The Maasai are one of the tribes found in the Northern part of Tanzania, around the Arusha region. As one of the 125 tribes of Tanzania, they are believed to have originated from Sudan and to have migrated through the river Nile into Kenya and then Tanzania, due to their nomadic lifestyle whereby they move from one region to another in search of greener pastures for the lifestock.
Tradition and culture
The Maasai are pastoralists. This is characterized by their constant movement in search of greener pastures for the lifestock which is their main source of livelyhood. Due to this kind of lifestyle they do not have permanent houses.
In Tanzania the Maasai are mainly found in the Arusha region concentratingin Monduli, Loliondo and Ngorongoro areas. they normallt live in clans which are characterized by a cluster of their mud houses built closely next to eachother and refererred to as a ‘Boma’. These Bomas are built in largely open areas where they can accommodate their livestock as well and fenced off with thorny bushes for protection.
The Maasai people who are living around the Ngorongoro Conservation Area are a big attraction to tourism due to their rich culture. Their way of living and dressing is a big amusement to the Western world, thus attracting tourists in large numbers, aiding the countries economy and opportunities.
Their main color of dressing is bright red; they plaster themselves with red ochre dung, dug from the ground and softened with cow fat. The liquid mixture is applied to the garments thus turning them red. They normally sit and sleep on the ground thus the red color matches with the look of the soil. Since they do not wash their clothes, water is very scarce, this mixture hides the dirt and they will always look clean. The Ocre to the Maasai is their traditional clothing, common around the youth who are called Morans. The elderly don’t wear the Ochre. Another trditional attire is the wearing of sandals made out of car tires. These come in handy when they have to hide from their enemies since the sandals are cut without showing front or back so one will not know in which direction they were walking. They are also known for wearing brightly colored anklets and bracelets made from beads. They have larde pierced holes in their ears and wear beautiful beads on them. Completing the outfit, men carry a spear over their shoulders, a sime (Maasai knife) on their waist and a Rungu, which are used for self defense, or in combination with their famous shields, in time of war. A formidable appearance!
The Maasai women are voiceless. They do all the manual work in their homes. The spear that is carries by the men is also used by them to identify themselves. This is done by way of piercing right in front of the house to announce to any other man that he is inside the house. They have a tradition of sleeping with any woman/wife and the respective husband is not supposed to query. The woman is not supposed to complain if a man other then her husband wants to cohabit with her.
Their main food is meat and their most particular meal consists of fresh blood and raw meat. They mix the fresh blood with milk and feed it to the women and children. Lactating mothers dring fat extracted from animal (mainly cow) fat. They do not feed on game meat (wild animals) as they have the believe that the game meat should be eaten by other tribes that do not have livestock. They believe that God gave all the cattle to the Maasai. Their god is referred to as ‘Engai’ and he lives on the Oldoinyo Lengai mountain (the mountain of God).
Another characteristic of Maasai culture is poligamy. The men marry many wives who bear their children. Children are a sign of prosperity and riches. One of the reasons behind this is the high mortality rate; due to a lack of medical services and their roaming way of life, many children die at an early age. Also, when a man has many wifes and children, they will be able to care for the many herds of cattle that they own. The chief is supposed to marry many wifes to designate his chiefdom; it’s prestigious for one’s daughter to be married by the chief regardless of age.
Circumcision of both males and females is practiced among the Maasai. This practice enrolls one from one age group to another. It is during circumcision that one is taught of their role in society; the men are taught to protect their families and property whilst the women are taught how to care for their husband’s children and the community in general. There is no marriage before circumcision. This way the Maasai have been able to maintain their traditions and customs irrespective of the changes in the world today.
Economic activities and social affairs
In the recent past, the Maasai have realised the imporance of education. They have started embarking on serious education for their children. This has been seen in their participation in the different government sectors for those who have had the chance to go to school. This movement is contrary to past believes that education would make tribe members loose touch with tradition and customs.
In the past, children took care of the goats, sheep and calves. They have the believe that all cattle belongs to the Maasai and thus were involved in cattle rustling from the Sukuma tribe with the believe they were simply bringing the cows back where they belong. Due to the rise in population, the availability of land is scarce. This has caused Maasai to initiate small agricultural activities to cater for their food supplements. Additionally, mines that produce Tanzanite, a precious stone only found in Tanzania, have been found on their land, especially in the Mererani area. This has caused them to get involved in the mining business and nowadays most of the brokers are Maasai.
Needless to say this has brought a lot of changes amongst them and their economic base has risen steadilly over the past few years; Maasai are now involved in real estate in the major towns with many new buildings built from the proceeds of the sale of this Tanzanite.
One of the Maasai areas where the African Roots Foundation is active is the area of Eselelei, close to Lake Manyara National Park. You can read more on our activities on these pages.
An external resource with tons of information on Maasai is the ‘Maasai Environmental Resource Coalition‘.