Origins and Early History
The Maasai are an African indigenous ethnic group of semi-nomadic people who currently inhabit the African countries of Tanzania and Kenya. They are one of the most well-known African tribes, famous for their unique customs, traditions, and fierce and brave Maasai warriors. As per local beliefs, the Maasai originally inhabited the lower Nile River Valley region and migrated southwards between the 15th and 18th Centuries, thereafter occupying large territories in what are today parts of Kenya and Tanzania. During this time, no one dared to mess with the Maasai, as the Maasai warriors of this era were well recognized for their excellent fighting skills. Soon, the Maasai conquered vast tracts of land to the south, and even threatened civilizations as far away as Mombasa on the Kenyan coast. However, the spread of the Maasai was stopped by the large scale death of these people from diseases, drought, and famine during the period between 1883 and 1902. 90% of the Maasai livestock succumbed to bovine pleuropneumonia and rinderpest during this time, and many of the tribal Maasai themselves died from small pox. During this period, nearly two-thirds of the Maasai population was wiped out. In the early 20th Century, the Maasai lost 60% of their tribal lands to the new European settlers with the signing of two treaties in 1904 and 1911, respectively. The tribal peoples also lost more land following the establishment of national parks and reserves in Kenya and Tanzania later in the 20th Century.
Traditional Maasai Ways of Life
The Maasai's have a patriarchal society wherein elder men of the society decide most matters concerning the tribe. Various types of body mutilation and modifications are practiced by the Maasai. They practice the removal of deciduous canine tooth buds in early childhood. The piercing and stretching of ear lobes is also a common practice among these peoples. Men adorn different unique hairstyles, and also scar their bodies and apply ocher to appear attractive. Though illegal, female genital cutting is one of the extremely significant practices of the Maasai, wherein young girls are subjected to genital mutilation without anesthetics in gala ceremonies. The practice of female genital mutilation is so deeply ingrained in the Maasai way of life that, despite laws prohibiting the practice, it is still widely practiced. Men also prefer only girls with mutilations as their wives. The diet of the Maasai involved meat, milk, and cattle blood, though currently they have exhibited a shift towards a more plant-based, agrarian diet. The Maasai love to dress in bright clothes, especially in red colors, and also adorn various types of locally made beadwork and jewelry. The life of Maasai men is also highly dramatic. The young men are groomed to become one of the Morani, the brave Maasai warriors. The first successful transformation of a boy into a man is accepted when he is able to hunt down a wild lion. The Moranis wear interesting headgear, paint their faces, and maintain long hair.
Maasai Art, Language, and Culture
Cattle dominates every aspect of a Maasai's cultural, economic, and social life. Cattle, instead of money, is the wealth determinant in the Maasai society. Cattle is exchanged in return for service, received as dowry from the bride’s family, and accepted as compensation to settle disputes. The Maasai have a monotheistic mode of worship, and regard the deity Enkai as their God. The people speak the Maa language, which is a member of the Nilotic Saharan group of African languages. The Maasai men sing in chorus in groups where the best singer of the group leads the others. He is known as the olaranyani, and he initiates the song by singing the first line or title. Women sing lullabies or humming songs, and often gather together to dance and sing, all the while enjoying a good time together. Songs and dancing are also used by the Maasai as a means of flirting.
Today, Maasai culture is significantly threatened by Western influences. The Maasai are facing gigantic problems in terms of loss of habitable lands, loss of cattle, lack of education, extreme poverty, increased susceptibility to diseases, and a lack of healthcare facilities. Ironically, even though water is sufficiently available in Maasai territory, the Maasai receive a very poor share of these water resources. Only the wealthiest members of the tribe are able to extract sufficient water to meet all of their needs, while most of the water resources are diverted to other regions of Kenya and Tanzania, leaving very little of this vital natural resource for the average Maasai. Though the Maasai are ready to embrace new education and knowledge, their needs are often ignored by the governments in the region. Very few schools and almost no colleges exist near Maasai villages. Forced to lead a more sedentary lifestyle in modernity, the Maasai are finding it difficult to adopt the new lifestyles imposed upon them. Several infectious diseases, including cholera, malaria, tuberculosis, HIV, trachoma, and sleeping sickness, are affecting the Maasai due to the ongoing consumption of contaminated water, restricted movements to newer, safer lands, and a concurrent lack of education, awareness, and access to health aid.
The Maasai of Today
Today, there are around one million Maasai people living in the Great Rift Valley region of East Africa in Tanzania and Kenya. The modern Maasai, besides speaking their native language of Maa, are also learning to speak the official languages of Kenya and Tanzania, which are Swahili and English. As mentioned previously, the Maasai of the 21st Century are facing complex threats to their survival. They are caught up in the midst of a vast wave of change, wherein they are constantly struggling to cope with the various adversities. They are caught in the tug-of-war between their traditional beliefs and Western influences. Currently, a number of non-governmental organizations are working with the Maasai to lend them a helping hand, in the process helping them to overcome modern life's adversities and progress towards a more stabilized life while retaining their culture.