The Maasai originally came from what is known today as South Sudan. They migrated along the Nile Valley into Kenya and Tanzania in the 15th Century, conquering other tribes and territories as they went. They also raided cattle, and took over nearly all the land in the Rift Valley, settling here to graze their valuable livestock.
During the 19th Century their territory was vast, but a smallpox epidemic and a severe drought in the 1890's resulted in the deaths of half the Maasai population and their animals. A few years later they lost a big chunk of their land to British ranchers and the government creation of national parks and wildlife reserves such as Amboseli and Masai Mara in Kenya, and Serengeti and Ngorongoro in Tanzania.
Traditionally the Maasai were semi-nomadic people, moving around in search of fresh pasture for their livestock. Today their lives are more static and many live in small settlements protected by a ring of thorn bushes.
The Maasai are a pastoral people, dependent on their livestock for food, shelter and status. Their cattle, goats and sheep are central to their way of life, providing milk and blood for sustenance, and meat on special or ceremonial occasions. The Maasai believe it is their sacred role to protect cattle, and wealth is measured by the number of beasts owned, as well as the number of children born. Animal skins are also used for bedding, whilst dung is useful for building houses.
Maasai clothing is quite striking, with colourful red ‘shukas’ and intricate beading adorning the necks and arms. Elongated ear lobes are a mark of beauty, and both men and women wear metal hoops in their ears. Maasai usually walk barefooted or with cow hide sandals.
Singing is an important part of Maasai culture, and you will no doubt have seen images or footage of men standing in a circle, performing their traditional jumping dance (or ‘adumu’). Each man in turn tries to jump as high as he can, encouraged by the others who sing for him, in increasingly high voices. There are other songs of course. Usually they are responsive melodies, where someone sings one part, then the others copy. There is no music, just incredible vocal harmonies and the jingling of beads.
If you’re meeting the Maasai, remember to always shake hands with the right (to do so with the left is considered rude), and don’t forget to engage in small talk before asking for directions or information.
The Maasai are considered to be the last great warrior culture in the world, which gives them a great sense of pride. Men are traditionally cattle herders, spending their days protecting their investment and defending them from predators. They are also in charge of family security, and mentoring the boys in the ways of the warrior. Meanwhile the women are responsible for looking after the household, building the homes, creating beaded jewellery and caring for the children.
The Maasai Today
The Maasai people have largely resisted change and many still retain their nomadic way of life. Yet western influence and education have affected the Maasai culture, and some traditions and customs have been outlawed by modern society, such as cattle raiding and female circumcision.
There are many employment opportunities in the tourism industry for both men and women, as well as several co-operative schemes which benefit local communities, such as education for children. Some Maasai men now work at safari lodges as guides, using their incredible knowledge of the land and wildlife to teach tourists about the remarkable wilderness that they’re visiting. You’ll no doubt get to meet them on your own safari!
The Maasai used to hunt lions, both in retaliation after cattle killings and also as a way for young warriors to demonstrate their courage. Today they have embraced conservation instead, and the lions are safe.
Maasai culture has become a tourist attraction in itself, and it’s possible to visit cultural villages and interact with the Maasai people whilst on holiday in both Kenya and Tanzania. Yet the best way to get to know the Maasai is to go on safari with them. What they don’t know about the land and the wildlife simply isn’t worth knowing.
If you'd like to plan a holiday to Kenya, call our experts on 01768 603 715 and they'll be happy to help, or fill in our enquiry form.