Part 1: Introduction to the Masai
As we mentioned in our update, we spent last weekend at a Masai boma. Many people in the United States do not know who the Masai are, what they stand for, or how they live their lives. We sure didn’t know before we came to Tanzania! Due to this, we decided to make our Masai experience a three-part series. Part one will be an introduction to the Masai; part two will be about our experience at the boma, the singing and speaking events; and part three will discuss the future of the Masai.
In Tanzania, the Masai culture is very prevalent and very controversial. In order to understand the controversy and fully appreciate our experience, general information must be understood. In the history of this area, long before the Tanzanian-Kenyan border was drawn by the British, this tribe was fierce. They were feared for their extreme violence and erratic behavior, they were respected for their strength and grace, and they were renowned for their cattle farming and harmony with nature. This tribe was a true force in Tanzanian and Kenyan history. The tribe coexisted with other tribes in the region, but for generations it was the most influential and most powerful tribe.
The Masai trace their history to Egypt. They were cattle farmers that traveled south along the Nile River in search of quality grazing lands for their cattle. They settled in the savannahs of Tanzania and Kenya. The first European accounts of the Masai were recorded in 1848. Since the beginning of their relationship, westerners have had an interesting relationship with the tribe. The Masai were captivating, knowledgeable, and inspiring as well as destructive, uncompromising, and unpredictable.
It is said that Masai military tactics were similar to the Romans. They would form defensive squares in the tall savannah grass with their spears facing out and their shields raised. They would also attack with classic maneuvers using center, outlier, and reserve units. Often a group of four or five would pick a fight with a lion and win. Killing a lion was a very important task for the Masai. It protected the cattle and created fear in the lions. There would be a special ceremony for the person who had the first stab into the lion and for the person who killed the lion. They would also use their skills in battle to attack western caravans as the land became colonized.
The Masai are tall and slender in build. They are muscular, quick, and confident. They have rite of passage ceremonies for males and females consisting of circumcision for both genders. Men are taught to be warriors and protect the cattle in their youth. As they grow older, they take on responsibilities of wise men. Women have the responsibility of cooking most meals while the men take care of the cattle. The primary job of a Masai woman is to reproduce. The more children a woman has, the higher regard she has in the community.
The Masai practice marriage, however they are not monogamous. The young men are taught that they are brothers. From their rite of passage forward they are one blood. They do everything together. They are one family. This is also shown through their marriages. Also, men are encouraged to have multiple wives.
They traditionally believe in one god. Their god is both vengeful and merciful. Their belief is that god gave all of the cattle in the world to them. In the past, they would steal cattle from westerners or other tribes, but to them it was just taking back what was rightfully theirs. They do not believe in an afterlife. They are afraid of death; they avoid it at all costs. If someone dies, they leave them to disintegrate where they died. To touch the body is to welcome death upon yourself.
Masai land was divided between Kenya and Tanzania under British Colonial rule. Borders were drawn to divide the Masai and laws were put into place to control their actions. The Masai would not conform to western ways of life, western thinking, or western laws. Laws were made that they could not carry their spears. Their land was made into national parks over time, so they could not hunt wild animals or raise cattle in their homes. They have been, and still are being, pushed into dryer and dryer lands making it harder and harder for them to raise cattle and live their way of life.
The Masai are stubborn by nature, so often physical force is necessary to enforce these laws. Through all of this, the Masai have held on to their culture and their traditional way of life. They have maintained their free spirits, continued to live in harmony with nature, and practice their traditional rituals. They are still seen as a threatening, but their free spirit and traditional way of life attracts visitors, tourists, and historians from all corners of the globe.
They continue to have a tense relationship with westerners and with Tanzanians. Westerners who ask to take the picture of a Masai person dressed in their traditional clothing are often told to pay first. Tanzania continues to implement laws that move the Masai off of their original land and into dry land not suited for raising cattle. The United Nations continues to develop programs and policies to implement agriculture and education in the name of development. However, the only development that the Masai want to take part in is to raise cattle on their traditional land and to live in harmony with nature, as they always have.
Below you will find a photo of Melissa with three young Masai children that will soon make their rite of passage into warrior hood.
This is photo of John with two Masai warriors who will soon become Masai young elders.
In the center of this photo, you will find a Masai elder directing young Masai children as they process during a celebration.