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The Maasai People

The distinctive image of the Maasai people is well known; elaborate beaded jewelry, red and ochre clothing, short hair, bush-craft and bravery. But why are the Maasai people better known than other East African peoples?

Today the Maasai, or Masai, people are reaching numbers of over 880,000 spreading across southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. This diverse population consists of twelve geographic sectors of the tribe, each with their own customs, appearance, leadership and dialects. While some have begun assimilating into modern, industrial civilization, the majority of the population still practices traditional methods of subsistence and custom. According to Maasai oral history, this patriarchal, monotheistic society originated in the lower Nile valley north of Lake Turkana. It wasn't until the fifteenth century that the Maasai reached their present day location in the Great Rift Valley.

Although the Tanzanian and Kenyan governments have encouraged the Maasai to abandon their semi-nomadic lifestyle for an agrarian one, they have continued their pastoral way of life, herding cattle and living in homes constructed from local materials with indigenous technology. The traditional Maasai lifestyle centers around cattle, which is their primary source of food, and a man's wealth is measured by his cattle and children. While the Maasai territory covered much of the Great Rift Valley several centuries ago, their allotted land has been encroached upon and the Maasai have continued to demand grazing rights to national parks in order to support their lifestyle.

Traditional Maasai diet includes meat, milk and the blood from the cattle, although the decrease in cattle has caused them to augment the amount of maize meal, rice, potatoes and cabbage in their diet. Young boys are in charge of the cattle herds while the warriors of the tribe ensure the security of the society. Young men traditionally wear black following their circumcision but the favorite color of clothing among the Maasai is red. In the 1960s, the animal-skin and calf hide clothing was replaced with commercial cotton clothing.

Some of the well known features of the Maasai include the woven-bead jewelry and elaborate wooden adornments worn both by women and men, traditional music and dance, and the piercing and stretching of the ear lobes, although this practice is less common these days.

Visiting the Maasai community is enlightening and intriguing. The community has retained much of the traditional way of life, despite the influences of the local governments and the close proximity of tourists in the surrounding national parks. Learn about the Maasai community, their oral traditions, song and dance, and spiritual practices led by the laibon, or spiritual leader, on any of our safaris in Kenya or safaris in Tanzania and if you would like an in-depth experience with the Maasai spend a few days in their midst on our Maasailand Safari.