was olive wood, but I can’t remember what the other one was called). It has to be done on a metal surface – they used the blade of a machete, but I presume other metals would do, and they told us it would not work without a metal base – presumably the friction heats up the metal fast or something. The olive wood goes flat onto the blade, and the other wood is rubbed in a drilling motion into it, creating a hole and making lots of sawdust, which is I think what starts to smoke and burn.
The very enterprising Maasai women have built a small market behind the village to sell knick-knacks to the tourists that visit them.
You can see they’ve made the tables for the market out of wood, sticks and cow dung/mud
Of course I obliged, because I like it when my hopeless addiction to buying handicrafts and tat coincides with an opportunity to give less well off people a bit of extra cash. I like to think I am an integral part in keeping their village economy afloat…