Maasai - Clans and Families

In this page:
Clans and pasture rotation
Families: enkangs
Photos of women
Female circumcision

Clans and pasture rotation

In order to ensure survival, the people have to move with their animals to ensure good pasture, water and salt supplies. Traditionally, during the drier seasons the people moved to the well watered highlands (isupuki) east of the Rift Valley (which constitute most of present day Central and Nairobi provinces, and are no longer Maasai lands), whilst the lowlands of the Rift Valley (ilpurkeli) were grazed during the rainy season.

Central to this system was the existence of various clans and their sub-groups, each of which held rights to particular areas. Within these areas, some watering holes were owned by the groups who dug and maintained them, but it was implicitly understood that access to them could not be denied to outsiders. Members of the group could also use the range independently of others, but under regulations and rules that applied to all.
   These arrangements - effectively rotational grazing patterns which are common to most of the world's nomadic pastoralists -were essential to avoid the exhaustion of the fragile land and its resources, and worked perfectly well until the British came and stole over half of the Maasai's land.

Among the Maasai, there were originally five clans, to which two were added later, each occupying a defined territory which may be used by others only through negotiation. The clans themselves are patrilineal, and are sub-divided into sub-clans or sections distinguished by their cattle brands.
   The five original clans are the il-makesen, il-aiser, il-molelian, il-taarrosero, and il-ikumai. The major subgroups, which effectively function as politically independent iloshon or locations, include Ilpurko, Ilmatapato, Ilkeek-onyokie, Ildalat-le-kutuk (Ilkankere), Ildamat, Iloodo-kilani, Ilkisongo, Iloitokitoki, Iloitai, Isikirari, Isiria, Senenget, Ilmoitanik, Ilwuasin-gishu (Uasin-Gishu), and Ilkaputiei.
   Exogamy is observed theoretically. While marriage within a clan was originally proscribed, this rule is slowly breaking down within the larger clans to the extent that it is now restricted only to the sub-clan level.
   Regardless of clan or family affiliations, all Maasai are also members of one of two moieties, one called the house of the red oxen and the other of black cattle (Odomong'i and Orok-kiteng'). This may refer to the two colours of God (red is angry and evil, black of benevolent and good - see the section on Maasai Beliefs & Religion), or alternatively to the possibility that a long time ago, women also owned cattle, which legend has it were lost because of their carelessness. In the beginning, says one tale, was Naiteru-kop, the beginner of the earth. He married two wives. To the first wife he gave red cattle, and to other other, black: read the fable about The Women's Cattle.

Families: enkangs

The whistling thornThe enkang settlement (plural inkang'itie; also called kraal or boma) is the basic Maasai social unit, and is where the married elders and their families live. It consists of several families, who are not necessarily related, and anything between ten and fifty low houses. The families care for their livestock together. The entire settlement is surrounded by a large circular thorn bush stockade tied together by men (the thorns are up to 5cm long - a formidable deterrent), which serves both to keep livestock in at night, and raiders and other predators out.
   Each enkang traditionally held 4-8 families (8-20 houses) and their herds, though up to fifty dwellings is now not uncommon as a result of land restrictions. A recent report says that a typical camp now consists of 50-80 people, and as many as 1500 animals. In the past, the enkangs were purely temporary settlements, and would be built afresh every time the group moved to fresh areas of grazing. The old settlement would be burned.

Traditional Maasai House Roof framework

The houses themselves are built by women, and their construction takes several months. The basic oblong or square framework is made of closely woven leleshwa sticks and saplings. Any gaps are stuffed with leaves and grasses, and the whole structure is then plastered with a mixture of mud clay, fresh cow-dung and urine. When the mixture dries it becomes as strong as cement, and is resistant to termites.
   The huts are surprisingly small and low, especially for the tall Maasai - most cannot stand upright inside, nor even lie down fully stretched out - but their low height does provide good protection against strong winds. The only openings are that of the doorway and a small opening in the roof or wall which allows smoke from a continually smoldering fire inside to escape, and some light to enter during the day. The fire - using dried dung as fuel - is used to cook, deter insects, and to keep the family warm during the rainy season.
   There are two rooms at most, although people sleep close to the door on beds of woven branches cushioned with dry grass and animal skins. In some huts, small animals are brought into the hut in the evening to help protect them from larger and more dangerous animals as well as the cold. The only evidence of western man in a Maasai home might be a cast-iron frying pan, a tin drinking cup or a piece or two of western clothing.


Women and girls have a variety of chores besides building the family house, taking care of the home and of their children. They are expected to milk the cows, collect firewood and also fetch water, however far that may be (around 30km seems average). It's also their responsibility to pick and clean gourds from vines to make containers, and decorate them with leather and beads. Milk, blood, water, honey and cornmeal are stored inside them. The beadwork you see everywhere for sale is also made by women. Beadwork was traditionally used to decorate animal hides, gourds, and to make jewelry including arm and leg bracelets and amulets.

Until their circumcision around the age of fifteen (sometimes earlier, depending on the group), Maasai girls have sexual freedom to enjoy relations with junior warriors, so long as they don't become pregnant. Upon their circumcision, however, they are considered to be adult women (Esiankiki), and are promptly married (sometimes the same day) to a man much older than themselves. Their status in society as wives isn't particularly high (see my story about Agnes Maasai), although they are respected as mothers, and will be members of the same age-sets as their husbands. Often women will maintain close ties, both social and sexual, with their former boyfriends, even after they are married, in keeping with the unusual practice of 'wife-lending', whereby a wife remains free to have sexual relations with a member of her husband's age-set. Any resulting child is still be considered by the husband to be his own, and is not treated any differently to his biological children.
   Older women enjoy the same status as male elders.
   For a small hint that Maasai society might originally have been matriarchal, read the short fable The Women's Cattle.

Maasai women: photos

Maasai mother and child Maasai women and girls Maasai woman feeding child
Mother and child Women and girls, c.1885-1918 Woman feeding child

Maasai woman carrying firewood
Woman carrying firewood

Maasai beaded neck rings Maasai beaded neck rings Maasai beaded neck rings
Neck rings

Female Maasai elders Tanzanian Maasai
Female elders Tanzanian Maasai

Female circumcision

Western society (and increasingly Maasai women) argue against clitoridectomy (also called Female Genital Mutilation, or FGM), which 'prepares' girls for marriage. For an in-depth article about the social and health aspects of female circumcision among the Maasai, see A Dangerous Rite of Passage.


A Maasai man may marry after he has completed his term of service as a junior warrior and has passed through the Eunoto ceremony, although in order to do so he must first acquire wealth (cattle), a process that takes time. Sometimes, he can choose his wife; in other cases, his parents may already have negotiated a bride for him with her parents, sometimes many years before (and on occasion when the girl was merely a baby).
   If he is wealthy, a man may take as many wives as he wishes, on condition that he pays bridewealth - traditionally a substantial sum in cattle - for each wife (another source I've read contradicts this, stating that bridewealth is minimal, ranging between three and six animals, compared to the dozens of animals required among the Turkana and Rendille, for instance).
   Bridewealth compensates the bride's parents for loss of a daughter and helps guarantee that the husband will fulfill his obligations.

Polygyny is nowadays common only among older men.


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