A welcoming group of proud Maasai warriors, regal in their traditional red, blue and purple colored robes, is a common sight at wildlife reserves and game parks throughout Kenya and Tanzania. The Maasai people have nomadically traversed the length and breadth of Kenya and northern Tanzania for centuries, peacefully (for the most part) co-existing alongside the magnificent wildlife who also freely roamed the fertile plains and valleys. At the beginning of the 19th century, treaties drawn up by the British colonizers drastically reduced the size of their grazing range and forever changed their lives. However, nothing could ever quash their proud heritage and cultural identity. No visit to East Africa could be considered complete without taking the time to learn more about Maasai history and culture and getting to know a few of these friendly and charismatic people.


The Maasai Community

The Maasai (which means people who speak the Maa language) originated in the lower Nile Valley, from where they started their southern migration in the 15th century. Constantly seeking greener pastures for their cattle and goat herds, they reached Tanzania and Kenya in the 17th and 18th centuries. Here the fierce Maasai warriors forcibly removed many smaller ethnic groups who had already settled in the area, while other minority groups were assimilated into the Maasai community. The Maasai were greatly revered for their bravery; until quite recent times aspiring young warriors had to prove their worth by single-handedly killing a lion using only a simple spear! They also achieved legendary prowess in throwing clubs (orinka), which they could accurately deploy from a distance of over 100 meters.


Recent Maasai History

By the mid-to late 18th century the Maasai were the dominant Nilotic (originating in the Nile Valley) ethnic group in Tanzania and Kenya. However, a combination of natural and imposed disasters befell them in the late 18th century. Huge epidemics of smallpox, rinderpest and contagious bovine pleuropneumonia swept through the area killing many men, women and children and depleting their herds by an estimated 90%. As if this was not enough, the rains failed for two consecutive years and there was no grazing for the surviving herds.

Around the same time, the Maasai had been resisting British colonizers to retain their grazing lands. Regardless of their fierce determination and bravery, their spears and shields were no match for guns and, like many other countries in Africa, they finally signed treaties in 1904 and 1911, which effectively reduced their grazing lands by over 60%. Over the following years more and more land was claimed by the government to establish national parks and wildlife reserves to protect and showcase the amazing wealth of wildlife which is endemic to the area. National parks and reserves like Masai Mara, Ngorongoro, the Serengeti, Samburu, Tarangire and Manyara were established and gradually tourist revenue became an essential part of the economy in both Kenya and Tanzania. Today former Maasai land is home to East Africa’s finest nature and wildlife conservancies and the role of the modern Maasai has changed from warrior to conservationist.

Maasai Culture and Tradition – Then and Now

The Maasai people have a rich cultural heritage which has been passed down from one generation to the next by word of mouth. The chiefdom has always been patriarchal; male elders make all the decisions for the community and are in charge of their day-to-day activities. To a Maasai man, his children and his cattle are his greatest riches. In fact, the Maasai believe that a man who has many cattle but few children is far poorer than a man who has many children and fewer cattle.

Since the Maasai have always been nomadic, they do not traditionally build permanent homes. Maasai shelter is usually composed of temporary housing built from whatever is at hand – the women are responsible for building their traditional loaf-shaped houses using sticks and straw held together with mud and cow urine. A group of such homes usually houses an extended family and the men are in charge of surrounding the houses with a stout thorny fence which needs to be strong enough to protect their cattle and goats from marauding lions and other predators. Young men are responsible for protecting the grazing herds during the day while young girls help their mothers collect water and firewood and prepare meals.

The Maasai Diet is the main reason why the Maasai have always been able to live harmoniously alongside the East African wildlife. The community do not hunt or eat game meat and were therefore no threat to free-ranging wildlife. Their diet is almost completely comprised of milk, meat and blood from their cattle and goats, along with small amounts of grains and vegetables which they procure by bartering with subsistence farmers. These days it is not uncommon to see young Maasai men driving small herds into villages and towns to barter livestock for food, cloth, beads and other necessities. Today many Maasai villages are found alongside prominent game reserves and national parks and settlements are becoming more permanent, allowing Maasai villagers to become adept at growing food crops as well as herding their livestock.

