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LOCATION: Kenya; Tanzania

POPULATION: Over 150,000

LANGUAGE: Maa (Olmaa)

RELIGION: Traditional beliefs


The Maasai are thought of as the typical cattle herders of Africa, yet they have not always been herders, nor are they all today. Because of population growth, development strategies, and the resulting shortage of land, cattle raising is in decline. However, cattle still represent "the breath of life" for many Maasai. When given the chance, they choose herding above all other livelihoods. For many Westerners, the Maasai are Hollywood's "noble savage"fierce, proud, handsome, graceful of bearing, and elegantly tall. Hair smeared red with ochre (a pigment), they either carry spears or stand on one foot tending cattle. These depictions oversimplify Maasai life during the twentieth century. Today, Maasai cattle herders may also be growing maize (corn) or wheat, rearing Guinea fowl, raising ostriches, or may be hired by ecologists to take pictures of the countryside.

Prior to British colonization, Africans, Arabs, and European explorers considered the Maasai formidable warriors for their conquests of neighboring peoples and their resistance to slavery. Caravan traders traveling from the coast to Uganda crossed Maasailand with trepidation. However, in 188081, when the British unintentionally introduced rinderpest (a cattle disease), the Maasai lost 80 percent of their stock. The British colonizers further disrupted Maasai life by moving them to a reserve in southern Kenya. While the British encouraged them to adopt European ways, they also advised them to retain their traditions. These contradictions resulted, for the most part, in leaving the Maasai alone and allowed them to develop almost on their own. However, drought, famine, cattle diseases, and intratribal warfare (warfare among themselves) in the nineteenth century greatly weakened the Maasai and nearly destrtoyed certain tribes.

Since Kenyan and Tanzanian independence from Britain in the 1960s, land ownership has changed dramatically. Modern ranching, wheat cultivation techiques, and setting of grazing boundaries in the Maasai district are becoming common. A wage and cash economy is replacing the barter (trade) system. Consequently, the Maasai have begun to integrate themselves into the modern economies and mainstream societies of Kenya and Tanzania, albeit with considerable reluctance.


The Maasai are thought to have originated in the Upper Nile Valley. Their myths speak about climbing up from a broad and deep crater bounded on all sides by a steep, long cliff. By the 1600s they had begun migrating with their herds into the vast arid, savanna-like (grassland) region of East Africa straddling the Kenya-Tanzania border. Today, their homeland is bounded by Lake Victoria to the west and Mount Kilimanjaro to the east. Maasailand extends some 310 miles (500 kilometers) from north to south and about 186 miles (300 kilometers) at its widest east-west point.

Estimates of the Maasai population include more than 150,000 in Tanzania, and close to 150,000 in Kenya.


The Maasai are speakers of the Maa language, which is also spoken by the Samburu and the Chamus living in central Kenya. The origins of Maa have been traced to the east of present-day Juba in southern Sudan. More than twenty variants of Maa exist. The Maasai refer to their language as Olmaa.


Maasai legends and folktales tell much about the origin of present-day Maasai beliefs. These stories include their ascent from a crater, the emergence of the first Maasai prophet-magician (Laibon), the killing of an evil giant (Oltatuani) who raided Maasai herds, and the deception by Olonana of his father to obtain the blessing reserved for his older brother, Senteu (a legend similar to the Biblical story of Jacob and Esau).

One origin myth reveals much about present-day Maasai relations between the sexes. It holds that the Maasai are descended from two equal and complementary tribes, one consisting strictly of females, and the other of males. The women's tribe, the Moroyok, raised antelopes, including the eland, which the Maasai claim to have been the first species of cattle. Instead of cattle, sheep, and goats, the women had herds of gazelles. Zebras transported their goods during migrations, and elephants were their devoted friends, tearing down branches and bringing them to the women who used them to build homes and corrals. The elephants also swept the antelope corrals clean. However, while the women bickered and quarreled, their herds escaped. Even the elephants left them because they could not satisfy the women with their work.

According to the same myth, the Morwakthe men's triberaised cattle, sheep, and goats. The men occasionally met women in the forest. The children from these unions would live with their mothers, but the boys would join their fathers when they grew up. When the women lost their herds, they went to live with the men, and, in doing so, gave up their freedom and their equal status. From that time, they depended on men, had to work for them, and were subject to their authority.


