Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Meet the Maasai

The Maasai are a Nilotic ethnic group of semi-nomadic people located in Kenya and northern Tanzania. Due to their distinctive customs and dress and residence near the many game parks of East Africa, they are among the most well known of African ethnic groups. They speak Maa and are also educated in the official languages of Kenya and Tanzania: Swahili and English.

The Maasai are monotheistic, and they call God Engai, a single deity with a dual nature: Engai Narok (Black God) is benevolent, and Engai Nanyokie (Red God) is vengeful. The central human figure in the Maasai religious system is the laibon who may be involved in shamanistic healing, divination and prophecy, ensuring success in war or adequate rainfall.

Maasai 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 Maasai myth relates that God gave them all the cattle on earth.

Although young boys are sent out with the calves and lambs as soon as they can toddle, childhood for boys is mostly playtime. 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 warriors will be initiated involving boys between 12 and 25 who have reached puberty. When a new generation of warriors is initiated, the existing warriors will graduate to become junior elders, who are responsible for political decisions until they in turn become senior elders. The warriors are in charge of society's security, and spend most of their time on walkabouts throughout Maasai lands, beyond the confines of their sectional boundaries. Elders are directors and advisers for day-to-day activities. Women are responsible for making the houses as well as supplying water, collecting firewood, milking cattle and cooking for the family.

One myth about the Maasai is that each young man is supposed to kill a lion before they are initiated as warriors. Although lion hunting was an activity of the past, and lion hunting has been banned in East Africa, lions are still hunted when they maul Maasai livestock, and young warriors who engage in traditional lion killing do not face significant consequences. Killing a lion gives one great value and celebrity status in the community.

Maasai music traditionally consists of rhythms provided by a chorus of vocalists singing harmonies while a song leader sings the melody. Warriors are well known for 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.

The piercing and stretching of earlobes is common among the Maasai. Women wear various forms of beaded ornaments in both the ear lobe, and smaller piercings at the top of the ear. Additionally, the removal of deciduous canine tooth buds in early childhood is a practice that has been documented in the Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania.

Clothing varies by age, sex, and place. Red is a favored color. Blue, black, striped, and checkered cloth are also worn, as are multicolored African designs. Many Maasai 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 Maasai women regularly weave and bead jewellery. 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. The Maasai are known for their intricate jewelry.*

Head shaving is common at many rites of passage, representing the fresh start that will be made as one passes from one to another of life's chapters. Warriors are the only members of the Maasai community to wear long hair, which they weave in thinly braided strands.

* I wear a bracelet from the Maasai tribe that I acquired when visiting a tribe while on safari with World of Difference:

Top photo credit: Scott Thomas

1 comment:

William said...

I so love this post, and thanks for the photo credit :)