They roam freely on the savannah from country to country, from place to place with no consideration for customs rules or state borders. For centuries the Masai, in contrast to the Kikuyu, Luo, and other tribes were able to maintain ancient customs and a way of life which has existed for centuries. However the onslaught of civilization has meant that Africa is running out of tribes who have managed to preserve their culture, identity and ancient ways of life. One of these tribes is the Masai, sometimes spelt Maasai who to this day remain a primitive tribe of warriors living mainly in Tanzania and Kenya. The majority of the tribe which in total consist of about 100,000 people live in border areas of Tanzania and Kenya, in areas dominated by the huge mountain of Kilimanjaro.
According to one report, the Masai originate from Egypt specifically the upper reaches of the Nile, somewhere between the lands of modern Sudan and Eritrea. This goes somewhere to explain why, just like the inhabitants of those Northern African regions, Masai women shave their heads remove their two lower front teeth.
Masai people consider themselves to rank the highest and most noble tribe in Africa. They do not mix with European’s or any other Africans they regard as being from lower class tribes eg the Kikuyu, Meru, Kalenjin, Luyha, Luo, Kisii, Kamba, Swahili or Turkana.. They believe and indeed are entirely convinced that God gave them all the animals in the world. Furthermore this belief allows them to indulge, quite legitimately in the theft of cattle from other tribes without fear of retribution by the Kenyan Law.
They live from rearing cattle and other livestock. And because of their nomadic lifestyle they have developed a total lack of interest and in fact are completely unfamiliar with crop growing and agriculture. The Masai home is always temporary place of residence. Every 3-4 years, when the pastures are depleted, the tribe moves on to another location and a new village is built. See the picture below of a typical traditional Masai home.
They build small villages or camps which will be home to between five and seven families and their cattle. It consists of a group of very low huts which they construct from small branches and brushwood, supported by a framework of sturdy branches. This is then covered with manure, clay, mud and dry cattle dung. The entire camp is then surrounded by a coral (kraal) of thorns and prickly bushes in order to keep out lions, leopards and other wild animals. Their huts have no windows, but they do have a fireplace which is located in the centre or near sleeping area. Their beds are on the hard mud floor and covered with the skins of animals.
Whilst the men tend to the cattle it falls on the women to build the family home and having no beasts of burden to assist them they have to carry all the material required for the job on their backs. Traditionally the basic diet of the Masai is cow’s milk however when there is a shortage of milking cows in the village the warriors will add the blood from the animal and mix it with its milk. Sometimes they drink the pure blood which they extract from a vein, by making an incision usually in the bull’s neck and using a gourd as the vessel to catch it. This is supposed to give the warriors great strength. They seldom eat meat, their cattle are considered far too valuable to slaughter for food.
Whenever there is a marriage in the tribe by tradition, the tribe collectively will present the couple with a cow as a dowry. After marriage the husband can let his wife take care of a few cows from his herd, but they still belong to him. In general it’s the children who take care of small animals. Starting at the early age of 3 it’s the young ones who tend the cattle and herd them around the nearby grazing lands. When the children reach the age of between 7 and 8 years, they pierce their ear lobes with a tool made from the cow’s horns. The hole is expanding gradually with pieces of wood until, over time, the lobe is stretched so much, not only with wood but also heavy ornaments, that sometimes the lobe reaches down to the shoulder. The larger hole in the ear lobe, the more respect the person is given and the more beautiful it is seen to be.
The number of wives a male Masai has depends on the size of his herd. Women should be fit and strong enough to take care of all animals and children; they are required to carry water and firewood for the fire. Women are regarded as far less important as their husbands who are soldiers first and foremost, even in peace time. The men tend to do very little physical work but rather prefer to spend hours in conversations with other warriors on the savannah.
The relationship of the tribe is based on a strict set of rules. The Tribe itself is made up of several groups of men who are all around the same age. The most important event for these young men is the ceremony of dedication and circumcision.
After the circumcision the young Masai warriors leave their homes, armed with spears, sticks and swords to make their life on the plains where they will take care of the livestock. A warrior who manages to kill a lion receives the tribe’s highest honour and is then entitled to wear a head band made from the lion’s mane during ritual ceremonies.
After the early initiation test, the men become like brothers forming a very close community. Members of the community must pass a series of tests to advance in the hierarchy of the tribe, each of which can take up to 15 years to achieve. They have a kind of ranking order beginning with a young warrior then a senior warrior, an old warrior, a master warrior – and the elders. In the old days a young man in the tribe could not be regarded as a man until he had managed to kill a lion with his spear.
An important attribute of the tribe are the ornaments they wear. Men and women spend much time Masai decorating themselves. Women wear their hair short and prefer precious jewellery: long necklaces, earrings, silver, head bands and bracelets. Male soldiers on the other hand have long hair.
Years ago the Masai owned land in the Serengeti valley, in the vicinity of the Great African fault known as the Rift Valley. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, they were able to survive and prove to the Europeans, mainly the British and the German colonists their right to inherited land of their ancestors. But unfortunately they have not been able to resist the onslaught of civilization towards the end of twentieth century. Over the past 30 years the Masai have been evicted from much of their land. The rich white tourists coming to Kenya and Tanzania on safari want “to see wild animals, not the evicted Masai.
Throughout the savannah, camping sites, bungalows and Lodges began to appear and the Masai soon realised that lions, antelopes, gazelles and tourists were more important than themselves. Left without a livelihood, many engaged in poaching.
Masai tribes have coexisted with nature for thousands of years, and now they see themselves frantically begin to destroy it. Their own livestock cannot support them, now elephants and rhinoceros horns are sold on the black market. And now the rhinoceroses in the Maasai lands are nearing extinction and the numbers of elephants have been reduced dramatically.
Today throughout Kenya and Tanzania the Masai are being hired as security guards to work in expensive hotels. Many work to entertain the visitors with traditional dances in hotels and theatres. Increasingly, you can see people dressed in red clothing complete with shields and spears, guarding the perimeters of many of the new luxury hotels which have sprung up over recent years.