Unlike the predominantly Christian populations of Kenya and Tanzania that surround them, the Maasai traditionally place themselves at the center of their universe as God's chosen people. Like other African religions, the Maasai believe that one high god (Enkai) created the world, forming three groups of people. The first were the Torrobo (Okiek pygmies), a hunting and gathering people of small stature to whom God gave honey and wild animals as a food source. The second were the neighboring Kikuyu, farmers to whom God gave seed and grain. The third were the Maasai, to whom God gave cattle, which came to earth sliding down a long rope linking heaven and Earth. While the Torrobo were destined to endure bee stings, and the Kikuyu famines and floods, the Maasai received the noble gift of raising cattle. A Torrobo, jealous of the Maasai's gift of cattle, cut the "umbilical cord" between heaven and Earth. For many Maasai, the center of their world remains their cattle, which furnish food, clothing, and shelter.


The traditional Maasai calendar has no designated holidays. It is divided into twelve months belonging to three main seasons: Nkokua (the long rains), Oloirurujuruj (the drizzling season), and Oltumuret (the short rains). The names of months are very descriptive. For example, the second month of the drizzling season is Kujorok, meaning "The whole countryside is beautifully green, and the pasture lands are likened to a hairy caterpillar."

Maasai ceremonial feasts for circumcision, excision (female circumcision), and marriage offer occasions for festive community celebrations, which may be considered similar to holidays. As the Maasai are integrated into modern Kenyan and Tanzanian life, they also participate in secular (nonreligious) state holidays. In Kenya, these include Labor Day (May 1), Madaraka Day (June 1), and Kenyatta Day (October 20). In Tanzania, these include Labor Day (May 1), Zanzibar Revolution Day (January 12); Nane Nane (formerly Saba Saba Farmer's Day, in August); Independence Day (December 9); and Union Day (April 26), which commemorates the unification of Zanzibar and the mainland.


Life for the Maasai is a series of conquests and tests involving the endurance of pain. For men, there is a progression from childhood to warriorhood to elderhood. At the age of four, a child's lower incisors are taken out with a knife. Young boys test their will by their arms and legs with hot coals. As they grow older, they submit to tattooing on the stomach and the arms, enduring hundreds of small cuts into the skin.

Ear piercing for both boys and girls comes next. The cartilage of the upper ear is pierced with hot iron. When this heals, a hole is cut in the ear lobe and gradually enlarged by inserting rolls of leaves or balls made of wood or mud. Nowadays plastic film canisters may serve this purpose. The bigger the hole, the better. Those earlobes that dangle to the shoulders are considered perfect.

Circumcision (for boys) and excision (for girls) is the next stage, and the most important event in a young Maasai's life. It is a father's ultimate duty to ensure that his children undergo this rite. The family invites relatives and friends to witness the ceremonies, which may be held in special villages called imanyat. The imanyat dedicated to circumcision of boys are called nkang oo ntaritik (villages of little birds).

Circumcision itself involves great physical pain and tests a youth's courage. If they flinch during the act, boys bring shame and dishonor to themselves and their family. At a minimum, the members of their age group ridicule them and they pay a fine of one head of cattle. However, if a boy shows great bravery, he receives gifts of cattle and sheep.

Girls must endure an even longer and more painful ritual, which is considered preparation for childbearing. (Girls who become pregnant before excision are banished from the village and stigmatized throughout their lives.) After passing this test of courage, women say they are afraid of nothing.

Guests celebrate the successful completion of these rites by drinking great quantities of mead (a fermented beverage containing honey) and dancing. Boys are then ready to become warriors, and girls are then ready to bear a new generation of warriors. In a few months, the young woman's future husband will come to pick her up and take her to live with his family.

After passing the tests of childhood and circumcision, boys must fulfill a civic requirement similar to military service. They live for up to several months in the bush, where they learn to overcome pride, egotism, and selfishness. They share their most prized possessions, their cattle, with other members of the community. However, they must also spend time in the village, where they sacrifice their cattle for ceremonies and offer gifts of cattle to new households. This stage of development matures a warrior and teaches him nkaniet (respect for others), and he learns how to contribute to the welfare of his community. The stage of "young warriorhood" ends with the eunoto rite, when a man ends his periodic trips into the bush and returns to his village, putting his acquired wisdom to use for the good of the community.


