Maasai People Group

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The Massai are one of the most famous African ethnic people known today.  Living in southern Kenya and North central Tanzania these tall graceful people dress in many varieties of red and seem to refuse against all pressures to settle down to a village or agricultural life believing it a sin to cultivate land, as it is considered ruined for grazing after cultivation.  They are nomadic and live by herding cattle and goats.  Money is not important to them; they instead use cattle as a sign of wealth.  Instead of villages the Maasai build temporary corrals where the woman construct huts of clay, these are lived in for a little while and then abandoned.

The Maasai are a very communal people, and from a very young age children are divided into age groups to which they remain faithful to throughout their life.  The boys and girls are kept together until the girls reach puberty, at which time they are immediately married off to men at least 2 age groups ahead of them.  Men advance through different divisions in their age group hoping to achieve the status of a warrior.  Traditionally, the only way to achieve this status is to single handily kill a lion with a spear.

Known for their elaborate beadwork, the Maasai seem to be obsessed with red; they rub red dye all over their bodies and also cover themselves in elaborate red beadwork.  This beadwork is very famous and is one of the most common things which they trade.  The patterns of the beads identify different age groups of the Maasai and many times young men will cover themselves in beads.  Another art form of the Maasai is hair braiding.  Most Maasai will spend days doing elaborate hair designs.  Men will sometimes grow their hair into huge braids similar to the women.

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For the Maasai, cattle are what make the good life, and milk and meat are the best foods. Their old ideal was to live by their cattle alone  other foods they could get by exchange  but today they also need to grow crops. They move their herds from one place to another, so that the grass has a chance to grow again; traditionally, this is made possible by a communal land tenure system in which everyone in an area shares access to water and pasture. Nowadays Maasai have increasingly been forced to settle, and many take jobs in towns. Maasai society is organized into male age-groups whose members together pass through initiations to become warriors, and then elders. They have no chiefs, although each section has a Laibon, or spiritual leader, at its head. Maasai worship one god who dwells in all things, but may manifest himself as either kindly or destructive. Many Maasai today, however, belong to various Christian churches.

Since the colonial period, most of what used to be Maasai land has been taken over, for private farms and ranches, for government projects or for wildlife parks. Mostly they retain only the driest and least fertile areas. The stress this causes to their herds has often been aggravated by attempts made by governments to ‘develop’ the Maasai. These are based on the idea that they keep too much cattle for the land. However, they are in fact very efficient livestock producers and rarely have more animals than they need or the land can carry. These ‘development’ efforts try to change their system of shared access to land. While this has suited outsiders and some entrepreneurial Maasai who have been able to acquire land for themselves or sell it off, it has often denuded the soil and brought poverty to the majority of Maasai, who are left with too little and only the worst land.

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