Maasai - Introduction

In this page:
Facts & Figures


The first time I saw Maasai was in Nairobi. There were three men, walking out of the lobby of Fedha Towers office block, and I really couldn't have missed them. Their way of walking was the first thing I noticed, which was graceful as well as fast, quite unlike the strut of the majority of Nairobi's inhabitants. Their dress was quite different, too: all three were wearing red cloths slung around their shoulders and waists, wore sandals, and had their hair shorn to the scalp. But what really caught my attention was the ear lobe of one man, and the big hole inside it, which had been stretched so much that one could have put a hand clean through. As he walked, he took the lobe and carefully wrapped it around the top of his ear to stop it dangling. This, I learned later, was almost the only concession some Maasai elders granted to cosmopolitan tastes when conducting business in the country's capital - to wrap up their ear lobes.

Exotic, noble, aristocratic, freedom-loving, independent, savage, impressive, arrogant and aloof ... you'll find these adjectives scattered with abandon throughout travel brochures and the internet. But is this really the Maasai?

The answer is no more, and no less, than the same words could also describe other pastoral peoples such as the Samburu, Turkana, Pokot, Rendille or Gabbra. But whereas few have heard of those, almost everyone knows of the fabled Maasai.

Maasai girlMeeting the Maasai is one of the high points of many a safari holiday, together with seeing an elephant, a lion, rhino, cheetah and leopard for the first time. Depending on the tour company, tourists pay anything from a few dollars to $30 for the chance of spending half an hour in a 'genuine' Maasai village on the fringes of the wildlife parks of Amboseli and Maasai Mara. The money buys the right to take photographs and perhaps witness a dance or two, and they will also be mercilessly pestered by old ladies selling bracelets and other trinkets. Depending on the tourist's sensibilities, the experience can either remain as a memory of having glimpsed something of the 'real' Africa, or will be deeply disturbing, even depressing, on account of the constant hassle, and the knowledge of a people seemingly selling their own culture to the highest bidder.

And if you've spent some time on the Kenyan coast - far from Maasai land - you will probably have seen them there also, either dancing in the evenings for tourists in $200-a-night beach hotels, or strolling about during the day in their characteristic red robes, perhaps with spear in hand, their hair braided into tight plaits and smeared with ochre. If you're a woman, who may even have have slept with one of these Maasai warriors - one season of hawking themselves as the stereotype that Westerners want them to be is enough for him to buy a large herd of cattle and retire in style.

Maasai boyIn many western eyes, the Maasai - along with the Zulu - are the archetypal African tribe, and as a result a disproportionate amount of attention - and nonsense - has been lavished on them, ever since the explorer Joseph Thomson published his best-selling book Through Maasailand in 1885. The obsession, especially the more romantic side of it, has even been called Maasai-itis.

In the past, the Maasai were seen as the perfect 'noble savages', a foe worthy of decimation by the guns of the colonial army. Some scholars even proposed them as the "Lost Tribe of Israel" because of their history, blindly overlooking the fact that the same reasoning could also apply to dozens of other East African peoples. Nowadays, the Maasai are more likely to be considered as living in perfect balance with nature.

Maasai women and warriorsNone of these impressions, however, are accurate. Equally myopic, I admit, were my own feelings on first meeting Maasai: an arrogant people who refused to do anything, however small, for free - like give directions. With one exception, every encounter I had with Maasai was invariably seen as an opportunity to make money from me, from the boy near Narok running to my car shouting "Give me sweet, give me sweet, I am schoolchild, schoolchild, give me sweet!" to the security guards in Nairobi, and the double-talking safari guides and safari company owners I had to meet as part of my work.
   The thing that really got to me, though, was passing young boys out in the savannah tending their family herds of several hundred cattle, worth - in monetary terms - much more than I'd earned over ten years (which admittedly wasn't much): yet they would still put out their hands for money, and would then throw sticks and stones after me if I refused. Yet this impression, as I say, is equally false: I never lived with Maasai, I never ate with them, and as much as they were strangers to me, I was merely another stereotypical rich Westerner to them.

Evening in AmboseliYet this haughty arrogance, albeit irritating, is one of the keys to understanding the Maasai. Historically, they were the most powerful and feared tribe in western and central Kenya, as well as in northern Tanzania. Their tight social organization, their offensive warfare and infamous cattle raids, as well as their mobility as cattle-herding nomads, ensured that they could go where they pleased, and could take what they wanted from neighbouring people. Sometimes they were defeated, but this was rare. As a result, their history before the arrival of the British was one of ceaseless expansion at the expense of other people. Their combined Kenyan and Tanzanian territory in the seventeenth century has been estimated at 200,000 square kilometres.
   But this is just one side of the story. The other is told by their territory today, which in Kenya covers under 50,000 square kilometres (for pretty much the same population), or less than a quarter of what it was before the British arrived. The Maasai have been progressively confined to smaller and smaller areas of land. The British stole most of it, but even in recent decades land has continued to be expropriated, this time in the form of the wildlife parks of Amboseli and Maasai Mara. The lands stolen under the colonial rule are now mostly commercial cattle or wheat ranches.

