The Maasai are one of the many southern-most tribes located in Kenya. They are physically related, and also in many other forms related to the Samburu and Turkana. The Maasai have a relatively complex culture and traditions. In fact, for many years they were unheard of. By the late 1800’s we soon discovered more about the Maasai, mostly from their oral histories. It is presumed that the Maasai came from the north, probably from the region of the Nile Valley in Sudan.
Also presumed is that they left this area sometime between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, migrating southwards towards he Great Rift Valley. According to the Maasai oral history, they came from a crater or deep valley somewhere to the north, at a place called Endikir-e-Kerio. Although many scholars have called this place the southeastern region of Lake Turkana, many of the oral histories say that they may have come from further up north, near the Nile river. Whichever location this is, the migration was caused by a dry spell.
According to the Maasai a bridge was built, and after half the livestock and people had left the dry area, the bridge collapsed, leaving back the other half of the population. These people later climbed out of the valley, and were helped by the present day Somali, Bora na and Renville peoples. The Maasai later entered Kenya, and moved south through the Rift Valley, where there was pasture for their cattle. Because there was very little surface water, the Maasai resorted to pastoralism instead of agriculture. The Maasai have adapted to their environment to ensure survival and the maintenance of their culture. The Maasai have adapted to the conditions of their environment through their religious rituals, which function in keeping their political structure, and maintaining cattle numbers.
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The idea of religion in the Maasai culture is attached with the importance they place on the stages of life. Spear indicates that for the Maasai, God is close yet completely unknowable. Each ritual transition between age-groups is a step toward old age and metaphorically a step toward God. According to Emily Mcalpine in “The Maasai culture and Ecological Conditions” the most important event in the ceremony is the sharing of meat which brings all participants closer to God.
Prophets provide a number of important religious services. They are responsible for divining and healing sickness, making protective medicines for the initiation of age-sets, and approving the raids by the warriors. The rituals and ceremonies that the Maasai participate in give added importance to the lives they lead. With every ceremony that celebrates the step to a more distinguished age, the added responsibilities given to that person are celebrated.
Their contribution in the society is elevated as well as their honor. Age is the greatest influence in Maasai society. Other ways of defining status by age pertain to women; these are called “age-grades.” While the age-set is only for initiated men, women can obtain a higher age-grade after marriage. Age-grades are the consecutive statuses that individuals are given in the course of their lives. The rights that are given to women as they progress through age groups include the responsibilities of herds, land and families. The ceremonies that occur for these passages through age are important in keeping this established tradition.
The most important ages for both men and women are between 15 and 18. This is when the girls and boys are initiated into adulthood through the act of circumcision. After the act of circumcision, both boys and girls are able to take on new responsibilities in their community, including the right to marry and hold land and cattle for themselves. When a mother sends her son to be initiated, she presents him with pendants known as to wear throughout his initiation.
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He will later return these to her, to be worn proudly as a sign of her son’s status. A mother will wear these all of her life, and they are only removed in the event of a sons’ death. This is also the time for girls to choose different warriors as boyfriends in such a pattern that many girls wind up sharing one warrior (and vice versa).
These early relationships are a preparation to maintain a productive family and household in a multiple arranged marriage Merker ([1910: p 65, n]) Before marriage, a girl may decorate only the upper ear, and not the lobes. The upper ear is pierced with a large hole, and beading fastened to the ear.
As a girl grows older, her ears are decorated more. At adulthood, her lobes are pierced, and gradually stretched with the weight of the beads. On her wedding day, an extremely elaborate, knee length necklace is worn throughout the ceremony. A wedding is cause for a girl to display all of her finery, and so many beaded necklaces and ornaments are worn that it can be difficult for the bride to walk.
Married women wear the Nborro – long blue bead necklaces, and also decorate their earlobes with long beaded flaps. A married woman will usually carry a snuff container tied onto her necklaces. These marriages however are not just patriarchal. Each Maasai wife builds her house within a family homestead and lives off the herd that has been given to her through her marriage. This herd provides food for her children and herself, and will be future herds for her sons later on in their lives. By organizing the family and resources in this way, there can be assurance that the sons will be supplied with enough resources to begin their own families later on.
