Standing proud in the savannah with their red blankets and painted shields, the Maasai people have become one of the more widely known symbols of East Africa; the Maasai shield is even featured on Kenya’s national flag. It’s not uncommon in Kenya and Tanzania to see the Maasai in their traditional dress, not only in their villages but also in the streets of the cities.
The number of Maasai people in Kenya is estimated to be approximately 800,000, with about the same number living in Tanzania. The majority inhabit the area between Southern Kenya and Northern Tanzania, where the most popular national parks and game reserves are located. In Tanzania they are most commonly found around the Serengeti and Ngorongoro, and Kenya’s popular Maasai Mara is named after them.
For this reason, visits to Maasai villages are a popular activity during trips to Kenya and Tanzania. Meeting the local people and getting to know more about their life in the savannah is an integral part of the East African travel experience. It’s just as unforgettable as gazing into the eyes of a lion, or watching the sunset over the Serengeti Plains.
As supporters of responsible tourism and deep, meaningful travel experiences, we believe it’s important to learn about the people we meet during our expeditions. So join us on a journey of discovery into the culture and history of the Maasai!
The History of the Maasai People
The Maasai people originated in South Sudan. Their language, known as Maa, is the southernmost of the Nilotic group, including idioms spoken in Ethiopia and Sudan.
They migrated to their current homeland between Southern Kenya and Northern Tanzania during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. They displaced some of the other tribes that had previously settled in the region, while others were assimilated into their culture. Their main activity was raising cattle, but the Maasai have also been known for centuries as fearsome hunters and warriors.
By the mid-19th century Maasai territory was at its largest, extending over pretty much the entirety of modern-day Kenya and half of Tanzania. The period between 1883 and 1902 is the darkest time in Maasai history. It’s known in the Maa language as emutai, meaning to wipe out. It is estimated that up to 60% of the Maasai people lost their lives during this period as a result of smallpox, drought, and starvation, after an animal disease known as rinderpest killed almost all of their cattle.
In the early 20th century, vast sections of the Maasai land were turned into national parks and wildlife reserves. The Maasai, understandably, were not pleased. Around the same time, the government started pressuring the Maasai to give up their traditional semi-nomadic herder lifestyle in favor of farming and a more sedentary lifestyle.
To this day, a large percentage of the Maasai people have resisted government pressure to settle in permanent homes, distancing themselves from urban areas and continuing to practice a lifestyle that has remained unchanged for centuries.
However, some Maasai have opted to pursue mainstream education and moved into the city, becoming lawyers, doctors and politicians (such as Edward Sokoine, a two-time Prime Minister of Tanzania who was killed in 1984 in a dramatic car accident).
The Maasai culture is predominantly patriarchal, with a council of elders overseeing the daily running of the village and administering matters on the basis of an oral body of law. Execution and slavery are unknown in Maasai society, and arguments are usually settled via cattle payment.
Cattle herding is still the main activity of Maasai people, and cattle is central to their lifestyle. Traditionally, the Maasai diet consists mainly of raw meat, raw blood, and milk. Leather is used to fashion Maasai shields. Wealth is measured by the number of children and cattle you have: A man with many children, but not much cattle is considered poor (and vice versa).
Another important aspect of Maasai culture is the warrior caste, which is known in Maa as il-murran. A new group of soldiers is initiated every 15 years or so, chosen among young men ages 12 to 25. These men undergo a strict training period that culminates with a series of initiation rites, the most important of which is circumcision. It’s carried out with traditional instruments and no anesthetic: The ability to withstand pain is part of the young warriors’ transition to manhood.
The Maasai belief system is monotheistic. The deity is called Engai and has a dual nature—both benevolent and vengeful. The most important figure in the Maasai religion is the laibon, a kind of priest and shaman, whose role traditionally includes healing, divination, and prophecy. In today’s society, they also have a political function, as most laibon belong to the elders council.
Maasai villages are usually polygamous. When a woman marries, she doesn’t just marry her husband, but his entire age group as well. Traditionally, a man was expected to give up his bed to a visiting male guest. This custom is now disappearing, but it is not uncommon for the woman of the house to join the guest in bed, if she so desires.
Despite being forbidden by Kenyan and Tanzanian legislation, female genital circumcision has long been widespread in the Maasai culture. But thanks to activist campaigning this practice is now decreasing, substituted by a symbolic cutting, with songs and dances rather than blades.
The main role of Maasai women is to have children, who are introduced to raising cattle as soon as they’re able to walk. Due to high infant mortality in the past, babies are not named until they reach three months of age.
Traditional Maasai Clothing and Body Modification
The most recognizable piece of clothing worn by the Maasai is the shùkà, a sheet of fabric worn wrapped around the body. Animal hides were used up until the mid-20th century, when cotton was introduced instead.
The color of Maasai attire varies according to age and gender. After their circumcision, young men will wear black for several months. Older men usually wear red wraparounds, whereas women usually opt for checked, striped, or patterned pieces of cloth.
Maasai beadwork is famous for its intricacy, and it is through beadwork that Maasai women express their position in the society. Natural materials such as clay, shells, and ivory were used before trading with the Europeans began in the 19th century. They were then replaced by colorful glass beads, which allow for more detailed beadwork and color patterns. Each of the colors used have a meaning: White symbolizes peace, blue is the color of water, and red is the symbol of warriors and bravery.
Most Maasai men and women shave their head during rites of passage such as marriage and circumcision. Maasai warriors are the only ones allowed to let their hair grow, and usually wear it in thin braids.
The Maasai also stretch their earlobes using stone, wood, and bones. They usually wear beaded earrings on the stretched earlobe and smaller piercings on the top of the ear. Traditionally, both men and women stretched their earlobes, because long, stretched lobes were seen as a symbol of wisdom and respect. But now this custom is disappearing, especially among young men.
Another type of body modification sometimes carried out by the Maasai people is tooth removal. The canine teeth are removed in early childhood as a remedy against diarrhea and vomiting, especially when they “stick out” on the upper jaw. In other cases, the two central lower teeth are removed to allow feeding in the event of tetanus or other diseases locking the jaw.
Maasai Music and Dance
Besides their colorful costumes, proud warrior society, and fascinating customs, the Maasai are also known for their jumping form of dance, which is traditionally carried out by warriors.
This dance is known in Maa as adumu or aigus. The Maasai warriors form a semicircle and take turns jumping at the center, as high as possible, without letting their heels touch the ground. As each man jumps, the others sing a high-pitched song whose tone depends on the height of the jump.
Traditional Maasai music follows a call-and-response pattern called namba. A vocalist known as olaranyani sings the melody, and the chorus responds in unison. Singing is accompanied by body movements, tilting the head back and forth.
Some Maasai people have also started recording contemporary versions of their music, and contemporary Tanzanian and Kenyan hip-hop artists often incorporate Maasai rhythms into their tunes.
Margherita is a freelance writer from Milan, Italy. She is passionate about wildlife, ecotourism, and outdoor adventure activities. She runs the popular nature and adventure travel blog The Crowded Planet with her husband Nick Burns, an Australian travel and wildlife photographer.