Africa's Maasai Warriors In The 21st Century: Changes And Challenges

A Maasai man in traditional dress.
A Maasai man in traditional dress.

The Maasai belong to the Nilotic group, and they are found mainly in southern, central, northern parts of Kenya as well as the northern region of Tanzania. The Maasai in Kenya accounts for only 2% of the country’s population. However, they are among the best known local communities in the country and internationally. The reason could be because they reside close to the famous game parks around the African Great lakes as well as their culture, which they have maintained throughout the centuries. The Maasai speak the Maa language that is categorized as one belonging to the Nilo-Saharan language family. The language is closely related to Nuer, Kalenjin, and Dinka languages. The Maasai population, according to the 2009 census, was about 842,000, which was a significant increase from the 1989 census of 377,000. Most of the Maasai people speak the official and national languages of Tanzania and Kenya. There have been several efforts by the governments of both Tanzania and Kenya, urging the Maasai communities to change their traditional nomadic lifestyles. Still, the age-old traditional lifestyle has persisted to the modern-day.

Origin Of The Maasai

According to the oral tradition of the Maasai, they originated from the northern part of Lake Turkana in the northwestern part of Kenya. It is believed that the Maasai migrated in the 15th century and arrived in what is now Kenya and Tanzania in the 17th and 18th centuries. During this period, several communities had settled in the larger part of what is now East Africa. The incoming Maasai had a fearsome reputation as cattle rustlers and warriors and forcibly displaced other communities in the region. Other ethnic groups, such as the southern cushites, were assimilated into the community of the Maasai. The Maasai and most of the other neighboring ethnic groups practice circumcision and have the custom of the age-set system.

Settling In East Africa

In the mid 19th century, the Maasai occupied almost the whole of the Great Rift Valley, and this is the time it reached its largest size. The extent of the area they occupied reached as far as Mount Marsabit in the northern region and to Dodoma in the Southern region in Tanzania. The Masai and other communities of the Nilotic group raised cattle, and they often raided their neighboring communities. They were famous in using spears and shields when raiding and were revered for throwing clubs. It is claimed that they could throw a club (Orinka) accurately to a distance of about 100 m. It is reported that in about 1852, about 800 Maasai warriors moved to what is present-day Kenya. Later in 1857, the Maasai warriors are reported to have significantly reduced the populations of the Wakufi wilderness in the southeastern part of Kenya, and they were threatening to invade the coastal part of Kenya such as Mombasa

Culture Of The Maasai

The Masai is a patriarchal society having elders who are often joined by the retired elders when they are deciding critical matters in each group in the community. The Maasai society functions under oral laws that touch almost all aspects of behavior. There is no capital punishment among the Maasai, and typically, payment in cattle is used to settle different types of disputes. Normally, out of court settlement process is also practiced, and it is known as “amitu” and translates to “making peace.” The process involves a substantial apology. In the past, the Maasai practiced traditional monotheistic religion of worshiping one deity known as “Enkai.”Among the Maasai culture, the lion is their totemic animal, which could be killed. The traditional lifestyle of a Maasai revolves around their cattle that form the mainstay of their livelihoods. Wealth is measured in the number of cows one has and the number of children. An individual with 50 herds of cattle is respected in society, and if they have more children, they are respected even more. A man in the community with many cows but without children is regarded as poor. Similarly, having many children without cows is also considered poor. According to the Maasai traditional beliefs, God gave the Maasai all the cattle on earth. This belief has reinforced the custom of rustling cattle from other communities as they believe they are taking what rightfully belongs to them. However, the practice has become less common in modern times.

Emorata Passage Of Rite

The age-set is the central unit in the traditional Maasai community. Small boys are given the responsibility of looking after lambs and calves. Young girls, on the other hand, take the responsibility of chores like milking and cooking, and they learn from their mothers. After every 15 years or thereabout, there is a new generation of morans (warriors) named following initiation or circumcision (Emorata). Most young boys between the ages of 12 to 25 go through the passage of emorata to initiate them from boys to junior warriors. The circumcision is performed without the use of anesthesia. Currently, those living near towns may go through circumcision in a safe condition with the help of doctors. Traditionally, the initiates have to endure the pain to be transformed into warriors. The ritual is performed by the elders using a sharp knife and cowhide as a bandage. The initiates have to endure the whole procedure in silence, and any slight expression of pain is a dishonor. The healing process takes about 3 to 4 months. 

For the whole period, the young men live in a “Manyatta” that does not have a barricade for protection, indicating the role of a warrior to protect the community. Another passage would be required to qualify as a senior warrior. The ceremony is known as “Eunoto” or the coming of age. In the past, each boy was required to kill a lion before they could become warriors. Presently, hunting of lions across East Africa is banned. However, the Maasai warriors still kill lions when they attack their livestock, and they do not face severe consequences from the government like other illegal poachers. The government has come with a program that promotes compensation whenever a lion kills livestock. However, killing a lion among the Maasai gives one a sense of celebrity status and great value in society. 

Modern Educational Institutions

The government has established schools in different parts to help young people to contribute economically to society. Most of the minority groups like the Maasai often perceive the government as a bad institution that wants to rob people of their traditions, beliefs, and language. The Maasai are proud of their traditions, their warriors, and their independence from the western world. In the past, the Maasai attempted to resist the western world from invading their communities to establish schools. However, many argue that modern education should not be seen as a way of giving up mainstream culture, but instead, it should be one of the ways that can be used to fix certain aspects of their culture that require changing. Minority groups in different parts around the world have attempted to mix both education and their culture, where they are taught modern skills together with traditional practices and concepts. This approach is to enable the young people to co-exist between the two different worlds without giving up one to pursue the other.

Dilemma Of The Maasai Warriors In The Changing World   

The Maasai culture, like all other cultures of different societies around the world, is evolving, and it is on transition. Although they are facing pressure from outside, they have maintained their unique cultural identity and have been able to select which elements of modernity and western culture to reject or accept. According to cultural anthropologists, the Maasai are facing four critical issues that confront their culture, and they include technology, education, tourism, and Christianity. Education is the leading catalyst for the long term culture transformation, while tourism is considered the most pressing of all the four major issues. Some of the main challenges to the social connectedness of the Maasai include the changing in land ownership, westernization, and education. The Maasai way of life has traditionally been pastoral. When privatization of land was adopted, the management of communal land ended. Similarly, increasing school enrollment has also provided young men access to employment opportunities in major cities outside pastoralism life. 

Response To Challenges 

There are different responses to challenges facing the Maasai traditions in the 21st century. In certain instances, they have managed to maintain their traditions without alterations. For instance, the ornaments and the Maasai dress is still worn by most of the Maasai people. It is not uncommon to find some of the Maasais wearing their traditional dress “Shuka” in urban centers and even cities. The ornaments and the dress have now become a symbol of the Maasai outside their community. In other instances, the Maasai have been able to phase out some traditions to some extent. For instance, lion-killing by the warriors (morans) has been stopped, and it is no longer practiced.

On the other hand, female genital mutilation (FGM) is still practiced, although it is not celebrated. Most Maasai women have learned and appreciated the potential risks of FGM, and some of the younger women do not allow their daughters to go through the practice. Another approach to the challenge facing the Maasai tradition is modification. For instance, in place of lion killing, some NGOs have introduced initiatives such as lion guardianship program for the young warriors. The program helps the moran to be lion protectors by tapping the Maasai traditional moranism.


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