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Who are the Maasai?

The Maasai are the southernmost of the Nilotic-speaking peoples and are linguistically and physically related to the Samburu, Turkana, and Kalenjin tribes. Their distant history is unknown beyond a wealth of unsubstantiated conjecture and dreams proposed by often romantically minded western scholars. Some say that they are one of the lost tribes of Israel. Others claim they came from North Africa. Still, some historians believe that they are the living remnants of Egyptian civilization, their warriors' braided hairstyle serving as the primary connection that draws this conclusion.


If any of these theories have any truth, it would be just as likely that the Maasai's ancestor, rather than the other way around influenced the ancient cultures of Egypt and Israel. What is known, is that the Maasai came from the north, probably from the region of the Nile Valley in Sudan, northwest of Lake Turkana. It is thought that they left this area sometime between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, migrating southwards towards the Great Rift Valley. The Maasai themselves say in their oral histories that they came from a crater or deep valley somewhere to the north, a place called Endikir-e-Kerio (the scarp of Kerio).


Although many scholars have referred to this place as the southeastern region of Lake Turkana, some oral sources suggest that it may have been somewhere even further north, along the Nile Valley or even in North Africa. Whatever the exact location of this mythical crater/valley, their migration southward is beyond doubt and occurred after a dry spell. It is a reported that a bridge was constructed and after half the livestock and people had left the dusty depression, the bridge collapsed. As a result half the population was stranded. These people later managed to climb out of the valley, reaching to the highland region as the present day Somali, Borana and Rendille peoples.


The Maasai eventually entered Kenya to the west of Lake Turkana and quickly spread south through the Rift Valley, whose fertile grasslands were ideal for their cattle. They reached their present-day territories in Kenya and Tanzania around the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries.







What is the dramatic and powerful history of the Maasai?

Until the 1830s, the Maasai were not only a cohesive nation; they were also a formidable fighting force. Central to the Maasai culture was a relentless expansion of land possession necessitated by ever increasing cattle herds. Neighbors often lived in fear and prepared for attack by Maasai warriors in various ways. Luhya would build mud walls around their villages. The tribes of the Taita, Kamba, and Kikuyu, sought higher ground (unsuitable for cattle) to defy the Maasai. Other tribes opted for trade and marriage relations with their more powerful neighbors, many of them becoming part of the Maasai culture. One example, the Okiek, called Ndorobo by Maasai, became ritual experts in performing circumcision rites. Although the Maasai consider the Ndorobo an inferior tribal people, they value their importance in the Maasai culture as pivotal members.


Maasai power was not only confined to exerting their will over neighboring tribes but also over the traveling Arabs passing on caravan routes in search of ivory and slaves. As the first colonial governor of Kenya, Sir Charles Elliot, wrote, "They [the Maasai] successfully asserted themselves against the Arab slave traders, took tribute from all who passed through their country, and treated others, whether African or not, with arrogance."


The Maasai are indeed a proud and independent people, whose traditions and culture have survived almost completely intact, despite the incredible pressures and adversities that have been strewn across their way since the 1830s. The biggest challenge, however, still lies ahead. To quote from Richard Trillo's, The Rough Guide to Kenya [6th edition; reprinted by kind permission]:


These days, the tourist industry gives the Maasai a major spot in its repertoire. Maasai dancing is the entertainment, while necklaces, gourds, spears, shields, rungus (knobkerries), busts (carved by Akamba carvers) and even life-sized wooden morani warriors (to be shipped home in a packing case) are the stock-in-trade of the curio and souvenir shops. For the Maasai themselves, the rewards are fairly scant. Cattle are still at the heart of their society; there are dozens of names for different colors and patterns, and each animal among the three million is individually cherished. But they are assailed on all sides: by uplands farmers expanding from the north; by eviction from the tourist/conservation areas within the reserve boundaries to the south; and by a climate of opposition to the old lifestyle from all around. Sporadically urged to grow crops, go to school, build permanent houses, and generally settle down and stop being a nuisance, they face an additional dilemma in squaring these edicts with the fickle demands of the tourist industry for traditional authenticity. Few make much of a living selling souvenirs, but enterprising morani can do well by just posing for photos, and even better if they hawk themselves in Nairobi or down on the coast.

