The Masaai speak Maa, and extensive oral law governs many aspects of their lifestyle. Maa is only spoken, not written, and Masaai children are schooled in Swahili or English. The culture is strongly patriarchal, with the elder men of the tribe typically deciding on all matters that affect the group. The tribe is monotheistic with one god named Engai (benevolent black god) or Enkai (vengeful red god).
Masaai families live in an enclosure called an enkang that typically contains ten to twenty small huts protected by a fence or boundary made from thorn bushes. The circular huts are made of cow dung, mud and grass packed onto a timber frame and usually only have one or two rooms. Because the tribe is semi-nomadic, the huts are easy to disassemble and built using readily available indigenous materials. The Masaai women build the huts, and at night cows and goats are brought into the enclosure to protect them from wild animals.
Masaai clothing varies by sex, age and place. Red is a favoured colour, believed to symbolise power, and is often combined with other bright materials. Certain ceremonies call for a specific colour or dress code. Rituals are always accompanied by singing and dancing and occasionally musical instruments such as kudu horns are used to compliment the singing. One of the most famous Masaai rituals is the ‘jumping dance’, a coming of age ceremony for young, would-be warriors. Young men stand in a circle and leap into the air, achieving heights that will astound most Westerners.
Cattle are not only the Masaai’s primary source of food but also play a pivotal role in their livelihood. The number of cattle a man owns denotes his wealth and also gives him good bartering powers with other tribesmen. Tribal myth states that God afforded all the cattle on earth to the Masaai, and the tribe spends much of its time ensuring these almost sacred creatures’ safety and health. At night, cattle are protected in the manyatta (clan settlement) while days are spent in search of grazing.
Masaai history is not written but passed down from one generation to the next through story telling. According to Masaai narrative, the tribe originated when they moved from North Africa in search of fertile grasses to feed their dying cattle. The elders, not knowing what direction to take, turned to nature for answers. On seeing a bird land on a bare tree with a piece of green grass in its beak, the elders sent young boys to follow its path, and discovered verdant ground atop of high cliff. The Masaai then built a giant ladder up the cliff but only half the people reached high ground before the ladder collapsed. Those on top had no choice but to leave the rest behind and began a new prosperous life – and that is how the Massai people came into being.
Body modification is a common among the Masaai with ear piercing and earlobe stretching most regularly practised. Both men and women adorn their ears with beaded jewelry and large round earlobe discs and elaborate earrings are worn, especially during ceremonies. Ear lobe stretching begins gradually from a young age and large spaced lobes are thought to be a sign of age and wisdom. Men cover their bodies in ochre to enhance their appearance, and some young warriors display their fierce status by marking their bodies with hot spears, causing permanent scarring.
This is true for both male and females, but for females especially the custom is beginning to wane. Female genital cutting is now outlawed in Tanzania and in some cases has been replaced with a ‘cutting with words’ ceremony, involving singing and dancing in place of mutilation. Although global pressure has, in a sense, modernised the cultural tradition, Masaai women who have not endured the brutal mutilation often fetch a much lower bride price in traditional homesteads.
Masaai warriors are called morani and responsible for the safety of the community. They are known for their proud and brave disposition as well as their accurate hunting skills. During the circumcision ceremony young Masai boys have their heads shaved and their faces painted as warrior training begins. Morani are the only members of the Masaai community who are permitted to grow their hair, and warriors spend many hours beautifying each other with braids. Traditionally those warriors who could kill a lion single-handedly were regarded as the most fearsome.
Lion hunting is outlawed in East Africa and, according to the Masaai Association, single-handed lion hunting is no longer carried out by Masaai warriors. Instead young warriors are encouraged to conduct group hunts, thereby reducing the number of lions killed and giving populations time to recover. Female lions are never hunted. Although African lions are not endangered their numbers are threatened.
The Masaai do not believe in the afterlife and once a person has died their journey is considered at an end. They also do not believe in burial as this is thought to harm the environment and possibly bring pollution to the remaining family members. Their traditional burial practises are therefore very minimalist and usually the bodies of those that have passed on are covered in ox blood and animal fat and left out in the bush to be eaten by predators.
Many Masaai are finding their traditional way of life increasingly difficult to maintain and preserve. During recent years projects have been implemented to help Masaai tribal leaders find ways to maintain their lifestyles, while simultaneously balancing the educational needs of the Masaai children with the modern world. Some Masaai have moved away from nomadic life in search of modern careers yet, despite their urban lifestyle, still take time to return to their traditional land and dress in customary style – at ease with themselves and the world.