A beginner’s guide to the Masai

On my trip to the Mara recently, I got to see around one of the surrounding Masai villages. A brief glimpse one morning isn’t going to give me any deep insight into a culture that’s such a world away from my own experience. But here are a few things I learned from the visit, that you might find interesting:

  • The Masai are instantly recognizable from their dress: they traditionally wear a ‘shuka’, a brightly coloured and plaid patterned sheet. The predominant colour is red, apparently to warn off predators (the communities often live close to lions, leopards and hyena amongst others). Similar to tartan, different families will often have different patterns.

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  • Both men and women wear an impressive array of intricate beaded and metal jewellery. Piercing and stretching of the earlobes is common. Everyone wears the same sandals, which are made within the compound: traditionally they were made from cow hides, but the group explained how using old car tyres now means they last for years.

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  • It remains a pretty patriarchal society, centred around polygamy (a young man’s family chooses his first wife, but he is then free to choose others). Jealousy between wives is avoided by ‘never spending two consecutive nights with one wife’, I was told. Women look after the gathering of firewood, cooking, milking and house-building.  (It was a brief visit, so I didn’t get to explore exactly what that left for the men…)
  • Homes, made from a mix of mud, sticks, grass and cow dung, are built in a circular compound surrounded by a thorny acacia fence. Each home is quite cramped, with usually two beds (one for the parents, one for the children), and an open fire in between for cooking. A young calf will live in the small entrance area, for extra protection.
The circular compound
The circular compound
Inside one of the huts. The beds are on either side of this central cooking fire.
Inside one of the huts. The beds are on either side of this central cooking fire.
  • Cattle are kept in the centre of the compound, protecting them from potential predators (especially lions). They provide the community’s diet, which consists of meat, milk and blood. (Sometimes, the latter two are mixed together before drinking; the thought of which was just about the final straw for my stomach, I have to admit.) There are traditionally no vegetables, and no fruit: even crop growing is rare, given they are usually trampled by elephants. So that’ll just be meat, milk and blood, then.
  • At the age of around 14, groups of boys go through a formal initiation process to become warriors.  This involves circumcision (there’s no anaesthetic, but it’s an important sign of your manhood that you don’t openly show any signs of pain). They then spend several months living separately from the rest of the community, studying cultural traditions around becoming a warrior, traditional medicines and even how to create fire from dry sticks. It wasn’t discussed when I visited, but I gather circumcision for girls (female genital mutilation) is still common in many of the communities, despite being illegal in Kenya.
  • The traditional Masai dance involves a lot of jumping (it’s a competition amongst the young men to see who can jump the highest), and a deep, slightly unnerving chant. The horn of a ‘kudu’ (an African antelope) is used to accompany the singing, and the lead dancer wears a headdress made from a lion’s mane. (Killing a lion was, at one time, part of the initiation process for a warrior, but is now illegal.)

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  • There’s a deep sense of injustice around land rights. When the system of national parks was established from around the 1950s, the Masai lost their right to graze cattle on vast tracts of land. Now often restricted to limited conservancy areas, many struggle at certain times of the year. (The village we visited had just, the day before, lost two cattle to starvation, given the rains this year are arriving later than usual.)
  • The often harsh environment means that increasing numbers of the Masai community are giving up traditional life and moving to the cities. It’s understandable that they are exploring alternative, easier ways of making a living (many have taken loans with Kiva’s partners here in Kenya, to help build new, sustainable enterprises). But it does seem that even those who have chosen to move away, still retain a strong connection to their culture and traditions.

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So that was my very brief glimpse of this rich and complex culture.  I feel I need to finish on just one final note of clarification. For anyone looking at these pictures of tartan clad warriors with strange customs, and feeling confused: they are not Scots.  The Masai do not mix their blood with oatmeal and fry it.  And they have already achieved their independence from the English.

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