The Masai: Africa's Most Famous Tribal People
April 20, 2013
Few images are as representative of East Africa as the brightly coloured Masai warriors and the proud, pseudo-nomadic lifestyle that they continue to live in the face of the rapid modernisation of Tanzania and Kenya.
With their iconic circular bomas, their brightly coloured wraps, and their distinctive dance and song, seeing and interacting with the Masai is every bit as memorable as any Serengeti landscape or Big Five encounter.
The Masai in Tanzania
With villages and settlements scattered across southern Kenya and northern Tanzania, the Masai have become synonymous with the safari experience due to the fact many villages exist within or near to the national parks of both countries.
In Tanzania, the Masai are especially prominent in and around Ngorongoro and the Serengeti, while Kenya's Masai Mara takes its name from these proud people.
The Masai are predominantly cattle breeders, eating meat and milk that they produce themselves. Cattle products are a central part of the Masai diet, with other animals such as sheep being more for special occasions than day to day use.
In fact, traditional Masai culture revolves closely around the tribe's cattle herds. The measure of a man's worth is measured in the number of cattle he owns and the number of children he fathers, with the latter depending heavily upon the former.
Traditionally, the Masai people are recognizable by their distinct attire. They wear sandals and wrap their bodies in robes of red, blue, or black. Women spend much of their spare time doing bead work, and they often adorn their bodies with their creations as well as bracelets & earrings of wood or bone.
The Masai society is a patriarchal one in which groups of male elders typically decide on important issues concerning the community.
The warrior caste within the Masai culture is one of the most respected and world renowned. These brave men are afforded many privileges such as being able to wear their hair long and being able to marry.
The Masai believe in one God, “Engai” (or "Enkai"). He is a God of two facets, one kind and the other vengeful. Within tribal groups, a “Laibon” (spiritual leader) oversees matters of spirituality, although he has no position of power when it comes to deciding matters of tribal importance.
Masai Warrior Culture
As a patriarchal society, men play an important role in a Masai tribe. In addition to the council of elders who handle the day to day running of a village, warriors (or il-murran) are a focal point of Masai society.
From an early age, boys are sent out to mind the herds while their sisters work with their mothers to learn skills such as cooking, and milking.
Every fifteen or so years, a new group of warriors is initiated from the boys aged between 12 and 25. These individuals will undergo ritual circumcision and a kind of exile that sees all initiated boys move away from the village for a period of months while they heal and mature into men.
These young warriors are essentially adults now regardless of their age, and are expected to make a greater contribution to village life and begin carrying themselves as men.
At the same time, the previous generation of warriors will 'graduate' to becoming junior elders within their community.
The rapid development of Kenya and Tanzania as tourist destinations and industrial nations has not missed the Masai, who struggle to maintain their traditional beliefs and practises in the face of rapidly modernising nations.
While many Masai still maintain their semi-nomadic lifestyles of cattle raising, it is not uncommon to see Masai warriors with cellphones or to see Masai children begging for candy or money as you drive by.
While many Masai communities distance themselves from the hustle and bustle of cities and tourism hotspots, tourist friendly villages and markets are becoming increasingly common for those wishing to purchase Masai goods or meet with Masai people.
Visiting with the Masai
While it is true that many authentic Masai villages do not welcome tourists, it is possible for visitors to Tanzania to interact with these fascinating people in a number of ways.
Those venturing to or from the Serengeti have the opportunity to visit a Masai village between Ngorongoro and the Serengeti National Park. Your visit includes a demonstration of traditional Masai dance, the opportunity to see the day to day workings of a Masai village, and the opportunity to purchase locally made jewellery.
Alternatively, the Africa Amini Life Masai Lodge offers a charming blend of luxury accommodations and Masai traditions. While visiting, you'll overnight in a luxury Masai boma and are invited to participate in cultural activities such as nature walks, spear throwing competitions, bead work classes, and traditional cooking.