Maasai - Age-sets

In this page:
Warriorhood (Morani)
Warriorhood - initiation (Sipolio)
Warriorhood - junior warriors (Ol Murrani Barnot)
Warriorhood - senior warriors (Ol Murrani Botor)
War and Peace


Welcoming danceThe basic Maasai political and social structure is their rigid system of age-sets (or age grades; strictly-speaking, an age-grade is a stage within the age-set). These apply primarily to men; women automatically become members of the age-set of their husbands.
   Under this system, groups of the same age (give or take five years or so) are initiated into adult life during the same period. The age-set thus formed is a permanent grouping, and lasts throughout the life of its members. They move up through a hierarchy of grades, each lasting approximately 15 years, including those of junior warriors, senior warriors, junior elders (sometimes classed as senior warriors), and senior elders, who are the ones who make decisions affecting the whole tribe.

Warriorhood - the Morani

Also spelled Ilmurrani, Il-murrani, Ilmorani, Ol Murrani; singular: Moran, Ilmurran, Ol Murran, etc

Warriors and uncircumcised girlsThe image most people have of the Maasai warrior is one of a tall and lean man dressed in a bright red shuka cloth, or red tartan blanket wrapped around his waist or slung across his shoulders. In one hand he holds a long-bladed stabbing spear, and more often than not will be seen leaning against it with one leg off the ground hooked behind the other. His hair will be long and tightly braided into an elaborate style, on which a mixture of ochre and fat has been applied. He may also have ochre painted on his body.
   He is a moran, who together with his age-mates were traditionally the physical guardians of Maasai society. Their function was to protect their people and cattle from predators and other tribes, to take and guard cattle when grazing, search for new pasture (and fight off the people who lived there), and raid cattle from neighbouring tribes. And at all this, they were extremely effective: the tight discipline and training ensured it.
   Although the morani still herd and guard the cattle, their role as warriors has become somewhat irrelevant, since raiding opportunities are now more or less inexistent, and the Maasai's real modern-day enemies are politicians, bureaucrats, and multinational farming combines, who of course all stay well outside the range of spears.
   Nonetheless, the institution of warriorhood has survived, not least because of its crucial significance in Maasai social life and structures, although the length of time during which the young men remain warriors has gradually been reduced over the years.

Initiation - Sipolio (newly-circumcised youths)

Novice warriorFor uncircumcised Maasai boys (laiyok), the passage into manhood - and warriorhood - is a long yearned-for if slightly dreaded event, and occurs roughly at the age of fourteen or fifteen, though sometimes as late as eighteen. The exact age and date is determined by elders, who decide when they need a new group of warriors. This occurs every six to ten years on average, and the circumcision ceremonies that mark the initiation (Emorata) may be spread out over a couple of years.
   Once chosen as a candidate for initiation, the candidate dons long black greasy robes, and keeps his long and greasy, like that of a woman in maternity (long hair is a common symbol of passage and rebirth throughout East Africa). The impression his appearance makes is summarized by the riddle: Who looks like a greasy buffalo? (Arro onyil?) -the answer is the initiate (oloibartani). On the day of circumcision itself, the initiates' heads are shaved to show their new status, and over the following months they will make and wear head dresses of birds' feathers (ostrich plumes and eagle feathers are the most highly prized, and are reserved for those boys who did not flinch during circumcision). During this time, the newly circumcised boys (sipolio) roam around the countryside encouraging, in the form of teasing, the younger boys to go through the operation without flinching (see the lyrics for such as song in the section on Music & Dance). The Maasai refer to flinching as aipirri or akwet(?), which means 'to run away'. In short, it is a disgrace to the family for a boy to flinch.

For an excellent description of the circumcision ceremony, see the excerpt from Tepilit Ole Saitoti's book My Life as a Maasai Warrior. Another account, somewhat more explicit, is excerpted from Robert Vavra's book Tent with a View.

Junior warriors - Ol Murrani Barnot

Junior warriorDuring the months following their circumcision, the sipolio go through a period of instruction in the arts of warfare and tactics, which is called Eng Kipaata. During this time, they are not permitted to drink milk in their parents' huts or to eat meat in the manyatta. Meat is provided for the warriors by killing oxen away from the settlements. Only after this stage are they officially admitted into the class of junior warriors (Ol Murrani Barnot, or simply ilbarnot).

