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5 Things You Need To Know About Maasai Culture Before Visiting

5 Things You Need To Know About Maasai Culture Before Visiting

The Maasai are a semi-nomadic tribe of people who have lived in the region of Southern Kenya and Northern Tanzania for hundreds of years, and are easily identifiable by their distinctive traditional red style of dress, ornate beaded jewelry, and lively spirit. For many travelers, visiting a Maasai village to experience their culture and traditional way of life is a highlight of their trip. But there are a few things you should know about the Maasai culture before you leave home.

The Maasai Greeting

The typical greeting between two Maasai people would be “Kasserian Ingera” which in Swahili translates to “How are the children?”. This demonstrates the high importance that the Maasai people place on their family, and the well-being of the next generation. The Maasai people are traditionally a nomadic society, the main source of wealth being the cattle that they raise. However, a man with many cattle and few children is none-the-less seen to be poor. 

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How are the Children?
Photo by: CanAssist African Relief Trust

The Maasai Religion

The Maasai people are a religious bunch. In their traditional religion they believe in one god, Nkai (also spelled Enkai, Ngai, and others). The story goes that Nkai was once the owner of all the cattle, which he gave to the Maasai people via a bark rope from the sky. However a group of jealous hunters and gatherers who didn’t receive any cattle cut the rope, stopping the flow of cattle, and severing the tie between the sky and the earth. For this reason, the Maasai believe that all the cattle of the earth belong to them, and they look down on those who have no cattle or who work the Earth.

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Maasai Herdsman in Ngorongoro.
Photo by: Harvey Barrison

The Rite of Passage

When the boys of the village reach 14-16 years old, they must do what is called an Enkipaata. This is a pretty serious ceremony in which all the boys of the age-set wander the forests for about 4 months before returning to a new village of 30 to 40 houses set up for the occasion. They dance for a whole day before choosing a Olopolosi olkiteng, the unfortunate boy who must shoulder the responsibility of the entire group’s sins. Following this, the boys are ready for the most important ceremony which will help them become warriors; the Emuratare or circumcision, which the boys are required to undergo without so much as flinching or they risk bringing shame upon themselves and their families. You can read more about this very complex practice here.

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Young Maasai Men
Photo by: Colin J. McMechan

Music and Dance

One of the most enduring images people have of the Maasai are the unique jumping dances they perform while singing their rhythmic chanting songs. The song structure is what’s called call-and-response, with a leader, called the Olaranyani, singing out a line and the rest of group calling out a response. During the rainy season there’s more of a cause for celebration, as this is when the coming of age ceremonies generally take place which include 9 straight days of singing and dancing, but you can usually witness the Maasai song and dance any time you visit.

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Maasai Warriors Dancing.
Photo By: Javier Carcamo

Food

The Maasai people are cattle herders, and as such, much if not all of their diet comes from cattle. They principally eat raw meat, and drink raw milk, and raw blood from the animals. On average, each Maasai person drinks 1 liter of raw milk per day. Although as time goes on, and the size of cattle herds are diminished, more and more Maasai are turning to vegetable products such as maize to supplement their diet. Despite the fact that many Maasai continue eating a large amount of red meat and dairy, they have an almost non-existent rate of heart disease, and a study on 400 Maasai men has shown average cholesterol levels to be about half that of the average American. This second point maybe be due to the common practice of drinking a concoction of boiled bark from the vachellia nilotica or prickly acacia tree, which is known to lower cholesterol.

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Visiting one of the Maasai villages in the Masai Mara is a rare treat, and an excellent way for the whole family to experience a culture that’s entirely different from how we live back home. You’ll be able to take away more than just a souvenir, you’ll gain a whole new appreciation for what makes our lives so special. If you’d like to visit a Maasai village for yourself, Nature Bound Africa will be happy to arrange it for you, or you can book one of our cultural experience tours and learn the ways of the Maasai for yourself.

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