Each child belongs to an "age set" from birth. To control the vices of pride, jealousy, and selfishness, children must obey the rules governing relationships within the age set, between age sets, and between the sexes. Warriors, for example, must share a girlfriend with at least one of their age-group companions. All Maasai of the same sex are considered equal within their age group.

Many tensions exist between children and adults, elders and warriors, and men and women. The Maasai control these with taboos (prohibitions). A daughter, for example, must not be present while her father is eating. Only non-excised girls may accompany warriors into their forest havens, where they eat meat. Although the younger warriors may wish to dominate their communities, they must follow rules and respect their elders' advice.


By Western standards, Maasai living conditions seem primitive. However, the Maasai are generally proud of their simple lifestyle and do not seek to replace it with a more modern lifestyle. Nevertheless, the old ways are changing. Formerly, cowhides were used to make walls and roofs of temporary homes during migrations. They were also used to sleep on. Permanent and semi-permanent homes resembling igloos were built of sticks and branches plastered with mud, and with cow dung on the roofs. They were windowless and leaked a great deal. Nowadays, tin roofs and other more modern materials are gradually transforming these simple dwellings.

A few paved trunk roads and many passable dirt roads make Maasailand accessible. Much like their fellow Kenyan and Tanzanian citizens, the Maasai travel by bus and bush taxi when they need to cover distances.


The Maasai are a patriarchal society; men typically speak for women and make decisions in the family. Male elders decide community matters. Until the age of seven, boys and girls are raised together. Mothers remain close to their children, especially their sons, throughout life. Once circumcised, sons usually move away from their father's village, but they still follow his advice. Girls learn to fear and respect their fathers and must never be near them when they eat.

A person's peers (age-mates) are considered extended family and are obligated to help each other. Age-mates share nearly everything, even their wives. Girls are often promised in marriage long before they are of age. However, even long-term engagements are subject to veto by male family members.


Maasai clothing varies by age, sex, and place. Traditionally, shepherds wore capes made from calf hides, and women wore capes of sheepskin. The Maasai decorated these capes with glass beads. In the 1960s, the Maasai began to replace animal-skin with commercial cotton cloth. Women tied lengths of this cloth around their shoulders as capes (shuka) or around the waist as a skirt. The Maasai color of preference is red, although black, blue, striped, and checkered cloth are also worn, as are multicolored African designs. Elderly women still prefer red and dye their own cloth with ochre (a natural pigment). Until recently, men and women wore sandals made from cowhides; nowadays sandals and shoes are generally made of tire strips or plastic.

Young women and girls, and especially young warriors, spend much time on their appearance. Styles vary by age group. The Maasai excel in designing jewelry. They decorate their bodies with tattooing, head shaving, and hair styling with ochre and sheep's fat, which they also smear on their bodies. A variety of colors are used to create body art. Women and girls wear elaborate bib-like bead necklaces, as well as headbands and earrings, which are colorful and intricate. When ivory was plentiful, warriors wore ivory bands on their upper arms much like the ancient Egyptians. Jewelry plays an important role in courtship.


The Maasai depend on cattle for both food and cooking utensils (as well as for shelter and clothing). Cattle ribs make stirring sticks, spatulas, and spoons. Horns are used as butter dishes and large horns as cups for drinking mead.

The traditional Maasai diet consists of six basic foods: meat, blood, milk, fat, honey, and tree bark. Wild game (except the eland), chicken, fish, and salt are forbidden. Allowable meats include roasted and boiled beef, goat, and mutton. Both fresh and curdled milk are drunk, and animal blood is drunk at special timesafter giving birth, after circumcision and excision, or while recovering from an accident. It may be tapped warm from the throat of a cow, or drunk in coagulated form. It can also be mixed with fresh or soured milk, or drunk with therapeutic bark soups (motori). It is from blood that the Maasai obtain salt, a necessary ingredient in the human diet. People of delicate health and babies eat liquid sheep's fat to gain strength.

