The Masai – or Maasai – are probably one of the best-known of all African tribes. Perhaps because of their esthetics: costumes, the men’s hair dress – hair is braided and mixed with ochre-red mud – the women’s necklaces, their dances involving jumping competitions where men conquer their bride-to-be by jumping in the same place at incredible heights. Other tribes of the region like the Samburu, Pokote, Turkana for instance have similar dances.
Masai warriors. Near Amboseli national park, Kenya
Another reason for Masai “popularity” was their fame as warriors at the times of the British Empire. After endless fighting with the British government, despite independance and intense pressure from the Kenya and Tanzania governments to abandon their traditional lifestyle, the Masai have resisted incredibly well. Expanding their population – 1.2 million now spread between Kenya and Tanzania – maintaining their way of life, dress, traditional housing, a low-roofed hut called enkaj, made with mud, cow dung and human urine…
The Masai are herders, they believe that God (a God of a dual nature: Engai Narok, the benevolent black god and Engai Nanyokie, the red vengeful god) has made them guardians of all cattle on earth. Therefore “rustling” cattle from other tribes in “the good old days” was considered legitimate. “Those cows?” “They’re ours!”
Masai diet consists (in that order) of raw milk, raw blood drawn with a small arrow from a cow’s jugular without killing the animal and raw meat. Milk and blood are often stored in the same recipient, a calabash or gourd, decorated with fine leather and beads.
Masai woman wearing her traditional bead necklace
Masai society is complex. Young men are initiated by age class to become warriors. One of the tests used to be to attack and kill a lion alone with just a spear. Not taken too lightly in today’s National Parks. Every 10 years or so a new generation of would-be warriors, the Morans, are initiated. The previous generation of warriors go through the Eunoto ceremony, shave their heads, become senior warriors and only then can marry. The new generation of warriors goes through a lengthy initiation period that include circumcision, emorata, performed by an elder with a sharpened knife. Healing process can take months and be very painful.
Masai young boys during Emorata – circumcision. Near Kilimandjaro. Traditional white markings on the face. They wear male ostrich feathers attached to the head. The gown is dark. Notice the sticks: not allowed to wield a spear yet!
In the background, starting on the left, the snow-peaked mountain (to the right) is Mount Kilimandjaro, the highest mountain in Africa.
Masai girls and women near Sultan Hamud, Kenya
Masai women undergo excision, named emorata as well, cutting off all female external genitalia with a sharpened knife. The practice has obvious severe consequences and has now been internationally banned.
The Masai dress for both men and women used to be red-dyed very soft cow hide or cloth. As the Masai grew richer, they retained the traditional garb and style, but now use spun textiles with more variety of colors: checkered, blue, yellow. Fashion has hit the Masai!
Senior warriors near Amboseli. The man on the right isn’t too happy. Hapana picha! No pictures!
The Masai spear is made by blacksmiths, often from another tribe. Consists of two metal pieces, linked by a wooden handle. The lower part is merely a counterweight. The point is extremely sharp though made of a softer metal alloy. When the Masai spears a lion at close range, the lion twists away and the spear bends inside the lion making it almost impossible for the lion to remove.
Senior warrior near Amboseli
Those pictures were taken a long, long time ago. Decades. (Hence the grainy aspect) As children living in Kenya, amongst other places of Africa, every week-end or holiday was a pretext to hit the road. Safari just means Travel in Swahili. Pure magic. I have gone back to Africa only a couple of times since. Some of the magic is gone, not all of it, but the Masai are still proudly standing.
More on the Maasai (Besides Wiki!)