It also allows the family to pool resources, which will ensure a more reliable food sources in case of a drought. Although the dominant male in the family chooses whether or not to use these resources, it is up the woman to make sure they are available at all times. Not only are the women responsible for family care, but also house maintenance. The Maasai women are the ones to build the houses, after that they are the ones to maintain them, with no help. The Maasai women however are not treated too subserviently. They are able to speak in public, unlike many other tribes.
They are also allowed to participate in many religious ceremonies, which is connected to the politics of the society. Unfortunately for women in the Maasai tribe though, they are limited to how many children they can have. This is to keep the population under control, seeing that there may not be enough resources. Before men are able to be eligible for marriage, they must undergo the warrior period and accumulate cattle. Since the ownership of family stock, which is the bride wealth and authority to allow the marriage of younger men is in the hands of the elders, only they can tell the men when they are eligible for marriage. This control over the marriage stage of a man’s life increases the age at which they can marry, while also decreases birth rate.
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Also, in the Maasai culture, there is a period of sexual abstinence for six months after the birth of a child. This is another method in maintaining a low birth rate. If a girl has sex and becomes pregnant outside of marriage, she and the father of the child are shunned. While the age of a woman when she is married is approximately 17-18 years old, the spacing between children (due to the abstinence after sex as well as the stretched out period of breast-feeding) minimizes the amount of children a woman will have. Other population regulation forces include sexually transmitted diseases, which has been reported to be very common among the Maasai since the colonial period.
These sexually diseases limit population by killing those living as well as causing infertility in Maasai women. One in five adults in Maasailand have a venereal disease such as gonorrhea and syphilis, which are two of the leading diseases that cause infertility in women. Another force which limits fertility is draught. It is found that during draught, the seasonal malnutrition decrease fertility by affecting the timing of menopause, increasing the chances of miscarriages and stillbirths, and affecting the ability to breastfeed. The population limiting shown only emphasizes how the Maasai will adapt to their surroundings and Environment and how they can successfully distribute food and resources. There are five sectors relevant to the Maasai economy: animal husbandry controlled by elders, stock-raiding by moran (warriors), care for herds by women and children, foraging, and the cash economy.
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It has been said that the Maasai at this point are actually overgrazing the land, which could lead to disaster. Jacobs, after having studied the Maasai for some time, concludes that claims of extensive or excessive overgrazing of Maasailand are both “‘unsubstantiated and wildly exaggerated.’ Traditionally, the Maasai were never organized as a single tribe unified under a political system. They live in an En kang, which is a temporary area because the Maasai are semi-nomadic. Enkangs belong to larger groups, or. Each has its own territory, variation of Maasai customs, and decision-making independence. The heads of households are entitled to grazing and watering lands within its boundaries.
During times of drought, sharing between is common. This social structure, which maintains a balance with the shakiness of the environment and the fluctuating needs of the society, is a good method of preventing many problems and reducing risk. Grazing properly however is the most important production method and risk prevention. This is because the Maasai use all products of the cow.
Most of these products, other than the meat, are shared freely throughout the whole society. This includes the skins, milk, blood, urine and dung of the cow. These cows are bled in times of draught, and then shared through the community. Of course every decision about the agriculture is based on the political system. That is, those who have the highest societal rank. As said before, the older one is in this society, the more power attained.
The most common form of sharing goods and distributing them is through allied kin groups. There is no doubt sometimes disagreements amongst the Maasai people, therefore most kin groups have an ally kin group. These are useful when a luxury item is sought after and one group has it and is willing to lend or give it to the other, not a necessity. When something is needed for survival, the whole society will help.
1. Cronk, Lee 2004 From Mukogodo To Maasai: Ethnicity and Cultural Change in Kenya (Westview Case Studies in Anthropology), Westview Press, pp.
27-352. Hatfield, Johnston 1997 The Maasai of East Africa (Celebrating the Peoples and Civilizations of Africa) Power Kids Press; 1 st ed edition, pp. 9-133. Spear, Walker 1993 Being Maasai: Ethnicity & Identity in East A fri Ca (Eastern African Studies), Ohio University Press pp. 214-2214.
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Kit uvi, Mukhisa 1990 Becoming Kenyans: Socio-economic transformation of the pastoral Maasai (Dry lands research series), Acts Press, pp. 193-2015. Sank an, S. S. Ole 1985 The Maasai, Kenya Literature Bureau, pp. 77-84.