Honey is obtained from the Torrobo tribe and is a prime ingredient in mead, a fermented beverage that only elders may drink. In recent times, fermented maize (corn) with millet yeast or a mixture of fermented sugar and baking powder have become the primary ingredients of mead.

The Maasai generally eat two meals a day, in the morning and at night. They have a dietary prohibition against mixing milk and meat. They drink milk for ten daysas much as they wantand then eat meat and bark soup for several days in between. Some exceptions to this regimen exist. Children and old people may eat cornmeal or rice porridge and drink tea with sugar. For warriors, however, the sole source of true nourishment is cattle. They consume meat in their forest hideaways (olpul), usually near a shady stream far from the observation of women. Their preferred meal is a mixture of meat, blood, and fat (munono), which is thought to give great strength.

Many taboos (prohibitions) govern Maasai eating habits. Men must not eat meat that has been in contact with women or that has been handled by an uncircumcised boy after it has been cooked.


There is a wide gap between Western schooling and Maasai traditional education, by which children and young adults learned to overcome fear, endure pain, and assume adult tasks. For example, despite the dangers of predators, snakes, and elephants, boys would traditionally herd cattle alone. If they encountered a buffalo or lion, they were supposed to call for help. However, they sometimes reached the pinnacle of honor by killing lions on their own. Following such a display of courage, they became models for other boys, and their heroics were likely to become immortalized in the songs of the women and girls.

Over the years, school participation gradually increased among the Maasai, but there were few practical rewards for formal education and therefore little reason to send a child to school. Formal schooling was primarily of use to those involved in religion, agriculture, or politics. Since independence, as the traditional livelihood of the Maasai has become less secure, school participation rates have climbed dramatically.


The Maasai have a rich collection of oral literature that includes myths, legends, folktales, riddles, and proverbs. These are passed down through the generations. The Maasai also compose many songs. Women are seldom at a loss for melodies and words when some heroic action by a warrior inspires praise. They also improvise teasing songs, work songs for milking and for plastering roofs, and songs with which to ask their traditional god (Enkai) for rain and other needs.


Labor among traditional herding Maasai is clearly divided. The man's responsibility is his cattle. He must protect them and find them the best possible pasture land and watering holes. Women raise children, maintain the home, cook, and do the milking. They also take care of calves and clean, sterilize, and decorate calabashes (gourds). It is the women's special right to offer milk to the men and to visitors.

Children help parents with their tasks. A boy begins herding at the age of four by looking after lambs and young calves, and by the time he is twelve, he may be able to care for cows and bulls as well as move sheep and cattle to new pastures. Girls help their mothers with domestic chores such as drawing water, gathering firewood, and patching roofs.


While Maasai may take part in soccer, volleyball, and basketball in school or other settings, their own culture has little that resembles Western organized sports. Young children find time to join in games such as playing tag, but adults find little time for sports or play. Activities such as warding off enemies and killing lions are considered sport enough in their own right.


Ceremonies such as the eunoto, when warriors return to their villages as mature men, offer occasions for parties and merriment. Ordinarily, however, recreation is much more subdued. After the men return to their camp from a day's herding, they typically tell stories of their exploits. Young girls sing and dance for the men. In the villages, elders enjoy inviting their age-mates to their houses or to rustic pubs (muratina manyatta) for a drink.


The Maasai make decorative beaded jewelry including necklaces, earrings, headbands, and wrist and ankle bracelets. These are always fashionable, though styles change as age-groups invent new designs. It is possible to identify the year a given piece was made by its age-group design. Maasai also excel in wood carvings, and they increasingly produce art for tourists as a supplemental source of income.


The greatest challenge the Maasai face concerns adaptation to rapid economic and social change. Increasing encroachment on Maasai lands threatens their traditional way of life. In the next decade, Maasai will need to address integration into the mainstream modern economies and political systems of Kenyan and Tanzanian society. The Maasai may fear losing their children to Western schooling, but a modern education has increasingly become a necessity for the Maasai in order to remain competitive with their neighbors and survive.


Africa South of the Sahara. 26th ed. London, England: Europa Publications, 1997.

