A Glimpse into the Maasai Culture of Kenya and Tanzania
Much of our trip to Kenya and Tanzania took place in areas populated primarily by the Maasai tribe, and we had lots of opportunities to observe and learn about their fascinating culture. Our very first glimpse at Maasai life occurred as we were flying from Nairobi into the Maasai Mara Game Preserve on the first full day of our African adventure. As we approached Maasai Mara, we could clearly see the distinctive round villages, or bomas, of the Maasai on the plains below our plane.
|Maasai boma seen from the air.|
Photo courtesy of Al Crawford.
When we landed, we were greeted by our guides, two young men from the Maasai tribe, Solomon and Javin.
|Solomon, Javin, and George greet our tour members.|
On the first evening in Sentrim Mara, our lodge for the next three nights, we were surprised at dinner by a group of Maasai men singing and dancing the aduma,
their characteristic "jumping" dance. The origins of this dance became clear when we saw the tall grass on the plains of Maasai Mara and the Serengeti. It would be one of the few ways to keep an eye out for predators threatening the cattle herds on the grass-covered plains.
|Maasai dancers in the Sentrim Mara Lodge dining hall.|
There was also a Maasai boma right outside Sentrim Mara. Each time we left the lodge and returned at night, we could see the villagers going about their daily chores.
|Cattle returning to the boma in the evening.|
During our tour, we had three special opportunities to learn about the Maasai. On our last day in Maasai Mara, Solomon presented a very informative lecture.
|Solomon tells us about the Maasai culture|
Later, in Tanzania, our guide Cosmas shared more information as we drove through Maasai land on our way to Tarangire National Park. Best of all, a Maasai family welcomed us into their boma where we spent a great morning participating in the life of the villagers.
|Cosmas discusses the life of the Maasai as we drive to Tarangire National Park|
There are 42 ethnic groups in Kenya, but they are grouped according to their similarities into three main classifications: Bantu tribes make up about 70% of Kenya's population. The Cushites are nomadic tribes with close ties to Ethiopia and Somalia. Finally, the Nilotes (named for the Nile River), are classified into three distinct groups: the River Lake Nilotes (whose tribes include the Luo tribe of Barack Obama's father), the Highland Nilotes, and the Plains Nilotes, which includes the Maasai tribe.
In Tanzania, there are more than 130 tribes, also grouped into larger groups: the Bantu (80% of the tribes), the Bushmen (a small group of only 5 tribes), and the Maasai. Each of the tribes has their own language or dialect, but Swahili is the common language in both Kenya and Tanzania.
The Maasai people live in both Kenya and Tanzania. So far, they have been very effective at maintaining their traditional way of life, although we learned that there is concern that this is being threatened by the modern world.
Extended families or single families live in bomas - villages usually laid out in a circle consisting of several round huts made of wood and plastered with a mixture of mud, grass, and cow dung. These villages are quite small - with the size being determined by the size of the family. The Maasai are polygamous, so a village often consists of one hut for each of the several wives and their children. The bomas are often surrounded by "fences" of thorny acacia branches woven together in thick tangles to keep predators out.
|A typical Maasai home|
Their primary livelihood - and their wealth - remains the herding of cattle, sheep, and goats, These herds are kept safe at night inside fenced areas in the center of the boma. Some families are reluctant to send their children to school for a couple of reasons. First, the children serve as the shepherds. We observed herds being guarded by very young children of only 7 or 8 years old!
|Village children watch over the herds and flocks.|
|An animal enclosure in the center of the boma.|
Both Solomon and Cosmas, our Maasai guide in Tanzania, mentioned that the children who were "less intelligent" (i.e., less skilled as herders) were the ones sent off to school as their "punishment." Cosmas joked that he was one of those children, but I could not help but notice that his education had put him in a position to get a good job as a tour guide. And our guide, Javin, had a university degree and plans to attend the University of Michigan to get an advanced degree in wildlife management!
Many families also worry that school will "modernize" their children. In fact, some families encourage their educated children not to return home to the boma, as it will corrupt their traditional culture. These educated children do face some discrimination, although Solomon explained that it's getting better, and more and more children are now being send to school.
The Maasai diet is also strongly influenced by their traditional profession of herding. Their primary food is beef, mutton, or goat meat, and milk - sometimes mixed with cows' blood for a protein-rich drink. The Maasai rarely eat fish - or swim - because the crocodiles are a danger to the cattle, making the river an evil place.
It was quickly evident to us tourists that the Maasai also continue to dress in their traditional clothing - especially the brightly colored shuka, a large bolt of cloth wrapped around the body in a variety of ways. Solomon explained that these robes were originally capes of cowhide smeared with red mud. The favored red color served several purposes. It made it easy to identify Maasai warriors in battle. It helped frighten predators, and it signified the cows' blood that still makes up part of the Maasai diet. In the 1960s, the people traded the cowhide robes for woven cloth, but kept their love of the bright red color - although we also saw many Maasai villagers in cloaks of deep blue. Women wear brightly colored sarongs, or lesos, with a variety of designs. Different beads and necklaces help to identify different Maasai groups, and a lady's marriage status is indicated by her style of ear and body jewelry.
|Solomon and his friends share the history of the colorful Maasai clothing.|
Solomon also described the important rites of passage in a Maasai's life. The first is the naming ceremony (which was traditionally held when the baby was one to two months old because so many children died in the first few months of life.)
The second rite of passage is body marking with tattoos or other marks, which takes place before the age of 10. These mark someone as a member of the Maasai tribe, but some families are opting not to continue this tradition because they want their children to be able to blend into modern society more easily.
