The Maasai are an extraordinary people well known the world over, who have inhabited Southern Kenya and Northern Tanzania for centuries. They were part of the large Nilo Hamitic migration that descended along the Nile valley into East Africa, around the 15th century. The migration split into two main branches, with one branch, the Kalenjin and Maasai cluster moving to and occupying present-day Kenya and Tanzania, and the other, the Karimajong and Turkana cluster settling in Northeastern and Eastern Uganda and Western Kenya.
Not surprisingly, all these tribes share many cultural practices and customs including nomadism; pastoralism; total dependence on their cattle for sustenance and survival; and most endearing of all their strong oral culture that has kept their languages, customs and way of life alive, even as other tribes around them have caved in to cultural influences from the western world. The Maasai are the southernmost Nilotic speakers and take their name from their spoken language Maa, a member of the Nilo-Saharan dialects, which is very similar to the languages spoken by the Dinka and Nuer in Southern Sudan. However, many Maasai today speak Swahili, the official language of Kenya and Tanzania.
At its peak in the mid-nineteenth century, Maasai territory included almost all of the Great Rift Valley, stretching south all the way to Dodoma in Central Tanzania and Mombasa in Southern Kenya. But a decade-long epidemic of contagious smallpox and several cattle diseases that started in 1883 decimated two-thirds of the Maasai population and led to loss of control of most of this territory.
With the advent of colonialism and the accompanying treaties signed with local rulers, the Maasai in both Kenya and Tanzania would lose even bigger chunks of their lands. In Kenya, the Maasai were evicted to make room for settler farms and confined to a small swathe of land on Kenya’s southern border with Tanzania. In Tanzania, they were displaced from the fertile lands surrounding Mt. Meru, Mt. Kilimanjaro and Ngorongoro and confined to a small area in Northern Tanzania adjacent to the Maasai of Kenya. In both Kenya and Tanzania, the Maasai were victims of conservation efforts as they were evicted starting in the 1940’s for Amboseli National Park, Nairobi National Park, Maasai Mara, Samburu National Reserve, Lake Nakuru National Park and Tsavo in Kenya; and Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro Conservation Area and Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.
Today the Maasai number approximately 850,000 in Kenya and 430,000 in Tanzania, occupying a total land area of 160,000Sq. kms. Despite attempts by both the Tanzanian and Kenyan governments to convert them to a more settled life, the Maasai remain pastoralists and continue to pressure their respective governments for grazing rights within the national parks, as well as access to sacred ancestral sites within the parks.
The Maasai are divided into 12 clans that inhabit Northern Tanzania and Southern Kenya, in the Maasai Mara and Serengeti areas: the Keekonyokie, Damat, Purko, Wuasinkishu, Siria, Laitayiok, Loitai, Kisonko, Matapato, Dalalekutuk, Loodokolani and Kaputiei. They are part of only a handful of tribes in the world that still live semi-nomadic lives, seasonally rotating where they stay depending on where they can find good pasture for their cattle. The single most important thing for the Maasai is their cows on which they are entirely reliant for food in the form of milk, meat and blood. Cattle are the ultimate status symbol and also the medium for barter trade among themselves, and with other neighbouring tribes.
The Maasai are easily recognised by both their distinctive dress and appearance. Traditional leather garments of the pre-colonial period were traded in for the shuka the cloth that men drape around their bodies and women wear as capes. Shuka’s are traditionally red, the colour that symbolises their culture, which was also believed to scare away lions. But the shuka today comes in many colourful varieties of checkered cloth that can be bought almost anywhere in Tanzania and Kenya. Both men and women sport fascinatingly sculptured hairstyles and the warriors wear long braids that are covered in red dye. The Maasai are famous for their intricate beadwork that can be seen hanging in large collars around the women’s necks and on the wrists, ankles, waists and necks of the men. Every colour bead used in every piece of jewellery has symbolic meaning, with red naturally symbolising strength and courage. Also common among the Maasai is the elaborate piercing and stretching of the earlobes using thorns, twigs and even stones. Although fewer boys undergo these body modifications these days, many women can still be seen wearing various types of beaded ornaments in their stretched earlobes, with smaller piercings at the top of the ear.