Bentsen, Cheryl. Maasai Days. New York: Doubleday, 1989.

Halmi, Robert. Visit to a Chief's Son: An American Boy's Adventure with an African Tribe. New York: Holt, 1963.

Spear, Thomas, and Richard Waller. Being Maasai: Ethnicity and Identity in East Africa. London, England: James Currey, 1993.

Spencer, Paul. The Maasai of Matapato: A Study of Rituals of Rebellion. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.


Interknowledge Corp. Tanzania. [Online] Available, 1998.

Interknowledge Corp. Kenya. [Online] Available, 1998.

Internet Africa Ltd. Tanzania. [Online] Available, 1998.

Southern African Development Community. [Online] Available, 1998.

World Travel Guide. [Online] Available, 1998.

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ETHNONYMS: Ilmaasai, Masai (also Maa, which refers to all those peoples who speak the Maasai language)


Identification. The Maasai comprise a federation of tribal sections whose economy is based on nomadic pastoralism. Most prominent among them are the Purko and Kisonko, and also among the core groups are the Damat, Kaputiei, Keekonyukie, Loita, Koitokitok, Loodokilani, Matapato, Salei, and Serenket. More peripheral, and with different clans but sharing the Maasai age system, are the Dalalekutuk, Laitayok, Moitanik, Siria, and Uasinkishu, and also the agricultural Arusha. More peripheral still, with their own independent age systems, are the Parakuyu, Samburu, and Tiamus. Because each tribal section is effectively autonomous, both economically and socially, there is a considerable diversity in custom between sections.

Location. The designated Maasai region covers some 100,000 square kilometers, divided between southern Kenya, where most of the Maasai live, and northern Tanzania, where the land is more arid and the population sparse. The principal rains come in the spring. The dry season typically covers the six summer months, extending occasionally to periods of eighteen months or more when the rains fail in some part of the region.

Demography. There are rather more than one-quarter of a million Maasai, with a broad balance between the sexes. A high rate of polygyny is achieved by delaying the age of marriage of young men as compared with that of girls. During their extended period of bachelorhood, youths are still regarded as warriors (moran ).

Linguistic Affiliation. Maa (Maasai) is classed as a Paranilotic language.

History and Cultural Relations

According to oral traditions, the Maasai migrated from the north to their present area, probably before a.d. 1800, and adopted a boy they found there, who became the ancestor of the Loonkidongi dynasty of prophets. From this time on, and under the patronage of successive prophets, these oral traditions relate to the military dominance of the Maasai over their neighbors, who emulated Maasai warrior practices. This military emphasis led in the earlier period to internecine competition between the Maasai and the more peripheral Maa peoples, and then, following a disastrous cattle epidemic and famine in the 1880s, to civil war among the Maasai proper, who were seeking to recover their fortunes at each other's expense.

The civil wars were ended by colonial intervention in the areas, which were split between British and German rulenow Kenya and Tanzania, respectively. The two halves have developed separately since then, while retaining close cultural links as "one people." In Kenya, it was largely Maasai land that was alienated for European colonization through two controversial treaties. These treaties confined the Maasai to their present reserve, where they have remained largely isolated from change, even since independence in 1963. A volume on the (Kisonko) Maasai written by a German military administrator, M. Merker (1904), provides the most lucid account of the Maasai of early colonial Tanzania. Since then, the demise of the system of warrior villages in Tanzania suggests greater administrative interference into their internal affairs than was the case in Kenya. More recently, the Maasai as a nomadic people have proved an intractable problem for the Tanzanian government's policy of accommodating dispersed populations in settled villages during the 1970s ("villagization").


The significant residential groupings are the locality, the village, and the polygynous homestead, or joint family. The locality typically corresponds to a natural water-catchment area, within which interaction is most frequent and elders meet to discuss the issues that affect the community at large and the villages within it. Villages are dispersed throughout the locality, but have little social identity of their own. They are built primarily as a protection against the dangers of the bush at night. During the day, the cattle go out to graze, and social life extends to the wider neighborhood and locality. The significant unit within the village is the cluster of huts and stock corrals that comprise the joint-family homestead, of which there are typically four or five within each village. It is the joint family that has the greatest continuity, and the family head has almost total autonomy in handling its internal affairs. Such families may migrate to another locality at any time, leaving their huts and village space to be occupied by any newcomers to the village. Huts and villages tend to be more substantial and permanent in the less nomadic, upland areas.

