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The Maasai of East Africa and their Life on the Serengeti

The Maasai people of East Africa live on the Serengeti Plain near Kenya and Tanzania. They are a population of approximately 500,000. The Maasai are a very unique society with a rich history steeped in culture and tradition. Today this fascinating people struggle to sustain their way of life through constant external influences and pressures of the changing world around them.

The Maasai are pastoralists. Their livelihood depends upon the herding of cattle, sheep, goats and donkeys. They are a subsistence economy, meaning they derive their food from natural sources. Traditionally their diet consists of milk, meat and blood from their livestock, but recently they have also grown somewhat dependent upon maize, rice, potatoes and cabbage which they will trade their livestock products, such as milk, for. Also, some Maasai in certain areas who do not have enough land to accommodate large herds of animals have been forced to resort to farming. This, however, is frowned upon by traditional Maasias because they believe it is a crime against nature to cultivate the land because once the land is cultivated it is no longer suitable for grazing.

As mentioned above, Maasai people will trade livestock and livestock products for other items. Livestock is their primary source of income. Beyond being used for food, livestock may also be traded for beads and clothing. This type of balanced reciprocity is traditionally the way the Maasai have conducted business throughout their history, however, with the interference of the west the Maasai have become more and more entrenched in a market economy. Until recently it was illegal to sell livestock for cash, but today it is a somewhat common practice. As a result of this much of the society of the Maasai are becoming impoverished and what was once a self sufficient society is facing many economic and social problems.

Maasai life is one of domestic industry in which they produce most of what they use to live themselves. For example men are responsible for making spears, shields, clubs and machetes while women are responsible for beaded ornaments worn by both men and women. These are examples of different gender roles. Also, their living quarters, called Inkajijik, are built by the women of the society using mud, sticks, grass and cow dung while the fences that protect the houses are built by the men using different types of trees. Traditionally the homes are shared by more than one family, but in recent times it is common for only one extended family to live in a house. These houses are arranged in a circular fashion, in an Inkangitie, which is a collection of several houses that serve as a homestead. Within the homestead there are different jobs for the different members of the household. The most senior members are the elders and they are in charge of organizing the day's labor and making the day to day decisions. The elders will announce every morning the schedule of the day for everyone to follow. Women are responsible for supplying water, milking cattle, collecting firewood and cooking. This is a combination of primary and secondary subsistence activities since many of the chores do not deal directly with food getting, but since milk is so important in their society this should be considered a food getting responsibility. Boys are responsible for herding the cattle and the warriors, who are young men, are in charge of security.

The coming of age journey for boys is a very important part of Maasai culture. Their first initiation comes when they are in their pre-pubescent years. This is considered the pre-circumcision ceremony. During this ceremony boys of a certain age set will spend the night outside the homestead which had been built for them and then the next morning storm it as if they were raiders. Then they will dance all day long in celebration of this transition to a new age set. Being in this new age set means they are ready for the next initiation rite which will occur when they reach puberty, the circumcision ceremony. Boys are very eager to reach their circumcision ceremony for it means they are ready for warrior-hood. Girls also have a circumcision ceremony performed when they reach puberty but there is not much known about this ritual. Both the circumcision ceremonies for boys and girls mark their transition from childhood to adulthood. As far as the boys, however, as stated, it occurs when they reach puberty. At this time a boy can show that he is ready for his initiation by displaying the actions of a man. For example he may carry a heavy spear, herd a large group of cattle or travel alone at night. Once it is determined that a boy is ready preparations are made for the initiation. First he must herd cattle for seven full days and then on the eighth day the operation is performed. Right before the operation the boy must stand outside in cold weather and receive a cold shower in order to wash his sins away. The operation is performed with no medication or pain killers. After the operation the boy, who is now a man, will receive gifts of livestock and will be very respected in his community.

