Maasai: the authentic people of Kenya - a tourist favorite
The Maasai tribe is the most authentic ethnic tribe of Kenya.
The Maasai tribe (or Masai) is a unique and popular tribe due to their long preserved culture. Despite education, civilization and western cultural influences, the Maasai people have clung to their traditional way of life, making them a symbol of Kenyan culture.
Maasai's distinctive culture, dress style and strategic territory along the game parks of Kenya and Tanzania have made them one of East Africa's most internationally famous tourist attractions.
The Maasai people reside in both Kenya and Tanzania, living along the border of the two countries. They are a smaller tribe, accounting for only about 0.7 percent of Kenya's population, with a similar number living in Tanzania. Maasais speak Maa, a Nilotic ethnic language from their origin in the Nile region of North Africa.
The Samburu tribe is the closest to the Maasai in both language and cultural authenticity.
History of the Maasai Tribe
It is thought that the Maasai's ancestors originated in North Africa, migrating south along the Nile Valley and arriving in Northern Kenya in the middle of the 15th century. They continued southward, conquering all of the tribes in their path, extending through the Rift Valley and arriving in Tanzania at the end of 19th century. As they migrated, they attacked their neighbors and raided cattle. By the end of their journey, the Maasai had taken over almost all of the land in the Rift Valley as well as the adjacent land from Mount Marsabit to Dodoma, where they settled to graze their cattle.
Maasai Historical Changes
Tragedy struck the Maasai tribe at the turn of the century. An epidemic of deadly diseases attacked and killed large numbers of the Maasai's animals. This was quickly followed by severe drought that lasted years. Over half of the Maasais and their animals perished during this period. Soon after, more than two thirds of the Maasai's land in Kenya was taken away by the British and the Kenyan government to create both ranches for settlers and Kenya and Tanzania's wildlife reserves and national parks.
The Amboseli National Park, Nairobi National Park, Masai Mara Game Reserve, Samburu, Lake Nakuru, and Tsavo National Parks in Kenya and the Manyara, Ngorongoro, Tarangire and Serengeti parks in Tanzania all stand on what was once the territory of the Maasai tribe.
Today, the Maasai people live on a smaller piece of land in the Kajiado and Narok districts, surrounded by these now Kenya's fine game reserves. Many practice nomadic pastoralism, while others have been absorbed into modern day jobs working in tourism where they showcase their culture to visiting tourists.
The warrior is of great importance as a source of pride in the Maasai culture. To be a Maasai is to be born into one of the world's last great warrior cultures. From boyhood to adulthood, young Maasai boys begin to learn the responsibilities of being a man (helder) and a warrior. The role of a warrior is to protect their animals from human and animal predators, to build kraals (Maasai homes) and to provide security to their families.
Through rituals and ceremonies, including circumcision, Maasai boys are guided and mentored by their fathers and other elders on how to become a warrior. Although they still live their carefree lives as boys - raiding cattle, chasing young girls, and game hunting - a Maasai boy must also learn all of the cultural practices, customary laws and responsibilities he'll require as an elder.
An elaborate ceremony - Eunoto - is usually performed to "graduate" the young man from their moran and carefree lifestyle to that of a warrior. Beginning life as a warrior means a young man can now settle down and start a family, acquire cattle and become a responsible elder. In his late years, the middle-aged warrior will be elevated to a senior and more responsible elder during the Olng'eshere ceremony.
[Watch the video below to get a glimpse of Maasai culture. The video shows Maasai warriors (young men) doing the jump around dance. This dance is part of how they find a mate. The highest jumper gets the girls].
Maasai children enter into a system of "age-sets" with peers where various life stages, such as circumcision, are marked with ritual and ceremonies. At the age of 14, girls are initiated into adulthood through an official circumcision ceremony known as Emorata.
Presently, the female circumcision ritual is outlawed in Kenya and its use is diminishing from the Maasai women's culture. Young Maasai girls are still taught other functional roles like how to build houses, make beadwork, and cook and clean their homes, by their mothers and older women. When they come of age, their parents "book" a warrior from a respectable clan as an appropriate husband for their daughter.