In the past a moran could be expected to prove his manhood by killing a lion armed with nothing more than a spear - but this process is no longer allowed under protective government animal legislation. Warriors who were deemed particularly brave (by killing a lion, or by proving themselves in war), had the right to wear a elaborate headdress made from a lion's mane. Others wore ostrich feathers as symbols of their courage.
   The lion hunt (olamayio), incidentally, is the only form of hunting that was traditionally permitted for a Maasai, not only to prove the manhood of a moran, but to eliminate predators when they posed dangers to livestock.

The junior warriors live together in a circle of huts called a manyatta (or emanyatta; plural i-manyat or manyat), until they have passed on to senior warrior status and are allowed to start families. This period generally last between 5-7 years, although 8-12 years is not uncommon. Effectively a military garrison, in the manyatta they learn the arts of survival, cattle raiding and warfare, although nowadays this period is more symbolic than practical.

Senior warriors - Ol Murrani Botor

Eventually, when the elders deem that the junior warrior age-set has completed its service, its members are graduated to senior warrior status (Ol Murrani Botor) in a ceremony called Eunoto, to be replaced by a new generation of junior warriors. The senior warriors were a sort of home guard, and were permitted to go home, marry and raise a family. This period of service would last about fifteen years, until he became an elder.

War and Peace

Warfare was always a spiritual affair, especially wherever land, pasture, or cattle were involved, for it was (and still is) the Maasai belief that God originally gave all cattle to the Maasai as custodians. Yet for all that, there was a somewhat gentlemanly touch in the fact that the Maasai would sometimes send word beforehand to the enemy they were intending to attack, a kind of "your money or your life" choice.

Decisions on whom and when to attack or raid were made by a laibon (ritual leader; see Religion & Beliefs), who would bless a handful of cattle dung and grass from the enemy's land before giving the go-ahead. The warriors would be blessed by elders, who would spray a special liquid on to them. See also the lyrics to an Enkipolosa War Song in the Music and Dance section.

The idea of warning the enemy of an attack was put into odd perspective by a Kenyan Army officer called Joshua Ole Medua, whom I gave a lift to while driving west of Narok.
   Dapperly dressed in a light coloured suit, he spoke very good English, and I enjoyed a wide-ranging and varied talk with him, from music (I had a tape of polyphonic Wagogo songs from central Tanzania, which he liked) and the devils living inside Menengai Crater, to his work.
   Joshua was an NCO at Moi Barracks between Eldoret and Kitale, and liked his work very much. He was looking forward to the possibility of the UN getting involved in the escalating war in Congo. "President Moi is clever - he won't get involved until the UN get involved, because we are a poor country - we need the money from the UN."
   He'd spent two months in Croatia as a UN peacekeeper, which had enabled him to buy some land - he'd earned 200,000 shillings ($3000) for his stint, or about ten times a Kenyan's average annual income. He thought it odd that people comparatively so rich (and white) as the Yugoslavs were engaged in war. In Africa, war is usually fought between impoverished nations and people, and in any case rapidly impoverishes them.
   So his role as a peacekeeper in Europe seemed rather absurd, even comical to him. Basically, the UN were sat on the boundary between rival forces, and tried to arbitrate or act as go-betweens for the belligerents. If one side wanted to fight, they were to tell the UN, who would then inform the side about to be aggressed. If they were ready, then word was passed back, and the fighting would begin. Just like the Maasai used to conduct their own wars.

Thankfully, every war must come to an end. Among the Maasai, peace talks were accompanied by the drinking of beer, made from honey and water; the fermentation was catalyzed by dipping in the root of a plant called osuguroi.
   Peace itself was oathed with a drink of blood and sour milk (the mixture is supposed to have healing powers), and the formal declaration was sealed with a sacrificial dark bull, whose meat could only be roasted - for the aroma to reach Ngai, and so his get his approval.


Maasai elderThe end of the period of senior warriorhood, in which a man is already married and has a family, is called Ol Ngesher ('Legs Drawn Astride'). As an elder (of which there are, again, various stages, of which I remain ignorant except as to some names: ilpayiani, iltasatior or ilmoruak), both men and women assume responsibilities pertaining to the administration of the whole clan. There is no centralized, cohesive authority, as the Maasai have neither headmen nor chiefs, although ritual leaders (laiboni) are consulted for advice. Decisions are taken by consensus, and are rarely challenged.

For more about laiboni, read the section in Religion & Beliefs.


Traditional Music & Cultures of Kenya
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