For Black History Month we asked John - a Guide at Mahali Mzuri and a Maasai - and Mariana - Mahali Mzuri Camp Manager - to tell us more about the traditions and customs of the Maasai who live in Kenya and northern Tanzania. At Mahali Mzuri, 80% of the team are from the Maasai.
The Maasai Origin and Beliefs
The Maasai originated from the lower Nile valley north of Lake Turkana in Kenya. They migrated South and arrived along land mass stretching from northern Kenya to central Tanzania between the 17th and 18th centuries.
The Maasai are our Nilotic ethnic group inhabiting Northern central and Southern Kenya and Northern Tanzania. Maasai are the best-known local population internationally due to their distinctive customs and dress. The Maasai speak “Maa” language. Schooling has meant that nowadays some are now educated in the official languages of Kenya and Tanzania.
John, a Maasai and Guide at Mahali Mzuri
Maasai are pastoralists meaning they must always move to better grazing fields. The “real” Maasai population, the pastoralists, can be divided into large sections that are internally structured into the following clans: Iloodokilani, Ilkisonko, Ilkeekonyokie, Ilkankere, Ilmatapato, Ilkaputiei, Ilpurko, Iloitai, Ildamat, Isiria, Ilwuasin-kishu, and Ilmoitanik.
The Ilkisonko and Ilpurko are the largest sections, followed by the Ilkaputiei and Ilkeekonyoike, respectively. Ilarusa, Ilparakuo, and a section of Ilkisonko, constitute the Tanzanian Maasai situated in the Mt. Kilimanjaro area of northern Tanzania.
Maasai culture is centred around the belief that God (called Engai, or Enkai, in the tribe's Maa language) created cattle especially for them, and they are the custodians of all the world's cattle. For Maasai, life revolves around amassing and grazing large herds of cows (and to a lesser extent, goats).
Mariana, Camp Manager at Mahali Mzuri
Maasai Lifestyle and Culture
The Maasai are known for their beadwork mostly done by ladies. Maasai ladies’ daily activity is mainly beadwork and collecting firewood. Before contact with the Europeans, the beads were mainly produced from local raw materials e.g. clay shells, ivory or bones charcoal seeds, wood gourds. This will enable them to have the most colours they want.
Traditionally a Maasai man’s wealth and status was determined by his number of cattle and children. But Maasai never count both the children and their cattle as they consider that a bad omen. So they identify their cows by branding and ear notching. Each clan has his own style of branding.
The rite of passage of becoming a Warrior is something still very strong in the Maasai Culture although this is coming to an end because school is changing that. The age the boys are supposed to be warriors is when many boys attend school. In Maasai, from being a child you become a warrior then graduate to junior elder and then you graduate to a senior elder. Each stage takes a period of five interval years.
Due to the introductions of parks and game reserves at denominations the Maasai are susceptible to change and intermarriage is also playing a role. Some cultural practices like girl circumcision known as female genital mutilation have stopped, helped by the fact that it is against Kenyan law.
The Maasai meal traditionally composes comprises of meat, milk, and blood. The only fruits they have are the wild ones often taken in the bush while looking after the cows.
However, due to availability of markets the Maasai diet has also changed. Although meals have never been a social occasion in Maasai, they have now adapted to three meals a day, whereas it used to only be two meals. There was nothing like lunch, people used to have breakfast - which might have been a cup of milk - then until evening when there was a heavy meal that was taken. Nowadays blood is no longer taken as a meal but is a substitute only if you bleed a lot then you are given blood.
Some of the Guides at Mahali Mzuri
Maasai also take vegetables and ugali (Corn cake) just like most other tribes in Kenya. Eggs are also becoming a common meal after medical advice; many pregnant female Maasai go to hospital whereupon the nurses advise them to introduce eggs to their baby's meals.
They have always traditionally relied on local readily available materials to construct their houses; they use clay, cow dung and ashes. Villages are enclosed in a circular fence built by men.