Maasai - Religion and Beliefs

See also the Blessing in the Music & Dance section.
In this page:
Ngai - God
Guardian spirits
The wild fig tree
The origin of Death
Laiboni - diviners, ritual experts and medicine men

Ngai - God

Also spelled 'Ngai, En-kai, Enkai, Engai, Eng-ai

The Maasai believe in one God, whom they call Ngai. Ngai is neither male nor female, but seems to have several different aspects. For instance, there is the saying Naamoni aiyai, which means "The She to whom I pray". There are two main manifestations of Ngai: Ngai Narok which is good and benevolent and is black; and Ngai Na-nyokie, which is angry and red, like the British. For a story which has them as separate gods, see Thunder and the Gods.

Evening in Maasai Mara after a stormNgai is the creator of everything. In the beginning, Ngai (which also means sky) was one with the earth, and owned all the cattle that lived on it. But one day the earth and sky separated, so that Ngai was no longer among men. The cattle, though, needed the material sustenance of grass from the earth, so to prevent them dying Ngai sent down the cattle to the Maasai by means of the aerial roots of the sacred wild fig tree, and told them to look after them. This they do to this day, quite literally taking the story as an excuse to relieve neighbouring tribes of their own livestock. Any pursuit other than a pastoral one was considered insulting to Ngai and demeaning to them. No Maasai was willing to break the ground, even to bury the dead within it, for soil was sacred on account of its producing grass which fed the cattle which belonged to God... Equally, grass has acquired a semi-sacred aura, and is held in the fist as a sign of peace, and similarly held is used for blessings during rituals, a sheaf of grass being shaken at the people or animals being blessed.
   No surprise, then, to find that cattle play an important role in ritual occasions, such as initiation, marriage, and the passage of one age-set to the next, where their sacrifice bridges the gap between man and God. Yet for all the deep significance cattle embody for the Maasai, a stupid person will still be referred to as a cow or a sheep!

Beaded Maasai amulet Beaded Maasai amulet

Guardian spirits

At birth, Ngai gives each man a guardian spirit to ward off danger and carry him away at the moment of death. The evil are carried off to a desert, while the good unsurprisingly go to a land of rich pastures and many cattle.

The wild fig tree

The wild fig tree mentioned in the myth about the origin of cattle (above) is called oreti or oreteti by the Maasai (ficus nalalensis), and apart from its mundane use as the raw material for bark cloth, is not surprisingly given a primary role in ritual. The cosmological significance in the light of the cattle myth is obvious, though its size, shape, sturdiness and long life also epitomise an ideal of life. It is sung about in dances, and invoked in prayers and blessings as a symbol of life.

The Origin of Death

Ngai created the first warrior, Le-eyo (or Leeyio), and gave him a magic chant to recite over dead children that would bring them back to life and make them immortal. However, in the manner of such fables, Le-eyo did not utter the chant until his own son had died. By then, however, it was too late - because of the selfishness of Le-eyo, death will always have power over men.
   Click here for another version of the story.

Laiboni - diviners, ritual experts and medicine men

Also spelled loiboni, oloiboni, olaiboni; singular: laibon, loibon, olaibon, etc.

The Laiboni are the ritual and spiritual leaders of Maasai society, whose authority is based on their mystical as well as medicinal/healing powers. They are aided in their tasks by age-group leaders called olaiguenani, who are chosen before circumcision to lead their age-group until old age.
   There is usually only one Laibon per clan. Their role is multiple: to officiate and direct ceremonies and sacrifices, to heal people of both physical and/or mental or spiritual ailments, and to provide advice to elders on the spiritual aspects of community matters. They are also prophets, shamans and seers, and are the ones -with help from the elders - who name the successive age-sets, and open and close the various ceremonies of age-set transitions. The post of Laibon is confined to only one family in the Nkidong'i location and is inherited.
   They have no political power, although the British installed a number of them as quasi-paramount chiefs during the colonial period, whose rivalries ensured that the British would always remain in control. A Laibon also command a lot of power depending on his personality and, of course, efficacy. This was the case with Mbatiany (Batian, whom Mount Kenya's highest peak is named after), who managed to command many Maasai sections at the time of the British colonisation.

The main function of the Laiboni, like those of sacrifices, is essentially to bridge the gap between man and God (or "the other world"), though a Laibon's influence is generally limited to 'reading' the mind or the intentions of God through divination, for example by reading stones thrown from a cow's horn. The Laiboni in this capacity are especially consulted whenever misfortune arises, be it the failure of rains, disease epidemics or military losses.
   They are also healers, deeply experienced in the medicinal properties of the plants which grow in their environment, and whose leaves, roots or bark can be used to treat a wide variety of ailments (the word for tree, olchani, plural ilkeek, is the same as the word for medicine). According to popular myth, it was the folk of the forest who taught the Maasai the medicinal uses of various plants - whose descendants might well be the Ndorobo and other surviving groups of hunter-gatherers today.
   The conditions treated in this way range from headaches, stomach worms and other stomach ailments, to colds, venereal diseases, barrenness, chest complaints, malaria, cuts and bruises, eye diseases, and many other conditions. Noteworthy, too, is the fact that long before western medicine was introduced, the Maasai used to inoculate people against the deadly small-pox virus (entidiyai) by making scratches in the person's forearm in which a small amount of pus from a dying patient was smeared.

Even today, the role of the laiboni is still very important, being so deeply entrenched in the social life of the people to the extent that physical ailments that cannot be treated by a traditional physician are taken to the diviner. As a people known for not having forgotten the past, the Maasai Laiboni have in recent years also earned a reputation as being the best healers in Tanzania, dispensing herbal remedies to treat physical ailments, and ritual treatments to absolve social and moral transgressions. So-called Laiboni can also be found peddling their knowledge and herbs in towns and cities throughout Kenya, admittedly alongside very many imposters - it's a lucrative business, especially in the AIDS era.


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

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