Masai Tribes

Masai Village Experience

During your Climb Kili safari, you may have an opportunity to ask your safari guide to arrange a visit to a Masai tribe. For $50 per vehicle you are welcomed into the Masai village and have an opportunity to immerse yourself and experience a culture like no other. Below is information to help you understand and better appreciate your experience with the Masai.

The Masai are an ethnic group of semi-nomadic people located in Kenya and northern Tanzania. They are among the most well known of African ethnic groups, due to their distinctive customs and dress and residence near the many game parks of East Africa. They speak Maa, Swahili and English. The Masai population has been variously estimated as approaching 900,000. Estimates of the respective Masai populations in both countries are complicated by the remote locations of many villages, and their semi-nomadic nature.

Culture

Masai society is strongly patriarchal in nature, with elder men sometimes joined by retired elders, deciding most major matters for each Masai group. A full body of oral law covers many aspects of behavior. Normally payment in cattle will settle matters. An out of court process is also practiced called ‘amitu’, ‘to make peace’, or ‘arop’, which involves a substantial apology. The Masai are monotheistic, and they call God Enkai or Engai. Engai is a single deity with a dual nature: Engai Narok (Black God) is benevolent, and Engai Nanyokie (Red God) is vengeful. The “Mountain of God”, Ol Doinyo Lengai, is located in northernmost Tanzania. The central human figure in the Masai religious system is the laibon who may be involved in shamanistic healing, divination and prophecy, and ensuring success in war or adequate rainfall. Whatever power an individual laibon had was a function of personality rather than position. Many Masai have become Christian, and to a lesser extent, Muslim. The Masai are known for their intricate jewelry.

Traditional Masai lifestyle centers around their cattle which constitute their primary source of food. The measure of a man’s wealth is in terms of cattle and children. A herd of 50 cattle is respectable, and the more children the better. A man who has plenty of one but not the other is considered to be poor. A Masai religious belief relates that God gave them all the cattle on earth, leading to the belief that rustling cattle from other tribes is a matter of taking back what is rightfully theirs, a practice that has become much less common.

Influences from the outside world

Maintaining a traditional pastoral lifestyle has become increasingly difficult due to outside influences of the modern world. Garrett Hardin’s article, outlining the “tragedy of the commons”, as well as Melville Herskovits’ “cattle complex” helped to influence ecologists and policy makers about the harm Masai pastoralists were causing to savannah rangelands. This concept was later proven false by anthropologists but is still deeply ingrained in the minds of ecologists and Tanzanian officials. This influenced policy makers to remove all Masai from the Serengeti National Park and relegated them to areas in and around the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Due to an increase in Masai population, loss of cattle populations to disease, and lack of available rangelands due to new park boundaries, the Masai were forced to develop new ways of sustaining themselves. Many Masai began to cultivate maize and other crops to get by, a practice that was viewed negative culturally. Cultivation was first introduced to the Masai by displaced WaArusha and WaMeru women who were married to Masai men. To further complicate their situation, in 1975 the Ngorongoro Conservation Area banned cultivation practices. In order to survive they are forced to participate in Tanzania’s monetary economy. They have to sell their animals and traditional medicines in order to buy food. The ban on cultivation was lifted in 1992 and cultivation has again become an important part of Masai livelihood. Park boundaries and land privatization has continued to limit grazing area for the Masai and have forced them to change considerably.

Over the years, many projects have begun to help Masai tribal leaders find ways to preserve their traditions while also balancing the education needs of their children for the modern world.

The emerging forms of employment among the Masai people include farming, business including selling of traditional medicine, running of restaurants/shops, buying and selling of minerals, selling milk and milk products by women, embroideries, and wage employment such as security guards/ watchmen, waiters, tourist guides, and others who are engaged in the public and private sectors.

Many Masai have moved away from the nomadic life to responsible positions in commerce and government. Yet despite the sophisticated urban lifestyle they may lead, many will happily head homewards dressed in designer clothes, only to emerge from the traditional family homestead wearing a Shuka (colorful piece of cloth), cow hide sandals and carrying a wooden club (o-rinka) – at ease with themselves and the world.

Shelter

As a historically nomadic and then semi-nomadic people, the Masai have traditionally relied on local, readily available materials and indigenous technology to construct their housing. The traditional Masai house was in the first instance designed for people on the move and was thus very impermanent in nature. The houses are either star-shaped or circular, and are constructed by able-bodied women. The structural framework is formed of timber poles fixed directly into the ground and interwoven with a lattice of smaller branches, which is then plastered with a mix of mud, sticks, grass, cow dung and human urine, and ash. The cow dung ensures that the roof is water-proof. The enkaj is small, measuring about 3×5 m and standing only 1.5 m high. Within this space, the family cooks, eats, sleeps, socializes, and stores food, fuel, and other household possessions. Small livestock are also often accommodated within the enkaji. Villages are enclosed in a circular fence built by the men, usually of thorned acacia tree. At night, all cows, goats, and sheep are placed in an enclosure in the centre, safe from wild animals.