The third rite is circumcision at age 11 or 12. Traditionally, this was done on both boys and girls. (On girls, we would know this as genital mutilation, and I was relieved to learn that this practice has been banned by the Kenyan government. Through public education and better understanding of the negative aspects, the practice is disappearing.) The rite of circumcision marks a boy's transition from childhood into warrior status. As they heal, they wear black robes and facial make-up that mark them as new adults. We saw several groups of these children as we traveled through the countryside.
|The young man in the black feathered cap was recently circumcised.|
|This group of boys outside of Ngorongoro Crater had just entered adulthood.|
The young warriors are presented with a shield, a clout, and a machete. Their traditional duties for the next ten years included protecting the village, cattle raiding against other tribes, and lion hunting. (The Maasai believed that all the cattle in the world belong to them, given into their hands by the creator, thus they were justified in taking it from the surrounding tribes.) The protection of the village and the herding of cattle continue, but cattle raiding and lion hunting are illegal in the modern world. Solomon explained that cattle raiding has been replaced by shrewd trading. The warriors have learned to bargain for the best prices for their cattle in the marketplace. Lion hunting has been replaced by the financial benefits of eco-tourism and the Maasai are learning to protect their homes without resorting to killing the lions that are a danger to their herds.
The girls' transition into adulthood also comes early. They usually marry very young, at around the age of 14 to 16 - although this may be delayed if a girl continues with her education, which is becoming more common. Women are encouraged to have as many children as possible. Children are seen as a great blessing.
The fourth rite of passage is marked by end of a boy's service as a warrior in his mid-twenties. At this time, he marries his first wife. Solomon explained that the first marriage is usually arranged by the parents, but the men are later able to select their additional wives themselves, as they have learned from the first wife the qualities they are looking for. Cosmas also mentioned that often the first wife selects the second wife - and her primary goal is to choose a strong woman who can help with all the chores!
The number of wives is determined by the wealth of the young man - in other words, by the size of his herds. The man pays a dowry to the bride's family consisting of 20 cows, 20 goats, 20 sheep, 2 dogs, and 1 cat. (Woe to the family that has all boys. They can lose their entire fortune paying dowries, so - unlike many cultures around the world - girl babies are welcomed with joy.)
The final rite of passage is death. The traditional Maasai burial consisted of covering the body with cow blood or fat and leaving it in the bush to be devoured by predators. Today, most Maasai have adopted Christianity and traditional Christian burials are more common.
July 9, 2106
A Visit to a Maasai Boma
One of the most memorable and enjoyable experiences of our trip was a morning with a Maasai family in their boma outside of Tarangire National Park. With Cosmas translating, Chief Lobulu welcomed us into his village and the villagers greeted us with song. Then his three wives and other extended family members took us each by the hand and draped us in shukas, lesos, and beaded jewelry.
|Chief Lobulu with Rob|
|The women of the village drape us in their traditional clothing.|
|Lani enjoys her new look.|
|Some of our tour members in their finery.|
|Maggie, Samantha, and Kayla were the youngest members of our group,|
and we all enjoyed their enthusiasm.
There were lots of smiles and laughs throughout the morning. My "partner" for the day was Lobulu's second wife, Anna.
|Anna and me (with guide Cosmas in the background).|
Anna was a very confident and charming woman who took me under her wing, patiently showing me through gestures and smiles how to participate in the various activities. We learned traditional crafts - weaving strands of bark and making beaded bracelets. We participated in the work of the village, learning to balance long sticks of wood or buckets of water on our heads. We were invited to help re-plaster one of the houses with a mixture of clay and dung, and some of us went up on top of the hut to help re-thatch the roof.
|Charlotte and Laura weave strips of bark.|
|Our group learns to make beaded jewelry.|
|Bob and Rob pound the maize.|
|Samantha and I balance long wooden poles on our heads.|
|I learn to thatch the roof...|
|while others re-plaster the mud walls.|
|Laura and Mary show off their muddy hands after helping with the plastering.|
|Some of the women of the village|
|Pounding the maize was one of the childrens' chores.|
|This activity went on throughout our entire visit. |
|The kids keep an eye on us visitors.|
In addition to the chores, there was plenty of time for social activity and fun! The men of our tour group joined the men of the village to learn the jumping dance, while we women sang and danced in a circle.
|The men demonstrate the aduma, the jumping dance|
|Rob enjoys the dancing.|
|The women join in the dancing.|
|And we end with the entire village dancing together.|
Here is a little video of snippets of the activities and fun in our visit: Visit to a Maasai Village
After the activities, we entered the home of Lobulu's first wife, where he told us more about village life. Each of the wives has her own house and does her own cooking for herself and her children. The chief rotates from one house to the next each night so that no one is favored.
|The three wives of Chief Lobulu|
What a fascinating discussion! We asked questions of the chief and his wives, and they asked questions of us. Lobulu was an enlightened chief who supported education and the government's ban on female circumcision. His village midwife had attended a government presentation on the negative aspects of this practice, and she was able to educate the people of the village.
As we questioned each other, I noticed that, while we westerners might find some aspects of the Maasai society to be unusual, the women clearly thought the same of some of our practices. One of the wives asked each of us how many children we had. One of our group said, "I have two and my husband has three." The Maasai woman looked surprised and asked how it was that they didn't have the same number of children. When our tour member said that her first marriage ended in divorce, the wives frowned and shook their heads. We learned that divorce is almost unheard of. Women who are widowed do not remarry, but that they are welcome and encouraged to have more children.
|Our visit ended with an opportunity to purchase some of the crafts made by the women of the boma.|
I was very grateful for this unique opportunity to learn about and experience a taste of a very different culture...and to understand why some of their customs that would not be "acceptable" in our culture make sense and work well in their world. Travel opens our eyes - and our hearts.