The right to be


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Total population
Regions with significant populations
Flag of Kenya Kenya 650,000
Flag of Tanzania Tanzania (northern) 646,000
Maa (ɔl Maa)

The Maasai are an indigenous African ethnic group of semi-nomadic people located in Kenya and northern Tanzania. Due to their distinctive customs and dress and residence near the many game parks of East Africa, they are among the most well-known African ethnic groups internationally. The Maasai maintain many of their cultural traditions while engaging contemporary regional and global economic, social, and political forces. They speak Maa. As of 2007, the Maasai population in Kenya was estimated to be 650,000 while the Tanzanian Maasai population was estimated at 646,000 yielding an estimated Maasai population of 1,296,000[1]. Estimates of the respective Maasai populations in both countries is complicated by their nomadic nature and their being the only ethnic group allowed free travel over the Kenyan-Tanzanian border.




[edit] History

A Maasai man.

A Maasai man.

Maasai are the southernmost Nilotic speakers and are linguistically most directly related to the Turkana and Kalenjin who live near Lake Turkana in west central Kenya. According to Maasai oral history and the archaeological record, they also originated from the north of Lake Turkana (the old Egypt and Sudan). They moved from north to south displacing other ethnic groups until they settled in a long trunk of land stretching from northern Kenya to central Tanzania.

A lot of Maasai land was forcefully taken by the British colonialists and later by dominant African ethnic groups with the support of government during independence. A lot of land was also taken as wildlife reserves and national parks (Amboseli, Nairobi, Maasai Mara, Samburu, Nakuru, Manyara, Ngorongoro, Serengeti and Tsavo).

Maasai are pastoralist and have resisted the urging of the Tanzanian and Kenyan governments to adopt a more sedentary lifestyle. They have demanded grazing rights to many of the national parks in both countries and routinely ignore international boundaries as they move their great cattle herds across the open savanna with the changing of the seasons. This resistance has led to a romanticizing of the Maasai way of life that paints them as living at peace with nature.

[edit] Culture

Maasai people and huts wih Enkang barrier in foreground - eastern Serengeti, 2006

Maasai people and huts wih Enkang barrier in foreground – eastern Serengeti, 2006

Maasai society is patriarchical in nature with the elders deciding most matters for each Maasai group. The laibon or spiritual leader acts as the liaison between the Maasai and God (the Masaai are either monotheistic or Christian in communities), named Enkai or Engai, as well as the source of Maasai herblore. The traditional Maasai lifestyle centres around their cattle which constitutes the primary source of food. They also believe that God gave them his cattle to watch over. The Tanzanian and Kenyan governments have instituted programs to encourage the Maasai to abandon their traditional nomadic lifestyle and adopt an agrarian lifestyle instead.

The Maasai measure a man’s wealth in terms of cattle and children rather than money – a herd of 50 cattle is respectable, and the more children the better. A man who has plenty of one but not the other is considered to be poor. [1] The Maasai believe that they own all the cattle in the world.

As a nomadic people, the Maasai have traditionally relied on local, readily available materials and indigenous technology to construct their housing. The traditional Maasai house was in the first instance designed for people on the move and was thus very impermanent in nature. The Inkajijik (Maasai word for a house) are loaf-shaped, and are constructed by women. The structural framework is formed of timber poles fixed directly into the ground and interwoven with a lattice of smaller branches, which is then plastered with a mix of mud, sticks, grass, cow dung and urine, and ash. The enkaji is small, measuring about 3m x 5m andstanding only 1.5m high. Within this space the family cooks, eats, sleeps, socializes and stores food, fuel and other household possessions. Small livestock are also often accommodated within the enkaji.[2][3] Villages are enclosed in a circular fence (Enkang) built by the men, usually of thorned Acacia. At night all cows and goats are placed in an enclosure in the the center, safe from wild animals.

