13 Mindblowing Things You Need To Know About The Maasai Tribe | Kenya
The Maasai are an East-African tribe with an extraordinary culture. They live in the southern part of Kenya and the northern part of Tanzania. Their culture is very unique and their customs are sometimes controversial. They are one of the last great warrior cultures in the world and live in the most famous game reserve in the world: the Masai Mara. So meeting a Maasai tribe is truly a once-in-a-lifetime-experience for every traveller.
Here are 13 mindblowing things you need to know about the Maasai. Plus practical travel tips on how to meet the tribe and best places to stay in Kenya and Tanzania.
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#1 The Maasai are nomads
The people of the Maasai Tribe are semi-nomadic. They live in game reserves like the Masai Mara, Amboseli National Park and the Serengeti National Park. Living in these parks, means they co-exist with wildlife like lions, elephants, leopards, cheetahs, rhinos and every other wild animal that lives within their territory. They herd cows and goats so a big piece of land for their cattle to graze is very important. The Maasai are always in search of the most fertile lands to settle for a while so their life follows patterns of rainfall over vast areas of land. Constantly looking for food and water for their cattle. And over the years that hasn’t been easy.
History of the Maasai
The Maasai originated from northern Africa and migrated south in the 15th century. Along the way, they attacked other tribes, gained new cattle and occupied the most fertile lands until the beginning of the 20th century. Severe drought and multiple diseases that lasted for several years got half of the Maasai tribe and their animals killed. And soon after that, the tribe lost two-thirds of their territory to European settlers.
After an unfair battle with armed British troops to protect their territory, the Maasai signed a very controversial agreement in 1911. Not fully understanding what the treaty was about made them lose the best of their land. They were relocated to less fertile parts of Kenya and Tanzania.
Now preserving their territory within a vastly growing population is a big struggle for the Maasai until this day.
#2 Maasai and their love for cows
Maasai are cattle-herders and their lives revolve around their livestock. Cows are the most important thing in their lives and also their most valuable possession. As a Maasai warrior, having a big herd of cows means you are wealthy. The size of the cattle indicates the status within the tribe.
The Maasai use cows also as a currency for their major transactions. Paying with cows also strengthen the bond between families. And maintains the social harmony within the tribe.
Exchanging cattle between a bride and groom’s family is a tradition and also marks the price of the bride. When I was travelling with my family through Kenya in 2005 my father was asked multiple times how many cows I cost. Luckily he said: she is not for sale 😉
They rarely slaughter their cows and eat their meat. They only do this on special occasions and ceremonies.
#3 The Maasai belong to the tallest people in the world
Okay, the Dutch people win this battle. They are the tallest people on earth but the Maasai do get very close. With their long limbs, they belong to the tallest people of Africa. It’s because of their rich calcium diet that they are so tall.
They seem taller because of their world famous high jumps. It’s not just random jumping. It’s called ‘Adamu’ and carries a deeper meaning. They jump to showcase their strength and to attract their future bride. It’s like a mating dance. How higher the jump, the more attractive you are for a female Maasai.
If you’re visiting a village ‘Adamu’ will be a part of your experience. It looks so easy but once you try it you will see how hard it is. And for sure, you will get a few laughs from the Maasai as well.
Its tradition to do’Adamu’ during a special ceremony called ‘Eunoto’. It’s the graduation from a boy becoming a warrior.
#4 Maasai Men can have multiple wives
The number of cattle and children each Maasai owns is a measurement for wealth. So Maasai men can have as many wives as they want so they can get a lot of children. It’s not really depending on how many wives Maasai men want, but it’s more of how many wives he can afford and support. A bride comes with a price in cows of course. Also, each wife will have to build her own house for her children within the village. And among the wives, there is a hierarchy: the first wife holds the most value and power and here house is closest to her husband.
The women carry out many of the chores in the community, like fetch water and firewood, cook food, milk the cows and look after their homes while the men are herding the cattle. Within the tribe, the women are the minority. Women are not allowed to own cattle or land. Their father and later their husband will represent them by making tough decisions. And that’s not even the worst part for Maasai women. If they don’t get any sons within their marriage they are left alone with no money and no one to take care of them.
Find out more about marriage within the Maasai Tribe by reading this international bestseller about a European woman marrying a Maasai warrior in Kenya
#5 Maasai warriors hunt lions
The Maasai see lion hunting as the bravest thing to do as a warrior. Hunting the king of the jungle is a personal achievement and has been a tradition for a very long time.
In the past, the Warriors went on a solo lion hunt when the lion population was still high. Later they hunted a lion in groups because they saw the population declining. The warrior who speared the lion first received respect throughout his lifetime from the Maasai community. Due to the decline of the lion population and a lot of controversies the Tribe replaced lion hunting with a sports competition since 2008.
Instead of hunting lions, Warriors now use their traditional skills to compete without hurting animals. It’s called the Maasai Olympics. The Maasai Olympics are still based on traditional Maasai warrior skills, like running, hunting, cattle herding and also dancing. But now the Maasai earn warrior respect through sports and win cash prizes.
#6 The Maasai drink blood
The diet of the Maasai is very simple; raw meat, raw milk and on special occasions they drink raw blood. Yes, cow blood. They drink it pure or mixed with milk during special ceremonies or when they are sick.
The cows are the most valuable things in the lives of the tribe so not killing your livestock is very important to them. So to obtain blood the Maasai precisely hit the jugular artery of a cow so enough blood comes out without killing the animal.
Nowadays, many Maasai people live an urban lifestyle so they eat a more varied diet than just milk, blood and meat.
