Africa’s Last Warrior Tribe
If you are planning a visit to Africa it is useful and practical to have a little knowledge about the local people you will be meeting. A visit to Kenya and Tanzania means you will have the privilege of meeting the Masai (aka Maasai) people, who are the most famous and easily recognized indigenous tribe in these two countries. Most people have heard of the Masai – their rich culture and particularly distinctive clothes make them stand out on the Continent, and they are known for their exceptional courage as warriors.
A Little History
The Masai are one of the many tribes (125 altogether!) found in Southern Kenya and the Northern part of Tanzania. They are thought to have originated in the Sudan, and their own oral history relates how they migrated through the Nile River into Kenya and then Tanzania, around the 15th century, either forcibly displacing the previous inhabitants and raiding their cattle, or assimilating some of them into their own culture. The Masai have always been a pastoral people – they practice cattle rearing and are always on the move to newer greener pastures. The size of their territory was at its largest in the 19th century, however a huge percentage of the tribe was wiped out in the 1890’s by the effects of three cataclysmic events – a Smallpox epidemic ravaged the people, a Rinderpest epidemic killed over 90% of their herds and the final blow came when the rains failed completely for more than two years, resulting in thousands of deaths from starvation.
Unfortunately, this was not the end of their problems! The recovering tribe were faced with more hardship in the decades to come – two treaties in 1904 and 1911 saw them forced to give up over 60% of their land to the British to make room for settler ranches. Later, in the 1940’s, even more land was confiscated by the Kenyan government to create the many Wildlife Reserves and National Parks that Kenya and Tanzania are famous for today. Amboseli, Nairobi, the Masai Mara Reserve, Samburu, Lake Nakuru and Tsavo National Parks in Kenya and Manyara, Ngorongoro, Tarangire and Serengeti National Parks in Tanzania all stand on land that was once Masai territory.
The Masai Today
Despite the influences of education and western culture, the Masai people have largely resisted change and most of them remain nomadic pastoralists, albeit in a greatly reduced area. They principally live along the borders of the aforementioned National Parks in the Kajiado and Narok districts and in several areas their territory overlaps the National Parks and they still graze their cattle inside the protected areas – in some instances this has led to episodes of human/wildlife conflict when cattle are attacked by Lion and other predators.
Many members of the tribe have been absorbed into the Safari industry (“Safari” is a Swahili word meaning journey) where they showcase their extensive knowledge and impress the tourists with their remarkable talents as wilderness guides. The tourism industry creates many employment opportunities and has been directly or indirectly responsible for several co-operative schemes which have benefited the local communities and helped provide schooling for the children. In addition, there are educational programs aimed at educating the tribes about the importance of conservation of natural resources and all wildlife, including Lions, which were often hunted and killed in retaliation for cattle losses, or to demonstrate a young Warrior’s courage.
The Masai Culture – Who Does What
The Masai are probably the last of the world’s great warrior cultures and the bravery of the Masai warriors is still a source of pride to the tribe. Young boys are given the responsibility of herding and guarding the cattle from a very young age, while the girls learn to clean and milk the cows. Rites of Passage are very important and all young boys learn about the responsibilities they will require as men. Eunoto is an elaborate ceremony when boys and girls come of age and graduate to be warriors and wives. Young warriors must face painful circumcision without flinching if they wish to emerge as full-blown warriors with the respect of their elders and tribe.
Girls still have very few choices and no voice – no place here for Woman’s Lib! They will be married off by their elders into traditionally polygamous marriages and are responsible for all household chores including the building of their temporary houses, using mud, grass, wood and cow dung as well as cooking, beading and child care. The warriors, of course, build fences and bomas to protect the cattle and fearlessly defend them from attack by wild animals.
Dress and Ornamentation
Most Masai people dress in the well-known red “shuka”- a sheet of red fabric which is wrapped around the body and adorned by elaborate beadwork around the neck, arms and ears. Both sexes dress alike and both sexes practice ear piercing and stretching of the earlobes – greatly stretched earlobes are regarded as very beautiful. Masai beadwork is very intricate and beautiful and is a very sought-after souvenir for many tourists.
Cattle in the Masai Culture
The importance of cattle to the Masai cannot be over-emphasized and borders on a sacred relationship, where they believe that they have a God-given role as the custodians of all cattle. They measure their wealth by the number of cattle they own and the number of children they have produced – you need to have many of each to be considered wealthy! Cattle and other livestock (they also raise some sheep and goats) provide almost all their food, in the form of meat, milk and even blood, while the skins and hides are used for bedding and the dung is used as a type of plaster to water-proof their houses. If you have no cattle you have no food, no shelter and no standing, which is why the warriors are so fiercely protective of their herds. One of the most common Masai greetings translates as “I hope your cattle are well”!
Song and Dance
A distinctive feature of Masai music is the lack of instruments and the amazing harmony of their vocals. Most songs consist of a responsive pattern, where the women sing one part and the men respond with the second part, while the only musical accompaniment to the singing is the jingling sound of all the beads worn by both the singers and the dancers. Head and neck movements are an important part of singing and form a kind of rhythmical “bobbing”.
Although the Masai jumping dances “adumu” are the most popularly performed, there are also other types of very structured dances for various special occasions. In the jumping dances the men all stand in a circle and each has a chance to jump as high as he can while the others encourage him in song – as the voices get higher the jumping increases – this is a sight you should not miss!
The Importance of Respectful Greetings
African culture is composed of many myths, legends and taboos that have been passed down from one generation to the next – having at least an inkling of how to interact in a respectful and dignified manner is just good manners, and will go a long way towards establishing a good relationship with your hosts. As the adage goes, when in Rome, do like the Romans! Many practices that most visitors take for granted back home could be regarded as the height of bad manners in Africa…for instance, you should never just walk up to a local and ask for directions or a service without at least a few sentences in greeting and general “small talk”. Knowing when and with whom you should shake hands is also important (see below) and memorizing a few phrases of greeting and thanks in the local language will win you a large measure of respect.
Handshaking is a very popular form of greeting, practiced by just about everyone. As a sign of respect, most Masai shake hands with their right hand while holding their right elbow with the left hand. Sometimes the right hand is covered by the left hand in a form of double handshake, but you need not worry about getting it right – a normal one-handed shake will do the job! You should never try to shake hands with your left hand if your right hand is otherwise occupied – this is considered very rude – rather do not shake at all! Men should not attempt to shake hands with female Masai, unless the lady makes the first move; usually she will just nod in greeting. If a young Masai child leans their head towards you while greeting then you should tap them lightly on the head – this is considered the polite greeting for children.
Experiencing Masai Culture at First Hand
One of the very best ways to experience some of the mystery and legend that is interwoven into the Masai culture is to go on a Walking Safari with one of the excellent Masai guides, who will be only too happy to share his extensive knowledge of his country with you. You can also arrange to visit real Masai homes on a Cultural Excursion and be entertained with a traditional song and dance show. Cultural visits are offered by most of the Camps and Lodges in the National Parks.