With the exception of a handful of particularly abrasive politicians peddling little more than tribal hate, the Maasai remain marginalized from the Kenyan mainstream, both politically and economically. Yet they have stubbornly refused to abandon their pastoralist way of life, or their traditions, despite repeated attempts by both colonial and post-independence governments to cajole or force them to settle and join the cash economy.

In the minds of the Maasai is an entire people's collective refusal to cede to the social inequality and notion of western superiority imposed by colonial rule, and indeed by the post-independence governments. What I thought was arrogance is in fact both pride, as well as bitterness; but it remains to be seen for how much longer the Maasai can withstand the process of modernization, which has already changed the cultures of their neighbours beyond recognition.

Facts & Figures

Also known as: Masai, Massai, Maasaï, Masi(?). Subgroups include Kaputiei, Keekonyokie, Matapo, Laitokitok, Iloodokilani, Damat, Purko, Loitai, Siria, Moitanik (Wuasinkishu), Kore and Kisonko. There are also other peripheral Maa groups such as Baraguyu, Ilkunono, Ilarusa (Arusa or Arusha) and Ilkurman; the last two are semi-pastoral and subsist mainly on agriculture.

Ethnic group: Plains/Eastern Nilotes, also called Nilo-Saharan, Eastern Sudanic, Nilotic, Nilo-Saharan (Chari-Nile branch), Lotuxo-Maa, Ongamo-Maa. The Maasai were in the past classed as Nilo-Hamitic (the Hamites came from north Africa, and have been proposed as one of the lost tribes of Israel), but this definition is no longer widely accepted. Closely related to the Samburu, from whom they split a few centuries ago, and more distantly to the Turkana.

Neighbouring tribes: Kenya: Samburu, Kikuyu, Kalenjin, Kamba, Taveta, Taita, Kuria. Tanzania: Chagga, Meru, Pare, Kaguru, Gogo, Sukuma.

Language: Maa (Ol Maa, Kimaa, or simply Maasai). This is a Nilotic language which is shared with the Samburu people (up to 89% lexical similarity), the Njemps fishermen of Baringo district, groups of Okiek/Ndorobo hunter-gatherers, and the semi-pastoral Arusha and Baraguyu (or Kwafi) of Tanzania. Kenyan dialects include Kaputiei, Keekonyokie, Matapo, Laitokitok, Iloodokilani, Damat, Purko, Loitai, Siria, and Moitanik (Wuasinkishu or Uasin Gishu). Tanzanian dialects include Arusa (Arusha), Baraguyu, and Kisonko. Purko is the largest dialect in Kenya and centrally located.
   18% literacy among settled Maasai, 5-15% among nomads.

Population: Most estimates of the Maasai population in Kenya vary from 350,000 to 453,000, though one has it as low as 155,000, which seems most unlikely. They comprise about 1.5% of Kenya's people. The total Maasai population, including the Tanzanian Maasai, is approaching 900,000.

Location: Southern region of the Great Rift Valley in both southern Kenya and north central Tanzania. In Kenya, they inhabit Kajiado and Narok districts in Rift Valley Province, an area of approximately 16,000 square miles. Mainly open semi-arid plateaux north and south of the string of Rift Valley lakes west of Mount Kenya. Annual rainfall is 500-800mm; high evaporation rates and shallow soils. Most of their territory however is in northern Tanzania, but the majority of the population are in Kenya. Their main towns are Kajiado, Namanga (on the Tanzanian border) and Narok.
   They have been excluded from their best traditional grazing lands, which are now gazetted as Maasai Mara National Reserve, Amboseli National Park, and various protected forests.

Way of Life: Traditionally semi-nomadic pastoralists, herding primarily cattle for their milk, with lesser numbers of sheep and goats for meat. Donkeys are kept as pack animals. The restriction of their grazing lands has reduced their reliance on cattle raiding, and has encouraged (forced) some to engage in limited cultivation, growing maize for food, some vegetables, and barley for selling to Kenya Breweries Ltd. Tourism is becoming a major source of income as the Maasai set up "Group Ranch" schemes, which charge hefty admission fees to visitors. Sale of beadwork and other 'ethnic' material, and posing for photos, is a not insubstantial source of income for those near the wildlife parks.

Religion: The only figures available have 75% traditional religion, and 25% Christian (which seems a lot).

References: This information has been gathered from a number of sources. The best general sources about Kenyan culture are Andrew Fedders & Cynthia Salvadori's excellent "Peoples and Cultures of Kenya" (1979: Transafrica, Nairobi), and the equally good series of booklets produced by the Consolata Fathers in Nairobi, sadly now out of print. Specific sources that have been of help in writing this site are credited where appropriate.


Traditional Music & Cultures of Kenya
Copyright Jens Finke, 2000-2003

also by Jens Finke
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