The Maasai: One of the Indigenous Tribes in the World
Humanity is made up of races, tribes, ethnicities, and varying religious convictions. Each of these groups is arrived at due to the uniqueness of their culture, traditions, practices, skin color and geographical location around the world. Races for instance are due to skin color and are mostly found in different continents, each race has its subdivisions of tribes, sub-tribes and ethnicities (Hetfield 23).
This is normally due to language, culture and economic activities. Africa is a continent with the most diverse tribes. A tribe is defined as a component constituting a number of families, clans, or other groups with common ancestral and cultural origins and whose leadership is informally determined (Michelle 53).This research paper examines a tribe called the Maasai.
Maasai also refers to Masai, Massai, Maasai or Masi. It is composed of twelve subdivisions, each one having different customs, appearance, leadership structures and dialects, these include Kaputiei, Keekonyokie, Matapo, Laitokitok, Iloodokilani, Damat, Purko,Loitai, Siria, Moitanik (Wuasinkishu), Kore and Kisonko (Ole Sankan 2).
The small group is the Maa and is composed of Baraguyu, Ilkunono, Ilarusa .The ethnic groups include the Eastern plain Nilotes also referred to as Nilo-saharan, Nilotic, Eastern Sudanic who originated from Sudan and Ongamo group of the Maa.
The Maasai has been in the past categorized as the Hamites from North Africa and theories were put forward that they include the lost tribes of Israel but it has since been discredited (Spencer 12). They are closely related to Samburu; a subtribe in Kenya, in way of living, culture and language and they are thought to have divided hundreds of years ago.
The Maasai are only found in Kenya and Northern Tanzania. In Kenya they are confined to Laikipia, Narok and some parts of Transmara counties. However, their territory in the mid19th century extended all the way from Turkana and Mount Marsabit in the Northern Kenya through the fertile Great Rift Valley province extending to the South.
This was due to their pastoral way of life and militant warriors who fought and greatly extended their territories. In 1891, Maasai suffered a catastrophe; 90% of their animals were killed by rinderpest, contagious bovine pleuropneumonia and small pox.
These diseases are zoonotic and consequently humans were infected and their population drastically reduced and much of their land was taken by other communities. In 1904 and 1911 more than 60% of their land was taken by the colonizers of Kenya i.e. Britons by way of signing treaties.
Type of the Society
Maasai is a pastoral community who keep large herds of cattle, sheep, goats and donkeys. The donkeys are normally used for transport while the rest are a symbol of wealth, source of food as well as mode of payment of dowry. They are nomadic and semi nomadic people, they use readily available materials and skill to construct their shelter (Michelle 69).
The materials include cow dung, ash, grass, sticks and human urine. The traditional Maasai houses were designed to be impermanent in order to suite people who were constantly on the move. Both the walls and the roof were made of thatched grasses and sticks cemented with a mixture of cow dung and mud.
The traditional diet of the Maasai consists of raw blood, meat, milk and grain. Blood is obtained from blood vessels of a healthy cattle, this is mixed with milk and sometimes honey.
Vitamins are obtained from wild fruits and leaves of some trees (Ole Sankan 10). Carbohydrates are from grains such as sorghum, maize and barley which are used to make solid porridge called Ugali which is taken with fresh or fermented milk. They also take roots, barks and twigs of some trees to cure or prevent them from diseases, this is taken as soup. The plant mostly used is Acacia nilotica.
Gender Roles and Social Organization
This tribe has defined gender roles from the onset of birth; their central unit is age set. The boys are expected to look after calves and lambs at a very early age. However, their childhood consist majorly of play time.
These boys sometimes undergo ritual beatings in order to test their courage and endurance in preparation for a warrior life ahead of them. After every 15 years, a new generation of warriors (Morans) is named after initiation of boys between the age of 12 and 25 years (Spencer 23).