The central unit of Maasai society is the age-set. Every 15 years or so, a new and individually named generation of Morans or Il-murran (warriors) will be initiated. This involves most boys between 12 and 25, who have reached puberty and are not part of the previous age-set. Every boy must undergo the Emorata (circumcision ceremony), which is performed without anaesthetic, before he is accepted as a warrior. When a new generation of warriors is initiated, the existing ilmoran will graduate to become junior elders, who are responsible for political decisions until they in turn become senior elders. [2] [4]

Warriors are in charge of society’s security while boys are responsible for herding livestock. During the drought season, both warriors and boys assume responsibility for herding livestock. The elders are directors and advisors for day-to-day activities. Women are responsible for making the houses as well as supplying water, collecting firewood, milking cattle and cooking for the family. [5]

A Maasai traditional dance.

A Maasai traditional dance.

One myth about the Maasai is that each young man is supposed to kill a lion before they are circumcised. This is not true. However, killing a lion gives one great value and celebrity status in the community. Women can only marry once in a lifetime, although men may have more than one wife (if enough cows are owned, they may have more than one at a time).

Young girls undergo Female genital cutting (FGC) in an elaborate right of passage ritual in which they are given instructions and advice pertaining to their new role, as they are then said to have come of age and become women, ready for marriage. These circumcisions are usually performed by a hired local expert without anaesthetic using crude knives, glass or other sharp implements available for as much as US $6.00 per girl. Girls are married off early, sometimes as young as seven years old.

The practice of FGC draws a great deal of criticism from both abroad and many women who have undergone it, and in some cases has recently been replaced by a “Cutting with words” ceremony involving singing and dancing in place of the mutilation. However, the practice remains deeply ingrained and valued by the culture, as well as being held as necessary, since Maasai men typically reject any woman who has not undergone it as either not marriageable or worthy of a much-reduced bride price. [3] FGC is illegal in both Kenya and Tanzania. [6][7]

[edit] Challenges and hope in the 21st century

Due to influence from other cultures (mostly western), the traditional Maasai way of life is increasingly threatened. Over the years, many projects have begun to help Maasai tribal leaders find ways to preserve their traditions while also balancing the education needs of their children for the modern world. The emerging forms of employment among the Maasai people include farming, business (selling of traditional medicine,running of restaurants/shops, buying and selling of minerals, selling milk and milk products by women, embroideries), and wage employment (as security guards/ watchmen, waiters, tourist guides), and others who are engaged in the public and private sectors.[8]

[edit] Body modification

The piercing and streching of earlobes has been common among the Maasai.

The removal of deciduous canine tooth buds in early childhood is a practice that has been documented in the Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania. There exists a strong belief among the Maasai that diarrhoea, vomiting and other febrile illnesses of early childhood are caused by the gingival swelling over the canine region, and which is thought to contain ‘worms’ or ‘nylon’ teeth. This belief and practice is not unique to the Maasai. In rural Kenya a group of 95 children aged between six months and two years were examined in 1991/92. 87% were found to have undergone the removal of one or more deciduous canine tooth buds. In an older age group (3-7 years of age), 72% of the 111 children examined exhibited missing mandibular or maxillary deciduous canines. diagram [9] [10]

[edit] Diet

Traditionally, the Maasai diet consisted of meat, milk, and blood from cattle. However, the inclusion of blood in the traditional diet is waning due to the reduction of livestock numbers. More recently, the Maasai have grown dependent on food produced in other areas such as maize meal (unga wa mahindi), rice, potatoes, cabbage (known to the Maasai as goat leaves), etc. The Maasai who live near crop farmers have engaged in cultivation as their primary mode of subsistence. In these areas, plot sizes are generally not large enough to accommodate herds of animals; thus the Maasai are forced to farm. [11]

[edit] Clothing

Maasai woman

Maasai woman

Maasai always wear red, with a simple blue cloth underneath. Many Maasai in Tanzania wear simple sandals, sometimes soled with pieces of motorcycle tires. Both men and women wear wooden bracelets. The Maasai women regularly weave and bead jewelry. This bead work plays an essential part in the ornamentation of their body.

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

[edit] Photographs

[edit] References

  1. ^ Northern Tanzania with Kilimanjaro and Zanzibar by Phillip Briggs 2006 page 200 ISBN -10: 1 84162 146 3
  2. ^ Northern Tanzania – The Bradt Safari Guide by Phillip Briggs 2006 British Library ISBN-10:1 84162 146 3
  3. ^ Razor’s Edge – The Controversy of Female Genital Mutilation IRIN Humanitarian News and Analysis, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs March 2005, accessed May 14, 2007

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