After the circumcision initiation a man has several more steps before he can settle down and marry. After the circumcision ceremony the new warrior must spend ten years in a camp, called an Emanyatta, with other members of his age set and also with uninitiated girls (uncircumcised) with whom he can have sex. During these ten years that the warriors live in this this close knit brotherhood they will serve as the military for the community and learn many skills. After the ten years they will have their senior warrior ceremony in which they will transition to senior warriors and this will give them the right to marry. The last initiation rite is when a senior warrior is given a ceremony which means he has become a junior elder. Once a junior elder a man will now be responsible for his own family and may leave the homestead of his father to make his own homestead. His father, however, will remain his chief advisor for life.

As mentioned, a warrior may marry once he becomes a senior warrior. The Maasai practice polygyny which means that a man can marry as many women as he can afford. A man must purchase his wives with cattle. This is called a bride price. A women is usually sold to a much older (20 - 30 years older) man from a different homestead who she does not know. This is called exogamy for although she is raised in a community where she may have relationships with other young men, when she is to marry it is to someone she does not know, from outside her homestead. This usually happens when a girl is between thirteen and sixteen years old, after puberty and her circumcision ceremony. The marriage ritual is that the girl must pack all her belongings and dress in her finest jewelry. At the wedding her father will spit on her head and her breasts as a blessing and then she will walk with her new husband to her new home. She is forbidden to look back for fear that she will turn to stone. It is considered taboo to look back towards her old home after a girl is married and on her way to her new one. In fact, to ward off bad omens it is common for the women of the groom's family to insult her as she walks. This seems like a very sad thing for a young girl, but perhaps that is my ethnocentrism showing.

Art is a big part of Maasai life, and one of the most traditional and revered art projects is in fact the bridal costume. After her first initiation ceremony, the circumcision, it is the girls mother's responsibility to dress her in many ornamental dressings using beads, which are the primary art form of the Maasai. However, as a girl moves towards the time of marriage, which is considered the second initiation for a girl, her ornamental dressing becomes more of a communal responsibility. This responsibility is accepted by everyone in the community, for their feeling is that 'today is my daughter's turn, tomorrow is your daughter's turn'. This is also and example of a form of balance reciprocity. The dressing of a bride takes the form of beadwork. The primary colors used in Maasai art are white, red, green, blue and orange. All Maasai ornaments are made by women, yet they are worn by both men and women. The beads are purchased through the sale or trading of cattle and other livestock products and are usually found in urban areas of Kenya and sold by non-Maasais. Since beaded artwork is such an important part of Maasai culture, these transactions involving beads are a very important part of their commerce. Another important piece of art that involves beads is the beading of a lion's mane and tail. When a hunter kills a lion the mane is beaded by the women of the community and then returned to the hunter who killed it. This mane will hold a special significance for the hunter, it will ward off bad spirits. This is an example of a mana.

One interesting thing about the Maasai is that they do not have a written language, just a spoken one. All history is remembered through storytelling. The language that they speak is called Maa. Maa has 25 consonant sounds and 9 vowels. What makes this language interesting is that many of the sounds in Maa are implosive meaning the sound is made as one draws in a breath, opposed to as one exhales, which is how most sounds in other languages are made. Also important in Maa is tone. This means that it is not just what is being said that matters, but how it is being said, meaning how high or low.

The Maasai are different from western culture and are trying very hard to keep to their traditional rituals and beliefs. As time goes on this is becoming harder and harder for them to do. Money and materialism are finding their way into the culture. Items such as bicycles, radios and western clothing are infiltrating the Maasai way of life. Also there is a double standards being thrust upon them by the western world. In many Maasai traditional areas the western world has condemned their practices (such as circumcision, lion hunting, etc…) yet at the same time the west will use the image of the Maasai to attract tourists. It will be very interesting to see how the Maasai survive over the next many years. Will they be able to maintain their traditional life or will the outside world force them to change? From an anthropological point of view it would be nice if they were left alone and allowed to stay as they have been for centuries.