Many of the Maasai villagers have exchanged their traditional herding lifestyle for permanent jobs as guards, guides and trackers in the burgeoning tourism industry. Here they draw upon their innate knowledge of nature and wildlife to bring the true essence of Africa to your safari experience. Others earn a living in the hospitality industry, working as cleaners, cooks, waiters and entertainers at the many luxury lodges and camps inside the national parks and private game reserves – you can look forward to at least one evening of traditional Maasai music and dance entertainment during your safari excursion.

For the Maasai people, music and dance traditions are an integral part of their culture, and observing them as they sing and dance is a great privilege. Music traditionally takes the form of singing and chanting in a call-and-respond pattern – the lead singer (the olaranyani) will sing the melody while the other group members harmonize with vocals and guttural throat sounds. It may not sound like much but the music is truly unforgettable and all the more special since the only musical instrument in sight is the traditional kudu horn which is blown on special occasions. Equally impressive, the traditional Maasai jumping dance (adamu) is both inspirational and joyful – a perfect expression of rhythm and choreography.


Maasai Clothing

Maasai clothing is probably the most widely recognized ethnic dress on the African continent. The Maasai community wears their traditional shuka, a sheet of brightly-hued cotton fabric in regal shades of red, blue and purple (mainly), with pride. If you come across young men wearing black skukas it means that they have recently undergone circumcision and are now transitioning from boys to men. Older men usually wear red, while women generally prefer brightly patterned fabrics. Maasai traditional dress includes much ornamentation – the community is famous for making intricate beaded collars, head-pieces, bracelets and necklaces and even the warriors carry elaborately decorated shields and spears. Before the arrival of traders selling brightly colored glass beads the Maasai used natural materials like ivory, clay and shells for their ornamentation. However tempting it may be to take photographs of these resplendently dressed Maasai you need to know that it is considered very bad manners to take photos without asking permission – often a small fee with be requested to supplement their income.


Influences of the Modern World on Traditional Maasai Lifestyle

The current Maasai population figures are very difficult to estimate with any certainty but it is thought that around 900,000 Maasai live in Kenya and Northern Tanzania. Having lost most of their traditional land to government or privately owned game reserves and national parks, many Maasai have abandoned their nomadic herding lifestyle, and settled in villages close to these game parks where they can seek employment. Government urging has resulted in many of them enrolling their children in schools where they receive formal education. Much of their current lifestyle, education and health services are directly supported by income derived from your Big Five safari. Tourists are encouraged to seize the opportunity to visit a Maasai village during their stay in Kenya or Tanzania. Here you will be welcomed as an honored guest and get the chance to see how modern Maasai live and embrace Western culture while keeping their roots firmly anchored in tradition.

Human / Wildlife Conflict

However, there are still pockets of Maasai who live a traditional herding lifestyle within the confines of some wildlife reserves, where they have rightfully demanded limited grazing rights. Often, this attempted mix of old traditions and modern conservation has led to conflict. Cattle and goats sharing the range of lions and other predators is directly responsible for a decline in the number of lions in some East African game reserves. A hungry lion will often take the easy option and kill a cow rather than stalking a wildebeest – the immediate retaliation from the herdsmen is usually a lion hunt resulting in another lion death.

In the last decade or two, conservationists and wildlife agencies have made a concerted effort to educate the Maasai herders about conservation and the important role that lions play in attracting tourist revenue to the country. Gradually the tide appears to be turning and fewer lions are being killed. Instead, Maasai herders are taught better methods to safeguard their precious herds and restore equilibrium to the plains of East Africa. As more and more Maasai embrace the principals of conservation and eco-tourism a brighter future is on the horizon for the Maasai community and the wildlife in these beautiful Maasai lands.


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