The Maasai are an indigenous African ethnic group of semi-nomadic people located in Kenya and northern Tanzania. Due to their distinctive customs and dress and residence near the many game parks of East Africa, they are among the most well known of African ethnic groups. They speak Maa and also speak the official languages of Kenya and Tanzania: Swahili and English. The Maasai population has been estimated at 377,089 according to the 1989 Census in Kenya.
Maasai society is strongly patriarchal in nature with elder men, sometimes joined by retired elders, deciding most major matters for each Maasai group. A full body of oral law cover many aspects of behaviour. The Maasai are monotheistic, and they call God Enkai or Engai. Engai is a single deity with a dual nature: Engai Narok (Black God) is benevolent, and Engai Nanyokie (Red God) is vengeful. The “Mountain of God”, Ol Doinyo Lengai, is located in northernmost Tanzania. The central human figure in the Maasai religious system is the laibon who may be involved in shamanistic healing, divination and prophecy, insuring success in war or adequate rainfall.
Traditional Maasai lifestyle centers around their cattle which constitutes the primary source of food. The measure of a man’s wealth is in terms of cattle and children. A herd of 50 cattle is respectable, and the more children the better. A man who has plenty of one but not the other is considered to be poor.
As a semi-nomadic people, the Maasai have traditionally relied on local, readily available materials and indigenous technology to construct their homes. The traditional Maasai house is designed for people on the move and is impermanent in nature. The Inkajijik (houses) are either star-shaped or circular, and are constructed by able-bodied women. The enkaji is small, measuring about 3m x 5m and standing only 1.5m high. Within this space the family cooks, eats, sleeps, socializes and stores food, fuel and other household possessions. Small livestock are also often accommodated within the enkaji.
Music and Dance
Maasai music traditionally consists of rhythms provided by a chorus of vocalists singing harmonies while a song leader, or olaranyani, sings the melody. The olaranyani begins by singing a line or title (namba) of a song. The group will respond with one unanimous call in acknowledgment, and the olaranyani will sing a verse over the group’s rhythmic throat singing. Each song has its specific namba structure based on call-and-response. Lyrics follow a typical theme and are often repeated over time.
Women chant lullabies, humming songs, and songs praising their sons. Repeated phrases following each verse being sung on a descending scale and singers responding to their own verses are characteristically sung by females. When many Maasai women gather together, they often sing and dance among themselves.
Both singing and dancing sometimes occur around manyattas, and involve flirting. Young men will form a line and chant rhythmically, “Oooooh-yah”, with a growl and stacatto cough along with the thrust and withdrawal of their lower bodies. Girls stand in front of the men and make the same pelvis lunges while singing a high dying fall of “Oiiiyo…yo” in counterpoint to the men. Although bodies come in close proximity, they never touch.
Today, the staple diet of the Maasai consists of cow’s milk and maize-meal. The former is largely drunk fresh or in sweet tea and the latter is used to make a liquid or solid porridge. The solid porridge is known as uoali and is eaten with milk; unlike the liquid porridge, uoali is not prepared with milk. Meat, although an important food, is consumed irregularly and cannot be classified as a staple food. Animal fats or butter are used in cooking, primarily of porridge, maize, and beans. Butter is also an important infant food.
Clothing varies by age, sex, and place. Young men, for instance, wear black for several months following their circumcision. However, red is a favored color. Blue, black, striped, and checkered cloth are also worn, as are multicolored African designs.
Shúkà is the Maa word for sheets traditionally worn wrapped around the body, one over each shoulder, then a third over the top of them. These are typically red, though with some other colors (e.g. blue) and patterns (e.g. plaid.) Maasai near the coast may wear kikoi, a type of sarong that comes in many different colors and textiles. However, the preferred style is stripes.
Many Maasai wear simple sandals soled with discarded tire strips or plastic. Both men and women wear wooden bracelets. The Maasai women regularly weave and bead jewelry. This bead work plays an essential part in the ornamentation of their body.
Beadworking, done by women, has a long history among the Maasai, who articulate their identity and position in society through body ornaments and body painting.