Maasai are well known to tourists visiting the main safari parks in Tanzania. They are easily recognized by colourful clothes and abundant jewellery. People can sport them on the roadside or outside their houses in the villages. Some of these villages welcome visitors for a few hours of “cultural immersion”. But what else do we really know about this tribe?
Today I will talk about the Maasai I met during my trip to Tanzania a few years ago.
Who are the Maasai
Maasai are an ethnic group in the north of Tanzania and South Sudan. They have been living in these areas for 5-6 centuries, but they originally come from North Kenya. They are semi-nomadic people, with both a warrior and a pastoral soul. Besides Maa, their language, most Maasai speak at least a bit of Swahili or English, the official languages of both Tanzania and Sudan. They have a strongly patriarchal social structure, with groups of “elders” guiding most major matters.
A tribe of shepherds
Masaai have always led a lifestyle centred around their cattle, and most of them still do. The males start taking care of the family’s herd when they are still very young. It’s fairly common to see groups of two-three children walking with their animals in the fields.
In both Tanzania and Sudan, Maasai have demanded and obtained grazing rights within the boundaries of many of the national parks. On the hills around the Ngorongoro crater, for instance, they can keep their animals grazing. Since the place is full of predators, they obviously don’t descend to the safari area. But it’s quite bizarre, for a tourist, to go look for lions and find instead a shepherd with his cows!
The primary source of food and sustenance are the animals themselves: milk, meat and even blood. In the past, the skin was used for clothing, but in more recent times cotton and synthetic fabrics are the preferred choices. Even though leather is still used for some sandals. The measure of a man’s wealth is indeed in terms of cattle and children: the more the better.
Western culture is reaching every corner of the planet and Maasai aren’t immune to it. The younger generations abandon more and more their traditions to get more stable jobs or become businessmen. A less “exotic” and definitely more sedentary lifestyle.
Fashion: the classic Maasai features
The classic image of a Maasai is a tall and strongly built man, shaved, with a red cloth wrapped around the body, a lot of jewellery, a big piercing enlarging the earlobes and a stick in the hand.
Let’s start with the stick, called rungu, in Swahili, or orinka in Maa. I’ve recently been to an exhibition about Samurai, where I’ve learnt that they were the only warriors in Japan allowed to keep two swords hanging from their belts. In the same way, in Tanzania Maasai are allowed to walk around with their orinka, and sometimes even a knife under the robes! This “special permission” comes from the need to deal with lots of animals. And it then became part of the local culture, due to the respect towards this tribe of warriors. An interesting detail is in fact that Maasai are very often hired as private security: officially unarmed (at least not guns), but physically well trained and handy with a solid stick.
Maasai used to wear clothes made by the leader of their animals. In the ’60s, though, new trading routes between the east coast of Africa and Europe started to bring cotton and new textiles. Nowadays most Maasai wear mostly cotton.
The well-known classic piece of Maasai clothing is called shuka. It’s a sort of blanket made of colourful and durable fabric, worn wrapped around the body, sometimes in layers. The most iconic colour is red, but blue, stripes and squares are also frequently used.
It’s becoming more and more common to see a mix of shuka and western clothing, with t-shirts or school uniforms, worn underneath or above a shuka.
No matter the terrain they are walking on, Maasai wear sandals, which are often still made of leather.
Jewellery and piercing
Worn by men and women alike, jewels are a distinctive trait of Maasai culture. Shapes and colours can indicate the social status of the wearer. For example, unmarried women usually adorn themselves with flat discs around their necks, while married women wear long, mostly blue necklaces. A family’s wealth is shown with bright colours and the most intricate shapes. Each colour has an intrinsic meaning: white means purity and peace; yellow represents hospitality and fertility; green recalls the earth and health; blue speaks of energy; black for solidarity and hardship.
It doesn’t matter if your holiday in Tanzania includes climbing Kilimanjaro, lying on a beach in Zanzibar or going on safari in search of the “Big 5”, Masaai jewels remain one of the most common souvenirs to bring home. Masaai create them for themselves and nowadays, with mass tourism growing, for foreigners too. Materials such as ceramics, copper, wood, seeds and bone were once used, but nowadays there’s a dominance of modern synthetic materials. The method for binding them and making necklaces and bracelets, however, has remained unchanged.
Another unisex ornament is the earlobe piercings and dilators. Ears are then adorned with coloured or often very large metal jewels, both pendants and hoops.
Without a distinction between male and female or between young and old, the Maasai shave their hair. School-age children are almost forced by the school system to avoid head lice epidemics. Shaving the head is also part of almost every rite of passage. But in general, for one reason or another, the Masaai often have a completely shaved head.
When the hair is kept long, however, braids are practically mandatory. Long and elaborate for young warriors, tight around the head for women.
Rite of passages
In the Masaai culture, there are different ceremonies with their respective rites of passage. Each of them represents a new beginning, a new life. Let’s see the most common.
From childhood to adulthood
For boys, this transition occurs around the beginning of adolescence. After a series of tests of valour, such as knowing how to handle cattle and a spear, dancing and spending nights outdoors, the boys paint their faces with white chalk. The actual ceremony consists of circumcision and is practised by experienced elders. Obviously without anaesthesia, is absolutely mandatory to keep silent: withdrawing from the blade or shouting would bring dishonour and shame. It takes 3-4 months to fully heal and in that time the almost-adults wear black clothes.
For girls too, this rite of passage takes place in early adolescence, and once they become adults they can then marry.
Female genital mutilation is a very controversial topic. Tanzania, like other African nations, has been engaged for years in trying to eradicate this custom (not only Masaai). More and more often, young people now refuse to undergo this practice, considered at least very dangerous for health.
Warriors and leaders
Once the children have “become adults” they tend to live together in clusters of houses. Other ceremonies they participate in include becoming a warrior, senior warrior (after a decade or so), and leader (or elder).
All these rites include shaving off the hair. Sometimes the mother does it, other times the wife does. Warriors grow their hair long until the senior warrior ceremony when they present themself with dyed red pigtails.
Only senior warriors have the right to be a father, so junior warriors are not allowed to marry. The leaders, married ex-senior warriors, are officially independent of their original family and they can move further afield. During the ceremony where his wife shaves his head, the senior warrior is given a chair that he will carry with him for the rest of his life. At this point, they are more or less 35 years old.
Maasai families often arrange marriages and the girls are usually married by the age of 20. As in many other African nations, the bride’s family receives a dowry of animals, but also money and particular foodstuffs. In the procession to the future husband’s village, other gifts from relatives and friends are added to her dowry.
Leaving her father’s house, the girl’s head is shaved, as a sign of change and at the end of the ceremony she is also given a new name!
Funerals, in truth, do not exist. The Maasai do not believe in life after death and do not bury their dead. It sounds brutal, but wild animals in Tanzania and Sudan can make a body disappear quickly, without any major public health problem. Especially if the dead are covered in other animals’ fat and blood.
It is interesting to note that the Maasai believe that upon death a person passes on to his family the sins committed in life. If the body of a deceased is not mauled in the first 24 hours, he is considered a bad person. Better for the family if it gets quickly eaten!
Villages and houses
Working predominantly with animals, the Maasai tend to live outside urban centres. The villages and agglomerations welcome groups of families and animals such as chickens and hens. The houses are quite small and with few windows. Considering the general high temperatures of the country, it would seem a counterproductive choice. But it’s on the contrary quite obvious that these people know exactly what they are doing! The buildings have a rather simple wooden structure. The covering of the walls is made of a mixture of straw and cow dung. This miraculous combination leaves an incredibly cool and constant temperature inside the houses!