One was legible for initiation after killing a lion. Initiation is a rite of passage to adulthood and involves painful circumcision performed by elders using homemade and sharpened knives with no use of anesthesia. The initiate is supposed to undergo the process without shedding a tear or make any exclamation. The healing take up to 4 months during which there is a lot of pain accompanied with difficulty in urinating.
After 8 months in black attire, the initiates are named, declared warriors and given the Maasai flag. The role of the Morans is to defend the community against any aggression; be it from other tribes or wild animals. They are expected to offend other communities and raid domestic animals. They are also messengers and spies; they often take the lead during migration (Ole Sankan 14).
Girls, on the other hand, are taught by their mothers at an early age to milk, cook and clean. As they grow up, their taught lessons of how to care for their husbands and be submissive to them. As soon as they reach puberty age, they are initiated and married off to the husbands who are determined by their parents or the clan (Michelle 63).
The initiation is by way of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) which is compulsory; the process is very painful and does a lot of harm to the girls’ genitalia. A woman who doesn’t undergo this process is considered unmarriageable. The effects of this process include uncontrolled urination due to the damage of sphincter muscles and complications during birth.
The fathers are breadwinners, protectors and defenders of the family and key decision makers of a family. They own the domestic animals and have every right to marry more than one wife; polygamy is encouraged among the men (Ole Sankan 18).
As they become elderly, they are crowned the advisers of the community. Mothers are the ones who build the manyattas (shelter) and they attend to house hold chores such as cooking, washing and nursing the husband.
They also take the responsibility of educating their daughters since any unpleasant behavior of the girl shall be termed as the fault of the mother. It is also considered a woman’s duty to sire children of choice to the community especially boys. An inability of a marriage to produce children is considered a woman’s fault or a curse.
Effect of Globalization and Modernization
The effects of modernization and influence from western countries have severely affected the highly conservative tribe. Some of their highly cherished culture is gradually being abandoned. Retrogressive practices such as Female Genital Mutilation and cattle rustling in Kenya and Tanzania are now punishable by law (Spencer 25).
Lions are an endangered species and killing it as a tradition or for ritual reasons is intolerable. Habits such as drinking raw blood and uncooked meat from animals are a health risk. Young people are now changing their ways of life from pastoral nature to seek decent employment opportunities in urban areas. Children, on the other hand, have access to education which has enlightened them about the modern world.
The Maasai occupy a small area with magnificent scenery which is rich in biodiversity. Of much significance is the Maasai Mara game Reserve in Kenya whose annual massive migration of wild beasts across Maara River is considered the 7th wonder of the world (Hetfield 54).
They also occupy places around Serengeti game reserve in Tanzania. These places attract thousands of tourists from all over the world every year. Maasai’s have therefore made their beautiful and unique culture an attraction for tourists (Michelle 82).
Their good looking traditional clothing (shukas) worn with attractive jewelry and their jumping skills have made them earn income from both local and international tourists. Jumping is ritually done by Morans when they are about to get married; he who jumps highest gets a girl to marry. They are now used by Kenyan government to advertise its tourism industry.
The Maasai is a tribe which has exhibited sustenance to their culture. Despite the efforts of their governments to persuade them to abandon their retrogressive culture, they are still adamant. However, they have been able to survive and adapt to the rapidly changing world by making their culture a source of income.
Many tourists from Europe, USA, Asia and other parts of the world visit Kenya to see the Maasai. They have also learnt to abandon retrogressive cultural practices and live decent lives. Education is now of value to them though they are still practicing their culture. If all the tribes would have sustained their culture like the Maasai, then the world would never be a boring place.
Hetfield, J. The Maasai of Africa. Rosen Classroom, 2006: pp. 23-57
Michelle, Lisa. The Maasai: On the move toward change. Toccoa Falls College, Toccoa Falls, 2000: pp. 52-90
Ole Sankan, S. Samson. The Masaai. Kenya Literature Bureau, 2010: pp. 1-20
Spencer, Paul. The Maasai of Matapato: a study of rituals of rebellion. Manchester University Press, 1988: pp. 11-27