Maasai culture


In Maasai culture, ceremony is a centerpiece of their lives and plays a vital role in all aspects of lifestyle. Traditionally, boys and girls must pass through these initiations prior to circumcision. Men will form age-sets moving them closer to adulthood. An age set is an official grouping made to place men in direct contact with similarly aged men. Women do not have their own age-set but are recognized by that of their husbands. Ceremonies are an expression of Maasai culture and every ceremony is a new life. They are rites of passage and every Maasai child is eager to go through these vital stages of life.


Ceremonies of the Maasai:

Enkipaata - senior boy ceremony

Emuratta - circumcision

Enkiama - marriage

Eunoto - warrior-shaving ceremony

Eokoto e-kule - milk-drinking ceremony

Enkang oo-nkiri - meat-eating ceremony

Orngesherr - junior elder ceremony


For minor children

Eudoto/Enkigerunoto oo-inkiyiaa - earlobe

Ilkipirat - leg fire marks


Enkipaata is organized by fathers of the boys who are to become men and defined as a new age set. The ceremony usually includes a delegation of boys aged 14 to 16 years of age. In the ceremonial process, the boys will travel across a vast section of their land for about four months. The boys are accompanied by a group of elders spearheading the formation of a new age set.


A collection of 30 - 40 houses is built for the initiating boys who will become a new age set. The houses are located in one large kraal chosen by the Oloiboni (prophet). This is where all boys across the region will be united and initiated. Before the ceremony, the Olopolosi olkiteng, chief of the boys, must be chosen. Olopolosi olkiteng is a position not desired by anyone because it is considered unfortunate. The new chief is to shoulder all of his age group's sins.


The day before the ceremony, boys must sleep outside in the forest. When early dawn approaches, they run to the homestead and enter with an attitude of a raider. During the ceremony, boys dress in loose clothing and dance non-stop throughout the day. This ceremony is the transition into a new age set. After enkipaata ceremony, boys are ready for the most important initiation known as Emuratare (circumcision).


After circumcision, the next step is formation of the Emanyatta (warrior's camp). Emanyatta contains twenty to forty houses randomly selected by warriors. The selection of this camp is sometimes a bit of a challenge. Not every elder would like his wife to be in an emanyatta, because it is a free visit zone for everyone. Jealous husbands are more likely to refuse to participate in the camp; they think that their wives' former lovers will take advantage of her. Therefore, warriors' sometime will fight with their jealous fathers. Weapons such as spears, clubs, and shields are carried by warriors during this time in the event any battles become serious.


Warriors will choose certain mothers to relocate at the emanyatta for the duration of its existence. Each Maasai section has its own age-set. The two most common camps are Ilaiserr and Irmolelian (clans); however, it is common for a section to have more than two emanyatta camps. A special pole planted in the middle of the camp is used as a flagpole. The white and blue colored cloth, the Maasai nation's flag, is tied to the pole before planting and remains there as long as the Morrans (warriors) are still in the camp.


Facts about the Maasai

Rituals and Ceremony

Enkipaata, Emuratta, Eunoto, Eokoto e-kule, Enkang oo-nkiri, Orngesherr, are the most popular rite of passages and ceremonies in the Maasai society.

Spiritual Leadership

Oloiboni is a highly regarded spiritual leader in charge of Maasai religious, customs, and traditional affairs. With the rise of external religions in Maasai land loibons are becoming less visible. Loibons are believed to be devil worshipers by non-traditional Maasai.

Warriors and Training

Emanyatta is a warrior's camp (kraal) with 30 to 40 houses. Warriors randomly select houses. While at the camp, the warriors would learn about oratory skills, animal husbandry, a sense of brotherhood, and security for their land, cattle, and people.

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