Contrasting with the elders' villages, both ideologically and in size, are the warrior villages (manyat ), which are built to protect the area from marauders. Typically, there are three or four warrior villages in any tribal section, and the warriors who are associated with them claim considerable autonomy from the elders and adopt a contrasting life-style that emphasizes their dependence on one another and their lack of domesticity.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The life-style of the Maasai is oriented toward their herds of cattle, although sheep and goats play an important part in their diet, especially during the dry season, when milk is scarce. The need to graze stock necessitates dispersal over the widest area that is consistent with the availability of grazing and access to water, especially in the dry season. Traditionally, in the most severe famines, Maasai could merge temporarily with neighboring Dorobo hunters and gatherers. During the twentieth century, as the area that is suitable for hunting has contracted and as opportunities for employment have opened up, many of those whom circumstances have squeezed out of the Maasai pastoral economy have drifted toward the fringes of urban society, seeking employmentnotably as security guards.

Industrial Arts. Blacksmiths, especially in the past, produced spears and ornaments. Associated with the dirt of their craft, they were despised and not allowed to intermarry with Maasai, who were not involved with blacksmithing.

Trade. Traditionally, sheep and goats were traded with neighboring peoples for vegetable produce. Although the opportunity to migrate for wage labor had been available earlier, it was not until the 1960s that Maasai, who traditionally sold their stock only from absolute necessity, entered the monetary economy; they remain essentially self-sufficient.

Division of Labor. Boys herd the stock, assisted by older males and girls as the need arises, and under the overall supervision of the family head. At night, responsibility for the herds passes to the women. Women also look after their dependent children, maintain the domestic supply of firewood and water, and milk the cattle. Warriors are expected to defend the herds.

Land Tenure. Each tribal section claims sole grazing rights in its own territory, and individual elders may develop and claim wells for watering stock. In times of need, however, it is a major premise that Maasai land and water belong ultimately to all Maasai and that no one should be denied access, even across the boundaries between tribal sections. This principle conflicts with two economic trends that began in the 1960s and have been steadily gaining force, which entail a shift toward local ownership of land: the encroachment of agriculture and the government's attempts to confine Maasai to group ranches. Neither of these developments is consistent with the erratic nature of droughts.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Maasai are a patrilineal people, with shallow dispersed lineages that extend for only one or two generations beyond the oldest living elders. These lineages are identified with the membership of a clan. Today the bonds and restrictions of clanship are weak, and clan membership tends to acquire significance only by default, as, for example, when the members of a migrant family find themselves isolated from close friends or kin.

Kinship Terminology. Although kinship terminology is broadly of the Omaha type, there is a general preference to address others by the use of teknonyms or, among close kin and affines, to establish gift terms that emphasize mutual respect.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriages are arranged by the elders, without consulting the bride or her mother. Polygyny is an ideal that is achieved by most older men. As a result of their being younger than men at the time of marriage, most women become widows, and it is understood that they should not remarry.

Domestic Unit. The father is the key figure in the patriarchal family, and, theoretically, his control is absolutesubject only to interference by close senior elders in situations of crisis. Traditionally, as long as the father was alive, no son had final control over his cattle nor over his choice in marriage; this is still the norm in pastoral areas, away from the townships. In practice, as they age, older men rely on their sons to take over the management of the family, and it is the subservience of women that is the most permanent feature of the Maasai family. After her husband's death, even a forceful widow is subordinate to her sons in the management of her herd, and she finds herself wholly unprotected if she has no sons.

Inheritance. At marriage, a bride is allocated a herd of cattle, from which all her sons will build up herds of their own, overseen by their father, who also makes gifts of cattle to his sons over the course of his life. When the parents die, the oldest son inherits the residue of his father's herd, and the youngest inherits the residue of his mother's allocated cattle. Daughters inherit nothing at all.

