As many travelers may be aware, most countries in east Africa are not composed of a homogeneous group of citizens, but are made up of tribes that have existed for hundreds of years or more. One of the most prevalent and well known of these tribes are the Maasai people of Tanzania and southern Kenya. In this post we will take a look at the background and culture of the Maasai people, along with some of the emerging trends that will shape how the Maasai adapt and grow in the 21st century.
The Maasai People of Tanzania: Their Origins and Current State
According to their oral history, the Maasai people originated in northwest Kenya during the 15th century. The tribe migrated south across Kenya and into Tanzania, and made this area their home between the 17th and 18th centuries.
The Maasai’s current territory (often referred to as Maasailand) stretches as far north as Nairobi, Kenya. It stretches south into the upper third of Tanzania, ending roughly south of the Kiteto District. Their land also stretches across many of the National Parks in northern Tanzania and southern Kenya including Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tarangire National Park (Tanzania) and the greater Serengeti/Maasai Mara National Park area (bridging Tanzanian and Kenyan borders).
Estimates of the number of Maasai tribe members can vary widely, but the latest census information places the tribe at just over 800,000 members. Although it is one of the most recognizable tribes in east Africa it is by no means the largest: it ranks approximately 5th or 6th in size relative to other tribes of Tanzania.
Although most Maasai speak Swahili (the lingua franca of east Africa), their primary language is called Maa. It is related to, but distinct from, tribal languages spoken by other ethnic groups in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. In the Maa language, the word “Maasai” means “people who speak the Maa language,” hence the origin of their name.
The Maasai people are semi-nomadic, moving back and forth with the seasons. This allows them to conduct subsistence farming as well as to graze their animals – primarily cattle – on good grazing land year round. While they do travel long routes to graze their animals, most Maasai do live in permanent homes. These homes are typically round huts coated with mud on the outside.
The culture of the Maasai is strongly patriarchal. Tribal elders and retired elders make nearly all the major decisions for groups within the tribe. There is also a large body of oral law that governs most conflict situations within the tribe.
Although the Maasai have traditionally had a strong mythology and native religion, many are now converting to Islam or Christianity. As a result, very few Maasai men have more than a single wife. Groups that coexist within a given area are usually related somehow by blood. Other tribe members are referred to as “brothers” and “sisters,” although the actual relationship may be somewhat different.
The Maasai people of Tanzania have a rich body of traditions that govern nearly every aspect of their lives. It has been handed down through oral law and teaching generation to generation.
To emphasize the communal nature of the tribe, Maasai children are assigned to an “age set” at the time of their birth. They mature through the various stages of toddler- and childhood with the same children surrounding them. Various age sets are taught culture, customs and expectations by tribal elders.
Children (both male and female) are circumcised in rituals that occur shortly before after puberty. Male children also undergo a coming-of-age ritual called enkipaata shortly before puberty. This ritual begins preparing them for their later leadership roles in the tribe.
Young men and women can marry shortly after puberty. Marriage is seen as more of an economic transaction than an expression of love. Male elders and fathers of the tribe often arrange marriages with little or no consultation on the part of the mothers or the brides-to-be. Males may have multiple wives (although this is changing with the influence of Christianity and Islam), but women are expected to be married to a single man for life. In the event their husband dies before them, widows are expected to not remarry.
At the time of a Maasai’s death, their body is not seen as a sacred object but rather something to be disposed of in an environmentally friendly manner. Bodies are left out in the open with the expectation that hyenas and other scavenger animals will consume the corpse. Corpses left unconsumed are seen as an indication that the spirit of the recently deceased is cursed and is destined to walk the spirit world alone. To prevent this from happening, corpses are often covered with beef tallow or other animal fat to ensure that they are properly consumed.
The Maasai have a strong musical tradition, but unlike other tribes use no instruments. Their music is exclusively expressed through voice, often in a “call and response” format of seemingly dissonant parts. Dance is also a strong part of the culture, but there are few if any formalized dance rituals. In most dances, one or more Maasai jump as high as they can and repeat this for as long as they can – often for hours on end.
Adapting To Modern Culture
The influence of modern culture has not always been kind, or fair, to the Maasai people of Tanzania. The area now known as Tanzania was first colonized by Germany in the 1850s, and then by the British after World War I. Both colonizing nations saw the value of natural resources in the land and created government policies that maximized the realized value. Unfortunately these policies often limited access or even outright prevented Maasai people from accessing land they had used for hundreds of years before.
Government policy has moved to a more holistic approach, and so the Maasai people have been granted access rights to certain parts of Ngorongoro Conservation Area and other national parks in Tanzania. However, government policy has not adequately addressed the problems caused by growth in urban areas. As cities like Arusha and Dar-Es-Salaam grow in size, they tend to squeeze the Maasai people out of tribal lands that are around the cities. This forces the people into lands that are further out and not always as desirable as the lands they once held.
The life of the Maasai tribe is not easy, and many younger members are beginning to explore other ways of life. A significant number of young tribe members are leaving the traditional way of life to get an education or to seek a job in one of Tanzania’s larger cities. Many parents encourage their children – especially sons – to seek a better way of life, but this can create problems when the tribes don’t have enough hands to manage the duties of their nomadic life.
Despite the challenges inherent in their way of life and in adapting to the 21st century, the Maasai are a strong and proud people and will continue to grow and thrive.