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
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.