Meet the Maasai



Meet the Maasai


Nimali Africa


August 2023

Guardians of the great plains

It's the quintessential vision of East Africa... A Maasai warrior dressed in a red shuka and bedecked in beads, standing alone, spear or fimbo (a fighting stick) at his side, surveying the vast landscapes of the great plains. These imposing people are intrinsic to the cultural fabric of Tanzania, so, let's find out more about them, their fascinating history and traditions and what they mean to us here at Nimali...  

A centuries-long journey

The Maasai people have a rich history that spans centuries. It began in the Nile basin of what is now Sudan in the 15th century when they began the long journey south to the great plains of what is now Kenya and Tanzania in search of better grazing for their cattle and a more stable way of life, far from the constant conflicts with neighbouring, warlike peoples.

By the 18th century the Maasai had "settled" in the great plains region and took up their lives as nomadic pastoralists, moving with their cattle as they followed the cyclical rains and fresh grasses, shadowing the movement of the Great Wildebeest Migration.

Maasai life is centred around their cattle, which hold significant cultural and spiritual significance for these resilient people. A source of sustenance and a measure of social status, cattle are quite literally life for the Maasai.

Blood and milk

Over the centuries, the Maasai have developed a distinct cultural identity characterised by their colourful clothing, intricate beaded jewellery, and elaborate ceremonies. The red and white shukas the Maasai warriors wear symbolises the source of their physical and spiritual sustenance - blood and milk.

Milk is a part of most meals for Maasai herders and is drunk "au naturel", soured or as a rudimentary butter. It's also used in tea and mixed with cattle blood to form a unique Maasai "protein shake"!  

The Maasai also eat raw beef and drink fresh blood and cooked blood as well. The blood is obtained by skilfully nicking a cow's jugular artery with the tip of a spear to allow for blood letting that does not kill the cow, but rather provides a steady flow of blood from a wound that quickly closes, thanks to clotting.

Add to the traditional Maasai menu tubers, honey and a selection of plants used in soups and stews. In more recent times they have supplemented their diet with grains and maize-meal, and more varied diets have become the norm. Ugali - a thick maize porridge that's a Tanzanian staple - is always served with milk in Maasai homes.

Maasai warriors are easily recognised by their tall, slender build wrapped in red patterned shuka cloth, and their long, large blade spears (Photo: Pawan Sharma)

The way of the warrior

Warriorhood is an essential aspect of Maasai culture. At the age of 14, young Maasai men undergo rites of passage that include ritual circumcision and intense training to become warriors, known as "morans", responsible for protecting their communities and cattle. The moran period usually lasts for 15 years, until the men are 30, and traditionally, they remain single throughout this time. When they reach 30, a further rite of passage marks the reaching of "elder" status, when a man may marry and take on a leadership role within his community.

This warrior tradition still plays a vital role in Maasai society but has changed significantly in modern times.

As a culture, the Maasai have faced a new set of challenges and threats thanks to globalisation, encroachment of their lands for agriculture and conservation and a changed economic environment. Technology has also exposed younger generations to new ideas and influences. This has led the Maasai to find ways to preserve their cultural heritage while adapting to the changes taking place around them.

The rise of eco-tourism as a major economic force has assisted in this respect. Cultural tourism has become a source of income for many Maasai communities, allowing them to showcase their traditions and way of life to visitors. In addition, allowing conservation and tourism on tribal lands has provided a valuable revenue stream through levies and lease agreements. Many Maasai group ranches now donate a significant portion of their land to conservation use and young morans and elders alike play significant roles in sustainable conservation programmes and the tourism industry.

A tapestry of tradition for Maasai men and women

Distinctive gender roles are the cornerstone of Maasai society and are rooted in the tribe's traditions that have evolved over centuries. Customarily, Maasai men are the guardians of livestock and protectors of the Maasai way of life and their traditional duties include the following:

  • Cattle herding: Historically, Maasai men have been responsible for cattle herding and the protection of livestock. Cattle hold immense cultural and economic value in Maasai society, and it's primarily the men's responsibility to ensure their well-being, including finding grazing, water, and guarding against predators and theft.
  • Warriorhood: Young Maasai men undergo a rite of passage to become a warrior or "moran". During this phase, they are responsible for safeguarding their communities from external threats. Morans dress in a distinctive way, wearing colourful shukas and beads and carrying a spear.
  • Decision-Making: In traditional Maasai society, when they are 30 they become elders and become leaders in their communities, typically holding the decision-making power in matters related to the community and cattle. They participate in tribal councils and discussions that determine the course of the community.
Maasai child with her mother in Arusha, Tanzania (Photo: Magdalena Kula Manchee)

For Maasai women, traditional life revolves around home and family and their historical roles reflect this...

  • Homemakers: Maasai women are traditionally responsible for preparing meals, caring for children, and constructing and maintaining the traditional Maasai dwellings known as "manyattas."
  • Gathering food: Women are also involved in gathering wild foods, tending small-scale gardens, and sometimes taking care of smaller livestock like goats. These activities provide additional sources of nutrition and income for the family.
  • Beadwork and artistry: Maasai women are known for their intricate beadwork, which is a significant aspect of their culture. They craft jewellery, clothing, and various adornments, often to be worn by both men and women.
  • Social organisers: Maasai women are responsible for organising and participating in community gatherings, ceremonies, and rites of passage.

While the Maasai's traditional roles remain an important part of their culture, the tribe's social dynamics are steadily shifting thanks to improved education and the positive impact of sustainable tourism. Maasai men are playing active roles as safari guides and within the conservation community, helping to protect endangered wildlife species and in some cases donating their own land to aid in this. At Nimali, we work closely with our local Maasai communities on a range of conservation initiatives and actively employ from local villages.

Today, more and more Maasai women are pursuing opportunities beyond their traditional roles, following their own career paths, becoming teachers, healthcare workers, and businesswomen, becoming financially independent in the process. Nimali is proud to be spearheading community programmes that focus on the empowerment of Maasai women and girls through education and the creation of career opportunities.

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