Socialization. The warrior village plays a key role in the socialization of men. Boys are taken away by their older warrior brothers as herders and are taught to respond to the discipline of the warrior village. Then, in due course, as warriors within their own village, they are expected to develop an unquestioning acceptance of the authority of their peers to emerge to elderhood with a strong sense of loyalty to this peer group.

A girl's childhood is dominated by a strict avoidance, even a fear, of her father and other elders. Her marriage prospects and her family's reputation hinge on her ability to develop an acute sense of respect. She is socialized to accept her subservience to her future husbandhimself an elderand to the elders at large.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The most distinctive feature of Maasai society is the age system, which stratifies adult males into age sets, spaced apart by about fifteen years. Each age set is further divided into two successive subsets, the "right-hand," followed by the "left-hand." Of primary importance in the community is the subset of warriors who have been most recently initiated. In their physical prime, they form their warrior villages during this period, until the next subset captures the limelight. It is the establishment of such successive arrays of warrior villages, every seven years or so, that symbolizes the autonomy of the warrior ideal and the temporary independence of each warrior from his father. This independence extends to those mothers of moran who are "seconded" to the warrior villages of their sons.

Each warrior village is a cultural ideal that proclaims the close fraternity among all warriors. They disown any individual claims to property and are obliged to share their time, their food, and even the girls who are their mistresses. The restrictions on their diet and behavior keep them in each other's company, reinforcing their dependence on their peers.

The warrior villages of one subset are abandoned before the initiation of the next subset of warriors, and retirement to elderhood entails a dispersal into smaller and often more remote villages, in order to exploit fully the available grazing lands and water for livestock. As elders, the mens' prime concern is to establish their families and herds. The transition to elderhood thus entails a transformation from a young man who had been heavily dependent on his peers to a self-reliant and self-interested veteran. The independence of each stock owner within the elder's village is popularly seen as the converse of the close dependency that was nurtured within the warrior village, just as the image of the patriarch is the converse of the popular image of the selfless warrior.

Political Organization. Authority within the age system resides in the linkage of alternating age sets (A-B-C-D-E-F . . .), whereby elders of age set A bring a new age set, C, to life in a ceremony that includes the kindling of a fire: they then become the "firestick patrons" of the members of age set C and are responsible for promoting them as warriors in stages toward elderhood. Similarly, C will eventually be patrons to age set E, creating a linkage of age sets, A-C-E. . ., which is separate from a parallel firestick linkage among age sets B-D-F. . . . This dual system of accountability entails an ambivalent combination of rivalry between adjacent age sets (especially in the south) and of hostility between young and old (especially in the north).

Social Control. Social control among the Maasai rests ultimately on the general belief in the power of elders to bless and to curse, which is linked to their moral superiority in all spheres. The power of firestick patrons over warriors, of fathers over their children, and of all senior kin resides in their power to curse.

Conflict. Conflict among the Maasai focuses primarily on various aspects of warriorhood. The warriors are seen as the defenders of Maasai herds even today, although cattle raiding occurs only on a minor scale as compared with what went on in the past. More pressing are the problems that are internal to the Maasai, those of accommodating the warriors. On the one hand, there is a strained relationship between warriors and elders over stock theft and adultery by the warriors, both of which stem from their prolonged bachelorhood and from the food shortages they often endure, in contrast to the lives led by the wealthy and polygynous elders. On the other hand, there is the rivalry that exists between successive subsets of warriors. The privileges that are claimed by each subset of warriors in their prime are denied their successors until these novices are capable of assuming them in a display of force. This rivalry can lead to fierce infighting. The succession of age sets and subsets is far from smooth, therefore, and the warrior ideal continues to dominate, even after almost a century of peace.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Maasai believe in an omnipresent God (Nkai), but they have no means of knowing their God's form or intentions. Inasmuch as God has human attributes, they might be described as those of extreme age. Respect for the knowledge of the oldest living men and for their ritual power to bless and to curse is magnified in the profound respect for their all-powerful and all-knowing God.

Pronounced beliefs in sorcery are also evident, particularly at times of misfortune and at major sacrifices. The characteristics of the supposed sorcerers may be viewed as a grotesque caricature of the competitive instincts that are popularly attributed to individual elders, emphasizing their greed and envy of the good fortune of others.

