The Maasai Tribe: An Introduction to East Africa’s Timeless Nomads

From the swaying grasslands of the Serengeti to the heights of mighty Kilimanjaro and the vast plains of Tsavo, the lands along the Kenya-Tanzania border – including the Maasai Mara National Reserve – have seen millions of safari-goers in recent decades. But to the pastoralist Maasai people, this part of the Great Rift Valley has been home for centuries more. And while the encroachment of modern life has issued challenges, the Maasai people and tribe have remained stalwart adherents to their culture, and welcoming ambassadors to visitors from near and far.

As told in the records of their oral history, the Maasai tribe—the “people who speak Maa”—have lived in and around what is now Kenya and Tanzania since at least the 17th century, having migrated from the lower Nile River Valley hundreds of years earlier. Instantly recognizable in their vibrant garb of vermillion wraps and checkered robes, the Maasai have become veritable icons of East Africa, in no small part due to their open interactions with outsiders and tenaciously immutable way of life. Despite present-day challenges to their traditional lands, most Maasai—now numbering some 2 million members across 22 “iloshons,” or nations—still embrace and embody the semi-nomadic lifestyle that has supported their families, and their herds, for generations. 

Penwell’s Kathy Harvey gets shopping advice from local Maasai safari guide while in Tanzania, Africa

Who are the Maasai and what are their values?

Central to Maasai religion is the tenet that all cattle in the world are property of their people alone—an unsurprising scripture given the unwavering importance of cows in every part of Maasai life. Cattle are everything to the Maasai: currency, reputation, nearly all sustenance, and the very impetus for their migratory lifestyle. 

As rains cycle through the seasons and grasses grow across the fields of the Great Rift Valley, the Maasai tribe move their herds—mostly cattle, but also groups of goats and sheep—to graze in greener pastures, leaving temporary dwellings behind and erecting settlements anew. Villages are built in a circular clearing, surrounded by an enkang, or an enveloping fence of thorny acacia limbs. Modest huts, typically the size of a small room (and curiously shorter than their tall inhabitants), are built from wattled branches and daubed earth and dung, and provide shelter for cooking, sleeping, and socializing. 

Pair of sandals on a Maasai safari guide in Tanzania, Africa

Though cotton cloth is now widely used, cattle were the original source of the Maasai’s distinctive wardrobe, providing skins for the patterned shukas and colorful kanga cloth—often dyed an unmistakable shade of red—worn by women, children, and warriors alike. Leather also provides material for durable footwear, and coverings for traditional shields. Fashioned bone shows up in body decorations, such as the earrings that adorn oft-elongated lobes, and the elaborate shanga beadwork jewelry that encircle arms and necklines. 

Maasai man with his two goats in Tanzania, Africa

A Daily life for the Maasai Tribe

Day-to-day life for the Maasai tribe breaks down along gendered and age-set roles, with chores revolving around the herd. Meals, coordinated by young women and wives, are almost entirely cattle-based—milk, blood, and meat—though recent generations have begun to introduce cultivated crops into their diet (although not without some humorous rankle: cabbage is referred to as “goat leaves”).

Herds must also be tended to and protected—a job only for the eligible and properly equipped. Armed with spears, knives, and a bone-breaking club called an orinka, young men who have earned the title of “warrior” defend both the herd and their villages from the threat of opportunistic hyenas, lumbering elephants, and prowling lions. Warriors are also responsible for wielding their cattle as currency, as they conduct trade with neighboring tribes and cities, dealing in necessities and maintaining the herd’s stock.

Maasai children in the school under tree in Kenya

The Maasai Youth and other tribal classes

Most young boys and girls are enrolled in some sort of academia, but primarily train in the chores and duties of their elders (and increasingly attend now-free government schooling), and retired warriors—now junior and senior elders—set the day’s schedule, assign responsibilities, and make formal decisions and settle disputes for the villagers at large.

Song and dance are an integral and celebrated part of Maasai tribe life for women and men alike, whether it’s sharing a tune during chores, passing the time with friends, or—especially during coming-of-age ceremonies—flirting with prospective spouses. The most famous and well known of Maasai performance, however, is the adumu dance: the great leaping dance of the moran, the Maasai warrior class.

Cow cattle driven by Maasai children to drink water in Kenya

While a circle of morani men provide droning base notes, women and children join in with polyphonic melodies—all just setting the stage for the feats of strength, vis-a-vis vertical leaps of length, performed by singles and pairs of daring warriors. The adumu is both a light-hearted and serious contest—to the highest jumper go the spoils of reputation and jocular bragging rights—that is performed around the year and around the clock: in broad daylight, around campfire, during sacred rituals, and for the enjoyment of family and guests joined together.

Kathy Harvey and safari Maasai tour guide Superti laughing on a game drive

Make Authentic Interactions while meeting the Maasai

There’s ample opportunity to meet with the Maasai when you’re travelling with us at Penwell—in fact, there’s a fair chance you’ve encountered a person or two before getting out into the field. Spotting someone rocking a shuka in Arusha or dressed in a scarlet kanga on Kenyan streets isn’t an uncommon occurrence anymore, and many Maasai have ascended to positions of recognition in the western world, from prime ministers to Olympic athletes.

Given the amiable and open nature of their culture, many Maasai find employment as local guides and field experts in their homelands of Kenya and Tanzania, and are eager to get to know visitors to Maasailand. While it’s common for tourists to want to capture photos of the colorful people they meet while traveling, we think you’ll get a lot more engagement out of sharing a tale about yourself and your visit—or sharing a joke. Trust us: if you make some new friends, there’ll be a lot of irreverent humor coming your way. (Ask a married warrior about the Viagra plant.)

At Penwell, we’re proud to count many Maasai as dear friends and colleagues, and we’re thrilled to be able to introduce you. Come meet our family, and let’s write your safari story together. Contact Penwell today!

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