Social organization

The central unit of Masai society is the age-set. Young boys are sent out with the calves and lambs as soon as they can toddle, but childhood for boys is mostly playtime, with the exception of ritual beatings to test courage and endurance. Girls are responsible for chores such as cooking and milking, skills which they learn from their mothers at an early age. Every 15 years or so, a new and individually named generation of Morans or Il-murran (warriors) will be initiated. This involves most boys between 12 and 25, who have reached puberty and are not part of the previous age-set.

The warriors spend most of their time now on walkabouts throughout Masai lands, beyond the confines of their sectional boundaries. They are also much more involved in cattle trading than they used to be, developing and improving basic stock through trades and bartering rather than stealing as in the past.

The Masai are traditionally polygamous; this is thought to be a long standing and practical adaptation to high infant and warrior mortality rates.

Body modification

The piercing and stretching of earlobes is common among the Masai. Various materials have been used to both pierce and stretch the lobes, including thorns for piercing, twigs, bundles of twigs, stones, the cross section of elephant tusks and empty film canisters. Fewer and fewer Masai, particularly boys, follow this custom. Women wear various forms of beaded ornaments in both the ear lobe, and smaller piercings at the top of the ear.

The removal of deciduous canine tooth buds in early childhood is a practice that has been documented in the Masai of Kenya and Tanzania. There exists a strong belief among the Masai that diarrhea, vomiting and other febrile illnesses of early childhood are caused by the gingival swelling over the canine region, which is thought to contain ‘worms’ or ‘nylon’ teeth.

Clothing

Clothing varies by age and location. However, red is a favored color. Blue, black, striped, and checkered cloth are also worn, as are multicolored African designs. The names of the clothing are now known as the Matavuvale. The Masai began to replace animal-skin, calf hides and sheep skin, with commercial cotton cloth in the 1960s.

Shúkrà is the Maa word for sheets traditionally worn wrapped around the body, one over each shoulder, then a third over the top of them. These are typically red, though with some other colors and patterns. Pink, even with flowers, is not shunned by warriors. One piece garments known as kanga, a Swahili term, are common. Masai near the coast may wear kikoi, a type of sarong that comes in many different colors and textiles. However, the preferred style is stripes.

Many Masai in Tanzania wear simple sandals, which were until recently made from cowhides. They are now soled with tire strips or plastic. Both men and women wear wooden bracelets. The Masai women regularly weave and bead jewelry. This bead work plays an essential part in the ornamentation of their body. Although there are variations in the meaning of the color of the beads, some general meanings for a few colors are: white, peace; blue, water; red, warrior/blood/bravery.

Bead working, done by women, has a long history among the Masai, who articulate their identity and position in society through body ornaments and body painting. Before contact with Europeans beads were produced mostly from local raw materials. White beads were made from clay, shells, ivory, or bone. Black and blue beads were made from iron, charcoal, seeds, clay, or horn. Red beads came from seeds, woods, gourds, bone, ivory, copper, or brass. When late in the nineteenth century, great quantities of brightly colored European glass beads arrived in East Africa, bead workers replaced the older beads with the new materials and began to use more elaborate color schemes. Currently, dense, opaque glass beads with no surface decoration and a naturally smooth finish are preferred.

Music and Dance

Masai music traditionally consists of rhythms provided by a chorus of vocalists singing harmonies while a song leader sings the melody. The leader is usually the singer who can best sing that song, although several individuals may lead a song. The leader begins by singing a line or title of a song. The group will respond with one unanimous call in acknowledgment, and the leader will sing a verse over the group’s rhythmic throat singing. Lyrics follow a typical theme and are often repeated verbatim over time. Neck movements accompany singing. When breathing out the head is leaned forward. The head is tilted back for an inward breath. Overall the effect is one of polyphonic syncopation.

Women chant lullabies, humming songs, and songs praising their sons. Nambas, the call-and-response pattern, repetition of nonsense phrases, monophonic melodies repeated phrases following each verse being sung on a descending scale, and singers responding to their own verses are characteristic of singing by females. When many Masai women gather together, they sing and dance among themselves.

Eunoto, the coming of age ceremony of the warrior, can involve ten or more days of singing, dancing and ritual. The warriors of the Il-Oodokilani perform a kind of march-past as well as the adumu, or aigus, sometimes referred as “the jumping dance” by non-Masai. Warriors are well known for, and often photographed during, this competitive jumping. A circle is formed by the warriors, and one or two at a time will enter the center to begin jumping while maintaining a narrow posture, never letting their heels touch the ground. Members of the group may raise the pitch of their voices based on the height of the jump.

An opportunity to experience the Masai is an experience to charinsh and one you will not soon forget. Simply ask your Climb Kili guide to include this in your itinerary and we’ll make it happen.