Religious Practitioners. The widespread concern with sorcery is associated with the Loonkidongi dynasty of prophets. Each tribal section has its own prophet, who is seen as helping its members to cope with the endemic sorcery, by providing them with protective medicines and advice for their ceremonies. The prophet is regarded with awe as a type of all-seeing godfather, but his power to curb sorcery is also thought to derive from his knowledge of sorcery as a Loonkidongi, and popular attitudes toward other members of this dynasty are highly ambivalent. The Loonkidongi tend to live in small colonies on the borders between Maasai tribal sections, where they are suspected of providing a breeding ground for discontent, practicing sorcery among themselves, and even secretly selling evil charms to would-be Maasai sorcerers.

Ceremonies. The promotion of warriors to elderhood entails a series of extended ceremonies. The first of two high points of this process is the eunoto ceremony, when warriors are "raised" to senior-warrior status. For this occasion, they come from their separate villages and form a single village. They are led by a ritual leader (olotuno ), who is sometimes thought to shoulder the misfortunes of his peers and is therefore destined to an early death or an impoverished life. Shortly after the eunoto, the warriors abandon their warrior village and return with their mothers to their fathers' villages. The second high point of their career as an age set is the olghesher ceremony, which finally unites the "right-hand" and "left-hand" subsets, promoting them jointly to senior elderhood. They are now endowed with the power to bless and to curse and to become firestick patrons of the next new age set.

Their age-set rituals also serve to unite the Maasai federation as a people. The Keekonyukie section in the north and the Kisonko section in the south each have a central role in unifying the Maasai through synchronizing their shared age system. At the inception of each age set, all Maasai are oriented toward the north, waiting for the ritual cue from the Keekonyukie, when boys from the northern tribal sections compete to seize an ox's horn. Only after this ritual has occurred can the new age set be inaugurated in other tribal sections. About twenty-five years later, it is the Kisonko who must first perform olghesher, finally promoting the whole age set and giving it a name that is adopted by all Maasai. Meanwhile, other tribal sections must wait in turn for this lead before they too can follow suit. These two ritual cues, alternating between north and south and between firestick linkages in a fifteen-year cycle, provide a common orientation in space and in time for the Maasai, punctuating their life courses as individuals and reiterating the unity of all Maasai.

Women's ceremonies invariably stem from a widespread concern for their fertility, and, at such times, their dancing is a central feature. These dances sometimes amount to a display of anger and even violence against the elders, and they provide an arena within which women's subservience is temporarily reversed. Even elders share in the belief that these dances will restore fertility and bring the community back to harmony.

Arts. Visual arts among the Maasai focus predominantly on body decoration and on the beaded ornaments that are displayed by warriors and complemented by the beaded ornaments of girls and young womennotably in the trousseau of a bride. These decorations are prominently displayed in their dances, which are themselves a popular art form, frequently with a competitive idiom. Elders do not perform in display dances, but their oratory has many parallels with dance, with gestures used to delineate the space around them and to structure their rhetoric, holding the attention of the audience with a display of the panache that they learned as warriors in their youthful dancing.

Medicine. In addition to the prophets, lesser members of the Loonkidongi dynasty serve as diviners who claim the power to diagnose illnesses and the causes of misfortune and to prescribe a range of herbal medicines and ritual cures. Their secrets are carefully withheld from other Maasai and are linked to a range of "poisons" that are associated with their powers of sorcery, if they are provoked.

Death and Afterlife. There are no elaborate mortuary practices among the Maasai and no beliefs in afterlife. For a parent, however, there is a sense akin to immortality in leaving behind a family whose very existence stems from a life that has been dedicated to care and attention. To leave no successors is to face oblivion in the fullest sense, and it may be taken as a sign of having been cursed.


Gulliver, P. H. (1962). Social Control in an African Society: A Study of the Arusha, Agricultural Maasai of Northern Tanganyika. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Merker, M. (1904). Die Maasai. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer.

Spencer, Paul (1976). "Opposing Streams and the Gerontocratic Ladder: Two Models of Age Organization in East Africa." Man 11:153-175.

Spencer, Paul (1988). The Maasai of Matapalo: A Study of Rituals of Rebellion. Manchester: Manchester University Press.


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Maasai: see Masai.

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