Since the Maasai lead a semi-nomadic life, their houses are loosely constructed and semi-permanent. They are usually small, circular houses built by the women using mud, grass, wood and cow-dung.
The men build the fences and sheds for the animals.
Maasai and their love of cattle
The Maasai tribe has a deep, almost sacred, relationship with cattle. They are guided by a strong belief that God created cattle especially for them and that they are the sole custodians of all the cattle on earth. This bond has led them into a nomadic way of life following patterns of rainfall over vast land in search of food and water for their large herds of cattle.
The Maasai tribe measures wealth by the number of cattle and children one has.
Maasai clothes, dressing and beauty
Though they traditionally dressed in animal skins, today, typical Maasai dress consists of red sheets, (shuka), wrapped around the body and loads of beaded jewelry placed around the neck and arms. These are worn by both men and women and may vary in color depending on the occasion.
Ear piercing and the stretching of earlobes are also part of Maasai beauty, and both men and women wear metal hoops on their stretched earlobes.
Women shave their heads and remove two middle teeth on the lower jaw (for oral delivery of traditional medicine). The Maasai often walk barefooted or wear simple sandals made of cow hide.
Maasai faith and religion
In their monotheistic traditional beliefs, the Maasai god (Enkai or Engai) was manifested in two forms: the black god, who was benevolent; and the red god, who was vengeful. Today most of the Maasai tribe are Christians and a minority are Muslims.
All of the Maasai's needs for food are met by their cattle. They eat the meat, drink the milk and, on occasion, drink the blood. Bulls, oxen and lambs are slaughtered for meat on special occasions and for ceremonies. The by-products of the animals - skin and hides - are used as bedding while cow dung is used for building (it is smeared on the walls). The Maasai's entire way of life truly revolves around their cattle.
The Maasai tribe today
The effects of modern civilization, education and western influence have not completely spared this unique and interesting tribe. Some of the Maasai tribe's deep-rooted culture is slowly fading away. Customs, activities and rituals such as female circumcision and cattle raiding have been outlawed by modern legislation. Maasai children now have access to education and some Maasai have moved from their homeland to urban areas where they have secured jobs.
The Maasai tribe now occupy a much smaller area in the Kajiado and Narok districts as their vast territory has been taken over by some of Kenya's game reserves. The Maasai's territory now overlaps with the Serengeti plains in Tanzania and Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya - an area famous for the huge wildebeest migration that take place every year, when up to a million animals move from the north end of the plains to the south. However, the Maasai's authentic and intriguing culture is a tourist attraction on its own. You can see the Maasai people and experience Maasai culture while on a safari tour in Kenya.
Maasai cultural tours
Kenya's safari tours enable both visiting tourists and native Kenyans to enjoy the country's wildlife, while also exploring the Maasai's rich cultural heritage by visiting their homes and attending Maasai cultural shows. These tours are held in Kenya's game reserves, in particular, the Masai Mara National reserve.
The tours also provide an ideal opportunity for participants to take part in the Maasai dance and buy traditional Maasai jewelry, art and crafts to take home as souvenirs.
If you'd like to visit the Maasai people and experience their culture, get more information from one of the organized local Kenya safari tours and make your dream a reality.
Related Information on Kenya
- Learn about other ethnic tribes of Kenya.
- About Kajiado County - the original home of the Maasai peopel.
- About Laikipia County - one of the counties where Maasais live.
- Kenya safari tours, animal safaris, adventure holidays and beach safaris that you can customize and book online before you travel to Kenya.
- Where do you stay in Kenya? find a range of places where you can book your stay in Kenya, from 5-star luxury hotels to safari and game lodges - all accomodation to fit your budget.
- Do you want self-catering accomodation? find vacation rentals - Kenya cottages, villas and apartments to fit your budget.
- Explore different choices and possibilities for a Kenya safari
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