#7 The homes are made of cow poo and human urine
The huts ‘manyattas’ Maasai build are semi-permanent. They settle in one place for a couple of months/ years, depending on the amount of food and water in the area. The women make the huts with mud, sticks, grass, ash and also cow dung and human urine. The cow dung is needed to make the roof waterproof.
The homes of the Maasai, also known as ‘Enkaj’ are very small. Only 1.5 m high and around 12 square meters. Within the hut, there is a fireplace for the mother to cook and it’s a place where the Maasai eat, sleep, socialize and store food and other possessions. They also keep small livestock within the huts to protect them from wildlife. The Maasai use the hides and skin of the slaughtered animals to sleep on.
The Maasai build their homes within kraals. It’s like a fence made of acacia thorns. A Maasai village can have multiple kraals. The cattle will stay in the inner kraal during the night time to prevent lion and leopard attacks.
#8 They are dressed in red cloths
Everyone in the world recognizes the Maasai through their red cloths and high jumps. Traditionally the Maasai dressed in animal skins but now they wear red cloths wrapped around their body. With also a great amount of beaded jewellery around their neck, arms and head.
The women shave their heads and are dressed in colourful clothing. They also pierce their ears and stretch their earlobes. Maasai jewellery plays a big part in their culture and also has meaning to it. Some general meanings for a few colours are; red = warrior/blood/bravery, white = peace, blue = water. Also, Maasai men can recognize a single lady or someone who is married by the way the women are dressed. And Warriors are the only members of the tribe to wear long hair.
#9 The Maasai have become the symbol of Kenyan culture
If you think of Kenya, big chance you will have the Maasai Tribe coming forward as a mental picture. They are one of the very few tribes of Kenya and Tanzania who has kept most of their traditions and lifestyle. Of course, there are more and more modern Maasai living an urban lifestyle. The majority is still sticking to their old traditions.
As tourism in Kenya progressed the Maasai tribe has turned into a brand itself. You can buy Maasai jewellery everywhere on the streets of Kenya and Tanzania. Their jewellery and carvings are an inspiration to even high-end fashion labels like Louis Vuitton.
Also, a lot of Maasai people jumped into the chance of earning money through the booming tourism industry. They welcome guests at hotels and work as tour leaders and rangers within the game reserves and national parks. As a warrior tribe, they know their lands and wildlife very well and love to explain tourists about wild animals and their own culture. Visiting a Maasai Tribe has become one of the most popular things to do in Kenya and the Maasai very well know how to take advantage of this opportunity.
The last part of a Maasai village visit is their own merchandise ‘store’ with all their beading and jewellery on display. And the prices what tourist pay are sometimes shocking. I experienced myself that because of the overwhelming experience and the pressure to give something back you will end up with a very expensive Maasai souvenir. At the spot, you probably miscalculate the currency as well.
#10 Their language is Maa
The Maasai speak Maa. This language originated from the Nile region in northern Africa where the Maasai came from. The name Maasai comes from “one who speaks the Maa language”. Maasai are also educated in the official languages of Kenya and Tanzania, Swahili and English.
#11 Ngai is god
For the Maasai, Ngai is the creator of everything. They believe that at the beginning of time Ngai was sky and earth together and owned the cattle that lived on it. As one day the sky and earth got separated the Maasai believe that Ngai was no longer on earth and sent the Maasai to earth to prevent the cattle from dying.
#12 The Samburu tribe is very similar to the Maasai Tribe
The Samburu tribe are the cousins of the Maasai Tribe. They look very similar to the Maasai, they speak the same language, believe in the same god and have similar traditions. The Samburu lifestyle is more traditional than the Maasai culture nowadays. They live more remotely in northern Kenya south of Lake Turkana. The Samburu tribe also moved south 500 years ago from the Sudan Nile Valley just as the Maasai tribe did, but they stayed in the north part of Kenya as the Maasai moved further south.
#13 Being a warrior is of great importance
The Maasai are a warrior tribe so becoming a great warrior is the ultimate goal in life for young boys. From a very young age, boys are trained to become a great warrior and an excellent herder. Big and brave warriors who have earned their respect are celebrated throughout their lives.
The Maasai culture workes with age-sets. Each age group has a certain role within the community. For men, the Maasai have four age groups; junior warriors, senior warriors, junior elders and senior elders. Maasai women have no age-group. They automatically fall into the age group of their husband.
Boys at the age of 6 and 7 begin to learn to herd the cattle. At the age around 14, they go through rituals and ceremonies to become a junior warrior and this includes circumcision. The ‘Eunoto’ ceremony is where a large group of Maasai boys within the same age group get circumcised and become young warriors. Once they become warriors they can settle down, start a family and collect cattle. Through every age-group, the Maasai men learn different aspects of the traditions and rituals so they can pass it on to the next generation.
Young Maasai girls at the age of 14, were also initiated into adulthood via an official circumcision, but this ritual has been outlawed.
Travel tips to meet the Maasai
Travelling to Kenya and visiting a Maasai tribe is an absolute must. As I wrote before it was an experience I will never forget and can absolutely recommend to every traveller. There are a lot of ‘commercialised’ Maasai villages in Kenya and Tanzania where big groups of tourists enter the same village every day. Big local schools are built with the tourist revenue. So don’t expect you will be the first to visit.
Every hotel within the Masai Mara and Serengeti where the Maasai live will offer trips to local Maasai villages. It’s best to ask them to organize a trip. It’s not that there is a Maasai tourist attraction centre at one specific spot. The Maasai are nomads so they move around in the area and the locals know best where to find them. And because of a lot of Maasai work within the tourist industry, you can just ask them to organize a trip to their village. It can be more of an authentic experience if you’re not afraid to ask around and ask for more remote villages in the area. Be discreet. Only visit a Maasai village if you know you are welcome.
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