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Maasai

The Maasai are a population of semi-nomadic herders and warriors from East Africa, living mainly in central and southwestern Kenya as well as in northern Tanzania. They live in many animal parks in East Africa and are one of the most well-known people of the Western public. The Maasai maintain their cultural traditions while taking part in modern economic, social, and political forces in the region and beyond. The Maasai country stretches on each side of Kenya’s border with Tanzania, between Kenya and Kilimanjaro. The climate is warm and dry. It has various nature reserves and large areas where animals are protected: rhinos, lions, buffaloes, elephants, giraffes, wildebeest, gazelles, zebras…

The Maasai oral tradition and archaeological evidence indicate that they migrated from northern Turkana Lake, namely the Nile Valley in Egypt and Sudan in the 15th century, accompanied by their domestic livestock. An important part of the Maasai lands was conquered by British and German settlers in the late 19th century, helped by cattle plague and smallpox, and then by dominant African ethnic groups with the support of the government during independence. Part of the land has also been converted into national parks and reserves, including: Amboseli, Nairobi, Maasai Mara, Samburu, Nakuru, Manyara, Ngorongoro, Serengeti and Tsavo. Maasai are semi-nomadic and have an exclusive pastoral economy. They resisted encouragements from the Kenyan and Tanzanian governments to adopt a more sedentary lifestyle and adopt agriculture. They have earned the right to graze their cattle in many parks in both countries and regularly ignore borders when they move their large herds of cattle through the savanna during seasonal changes. Their resistance helped to generate a romantic vision of the Maasai way of life, considered as an example of harmony with nature. The Maasai still live in the wildlife reserves of which they are the first organizers. Not hunting, except for the lion for initiation rites, they have preserved wild animals and their fires have transformed a dense bush into a regular carpet of low grass. Estimates of Maasai populations in Kenya and Tanzania vary from source to source. They are difficult to evaluate because of constant nomadism and the fact that Maasai groups can circulate freely across the border. According to assessments, the Maasai population is between 300,000 and 880,000 people. The Maasais are divided into five groups: Arusha, Baraguyu, Kisongo, Purko and Samburu. A large Maasai population has settled in Narok, Trans Mara and Kajiado districts in Kenya’s Rift Valley Province. The Maasai build temporary small circular houses using branches covered with cow dung and mud. This mixture dries quickly in the sun to become hard enough. The houses are all built in the same way: a room where guests can chat, a room for animals, and the main room where there is fire to cook food and mats for sleeping, lying on the floor. There is no furniture. A group of houses in a circle, surrounded by a fence formed of thorny branches, forms an enkang. Herds are gathered at the centre of this circle during the night to protect them from predators. A housing compound forming a village is called boma. When the Maasai have to migrate, they completely destroy their old village by fire. The women build the houses and take care of the daily life of the village (maintenance of the houses, meals, making clothes, etc…). The men take care of the security of the camp and take care of the cattle. The traditional Maasai life is organized around livestock, which is their main source of food. The wealth of a Maasai is determined by the number of cows his family has. Each Maasai family has about ten oxen, goats and sheep. Each animal is marked with a symbol indicating who it belongs to. The men take their herds to graze in the animal reserve for several days. It is the oldest Maasai warrior who guides the herd through the savannah. Maasai occupy a territory as long as livestock can feed on it.
The Maasai feed mainly on milk and blood. They can take the blood of young cattle without killing them, by incising at the neck an arrow drawn in the jugular vein. A bowl of blood mixed with milk is the main nutriment. Meat is consumed rarely and must never be mixed with milk; it is reserved for certain ceremonies or special occasions. The Maasai “pastoral ideal” leads them to reject all food of animal origin and all agricultural or hunting activities intended for food. They consume neither fish, nor birds, nor bush meat except buffaloes and eland, resembling their own cattle. Other sources indicate that Maasai consume large quantities of plants. According to a study conducted by Timothy Johns, “To prepare the milk, the Maasai add plants, roots, tree barks, and a mixture of plants. And they still have a bouillon of grass and tree barks, which they mix with meat. They can also clean their teeth with pieces of wood, suck roots to extract the juice, or chew gum from trees, such as myrrh from balsam tree. Many of these plants are medicinal. The other tribes of the region use them only for treatment, while the Maasais use them almost daily. Maasai society is patriarchal. The elders make decisions for the entire group. The spiritual leader, oloiboni, acts as an intermediary between the Maasai and their god Enkai. He is the holder of traditional knowledge of medicinal plants and can practice divination and magic. Maasai are divided into patrilineal clans and age groups. Men evolve successively in five age groups: children, young warriors, adult warriors, young elders and seniors. The passage from one class to another is accompanied by initiatory rites. The elders deliver to the children knowledge about plants, animals, but also the uses and history of their people. Maasai boys become young warriors or morane around the age of fifteen. An elder will teach them the handling of weapons, the songs of war, and the traditional dances. Various initiations accompany the passage of young Maasais males to adulthood. The most important is circumcision, which can be practiced at the same time for many individuals. These people therefore belong to the same age group. Young boys should not make noise or move during the ceremony. It has been said that every young person has to kill a lion before his circumcision: this is a myth conveyed particularly in the context of the tourist industry. It is true, however, that killing a lion makes it possible to gain celebrity and prestige within the community. After the rite of circumcision, the young warriors leave to live in groups in a village specially built for them manyatta, far from the feminine universe. They will not get married until they become adult warriors. Access to puberty for young girls is marked by a ceremony during which older women practice excision of the girls. The practice still exists despite governments attempting to eradicate it. Marriages of girls are often prearranged by their fathers before birth. The out-of-wedlock relationships of girls before puberty are considered natural. To declare her love to a warrior, the Maasai woman invites him to her house to drink milk. The new family structure is founded when the first child is born. Women can only get married once in their lifetime. Men can marry several times and even have multiple wives if they have enough livestock. Women can not have more than ten children.

The Maasai have a unique and benevolent god, Enkai or Ngai, creator god manifesting through the rain and the sky. His wife, Olapa, is the moon. They believe that Enkai gave all the cattle to the Maasai, and therefore anyone who owns herds must have stolen them from the Maasai. This belief has led to some deadly conflicts with other neighbouring tribes over the past centuries, in attempts to recover what they considered their property. The Maasais speak Maa, Swahili, and sometimes English.
Men and women also have pierced ears lobes and often distended by discs. Women make pearl jewellery that plays a vital role in Maasai body ornamentation. From the age of 12, girls learn to embroider multi-coloured ceremonial clothing. The taste for contemporary Maasais’ red clothes echoes the more traditional use of ocher color. The moranes braid their hair and dye them red. Maasais love to wear jewellery (necklaces, bracelets,). There are different forms of Maasai dances; one of the best known is a form of competition between men, they must jump as high as possible keeping the feet together.
En Gehé is a traditional game that occupies an important place in the Maasai society of northern Tanzania. It is reserved for men; it is the game of the warriors. Although they are much attached to their origins and culture, many Maasai have abandoned their traditional way of life for western lifestyle. Some young people have emigrated to Europe or North America, particularly to pursue higher education. Since the colonial era, the Maasai have been dispossessed of a significant portion of their traditional lands, either by private farmers, or as part of government plans or national parks. The Tanzanian and Kenyan governments have tried to set up development projects aimed at modifying the traditional ways of life of the Maasai and sedentarizing them so that they respect the borders. These attempts have resulted in a widespread impoverishment of the Maasai people, who until then have effectively managed their livestock. Since 1993, movements have been consolidating to stop sales or appropriations of land in Kenya.

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