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Tribes of Africa

The Maasai

Maasai Man

Image © Kate Ogorzaly

The Maasai People

The Maasai live in the semi-arid Rift Valley region of Kenya and Tanzania. They own large herds of cattle, sheep and goats which they follow around seasonally in search of new grazing grounds and water sources. Traditionally the Maasai have always been a proud and independent tribe. They did not cultivate the land and depend on a cash economy as many of those around them did, rather they lived off the blood, milk and meat that their cattle provided them. Cattle plays a central role in the life of the Maasai. Cattle represents food and power; the more cattle a Maasai has, the richer he is and therefore the more power and influence he will have within his tribe.

Maasai Traditions

These days the Maasai have a more mixed diet as they have been forced to settle into ever decreasing areas of land and adapt to a more sedentary lifestyle which in some cases includes growing or buying cultivated food. Traditionally the Maasai have always looked down upon those who tilled the land since this rendered it useless for grazing. While the Maasai lifestyle has undergone some changes in the past three decades in particular, their strong social traditions remain intact. Maasai men are first and foremost warriors. They protect their tribe, their cattle and their grazing lands. Often standing over 6ft tall the Maasai warrior with his beaded hair , red checked blanket (shuka) and balled club, looks both fierce and beautiful. Maasai boys go through a circumcision ceremony at the age of 14 and then traditionally spending up to 8 years looking after livestock far from their villages. They become warriors upon their return to the village to get married.

Maasai Women

The Maasai women are responsible for all domestic tasks which include making their homes. Houses are made from mud, sticks, grass, cow dung and urine. The women also milk the cows, collect water (a heavy and arduous task), cook and look after the children. The Maasai women are as impressive as the men in their looks. Tall, slender and bedecked with large beaded necklaces and long braided hair, they are a favorite among tourists taking their holiday snapshots.

Maasai Struggle to Keep their Traditional Way of Life

While part of the attraction of visiting national parks in Kenya and Tanzania is viewing the wildlife as well as the indigenous people, it is the wildlife parks that present the biggest problem to the Maasai. The largest tracts of land that have been taken and protected for the wildlife has been taken from the Maasai's traditional grazing lands. The Maasai feel that their society has been given less thought and respect than that of wild animals. Here's a quote from the Maasai Association:

When a lion attacks a cow, the authorities from wildlife and conservationist organizations would bury their heads under the sand. When a Maasai warrior kills a lion because of killing his cow, the authorities would ferry security personnel to arrest the warrior. In other words, it is acceptable for a lion to kill a cow but not acceptable for a warrior to kill a lion. Lions are more important than the Maasai cows.
Killing a lion in Masaai culture is a test of manhood and so the idea that authorities don't care about their culture as well as their cattle, is a double insult. On the other hand, most tourists go to the Masai Mara, the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater precisely to see lions, one of the Big Five. So it is also understandable that the authorities wish to protect their tourist trade which is vital for their economy.

Maasai Cultural Tours:


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