Maasai - History

In this page:
The migration from the Nile Valley
The early nineteenth century
1830-1890: Internecine conflict
The arrival of "those who confine their farts"
The rinderpest epidemics of 1880-1890
Colonial (mis)rule
Independence - more of the same
Looking forward

The migration from the Nile Valley

Mount KilimajaroThe Maasai are the southernmost of the Nilotic-speaking peoples, and are linguistically and well as physically related to the Samburu, Turkana and Kalenjin, among others.

Their distant history is unknown beyond a wealth of unsubstantiated conjecture and dreams proposed by often romantically-minded Western scholars. Some say that they are one of the lost tribes of Israel. Others that they came from North Africa. Still others believe that they are the living remnants of Egyptian civilisation, primarily, it seems, on account of their warriors' braided hairstyles. Suffice to say that if any of these theories have any truth, it would be just as likely that the ancient cultures of Egypt and Israel were influenced by the Maasai's ancestors, rather than the other way around.

What is known is that the Maasai came from the north, probably from the region of the Nile Valley in Sudan, northwest of Lake Turkana. It is thought that they left this area sometime between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, migrating southwards towards the Great Rift Valley. The Maasai themselves say in their oral histories that they came from a crater or deep valley somewhere to the north, at a place called Endikir-e-Kerio (the scarp of Kerio). Although many scholars have referred to this place as the southeastern region of Lake Turkana, some oral sources suggest that it may have been somewhere even further north, along the Nile Valley or even in North Africa. Whatever the exact location of this mythical crater/valley, their migration southward is beyond doubt, and occurred after a dry spell. It is a reported that a bridge was constructed, and after half the livestock and people had left the dusty depression, the bridge collapsed, throwing back the other half of the population. These people later managed to climb out of the valley, reaching to the highland region as the present day Somali, Borana and Rendille peoples.
   The Maasai eventually entered Kenya to the west of Lake Turkana, and quickly spread south through the Rift Valley, whose fertile grasslands were ideal for their cattle. They reached their present-day territories in Kenya and Tanzania around the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries.

The early nineteenth century

Until the 1830s, the Maasai were not only a cohesive nation, but a formidable fighting force, whose relentless land expansion was necessated by the need to feed their ever-increasing cattle herds, which were and remain central to Maasai life and culture.
   Their neighbours lived in fear. Those in open country put up defence works; the Luhya, for example, built mud walls around their villages. Others, such as the Taita, Kamba, and Kikuyu, were better placed on higher ground (unsuitable for cattle) to defy the Maasai.
   Other tribes opted for trade and marriage relations with their more powerful neighbours, some eventually becoming part of the Maasai, either wholly or as 'clients' - like many indigenous hunter-gather groups such as the Okiek (whom the Maasai called Ndorobo), who despite their inferior status in the eyes of the Maasai became ritual experts, notably performing the circumcision rites which remain of pivotal importance in Maasai culture.

But Maasai power was not only confined to exerting their will over neighbouring tribes: the Arabs, who had long travelled the caravan routes from the coast to the interior in search of ivory and slaves, were also obliged to cede to the Maasai. As the first colonial governor of Kenya, Sir Charles Elliot, wrote:

"They [the Maasai] successfully asserted themselves against the Arab slave traders, took tribute from all who passed through their country, and treated others, whether African or not, with arrogance."

1830-1890: Internecine conflict

From 1830 onward, Maasai unity disintegrated into a succession of wars between the various clans presided over by rival laiboni (ritual leaders), largely over cattle and grazing grounds. One particularly famous battle took place just outside present-day Nakuru around a volcanic crater called Menengai.
   There are many versions about the origins of the name Menengai, and several versions of what it actually means. Some say it means "big hole with no ending". Others have it as the "place of the corpses", after a nineteenth-century battle. Related to this is the third version, "where the devils live" (or simply "the devils"). I was told by a charming Maasai NCO in the Kenyan army, that this name came from a story relating to mysterious people who once lived inside the crater (it appears to have been volcanically active until relatively recently). He said:

Menengai Crater, Nakuru"Some say it is poisonous. It is not good for the animals, because the air weakens them. The Maasai do not go close to it, but the sound of the crater sometimes gives the impression of cow bells. So the early Maasai decided that people were living inside the crater. But the fire and smoke and smell of burning which came from the hole, and which sometimes even burned vegetation on the rim and around the edges, would make normal habitation impossible. Yet as no other animal can kindle fire, the Maasai thought that the crater's inhabitants must be devils. Of course, the Kikuyu came later, and grazed their animals right up to the rim, so that we now know that there are no devils inside. But how were the early Maasai to know that?"

The internecine wars began the process of territorial losses which the Maasai suffered until late in the twentieth century: the Laikipia and Uasin Gishu plateaus, to the north of Mount Kenya, were depopulated, and many groups (the so-called Wakwavi) lost their cattle switched to agriculture, eventually becoming separate tribes. The wars, of course, also helped their neighbours, who had long suffered the loss of land and cattle. The Nandi and the Kipsigis especially began raiding the Maasai on their own account, and with growing success. By the end of the nineteenth century, they had displaced the Maasai from the central Rift Valley - the area between Lake Victoria and Mount Kenya.

The arrival of "those who confine their farts"

"The Maasai were among the first tribes which came into contact with the administration but their conservatism has been so great, and their subservience to antiquated tribal custom and tradition has been so powerful that it has proved impossible as yet materially to alter and renovate their ideas."

G.R. Sandford, An Administrative and Political History of the Maasai Reserve

The latter half of the nineteenth century also coincided with increasing European encroachment into Kenya, first in the form of missionaries and explorers, and then of course in the shape of the bluntly racist colonists and the British Army.

The Maasai called the first Europeans iloridaa enjekat ("those who confine their farts"), on account of the trousers they wore. But their initial amusement at the spectacle of the red-faced white man soon turned more serious.

Joseph Thomson Maasai woman circa 1907-14 The missionaries were the first to arrive, and their attitude of moral outrage set the tone for subsequent colonial history: the nakedness of the Maasai especially disturbed them, as did their custom of leaving the dead in the wild for animals to eat. The missionaries were also concerned about education, and this was a threat to traditional Maasai society, for it would force them to become settled. Needless to say, the missionaries had little impact, and continue to be frustrated in their efforts at converting these most famous of 'heathens' to the present-day.

The explorers had a much more damaging - and lasting - impact, albeit indirectly. In 1883, Joseph Thompson of the National Geographic Society crossed Maasai land, which he later reported as not only having the best climate, but was full of natural resources. This was what the British had been hoping for, and Maasai-land was henceforth targeted for colonisation - to provide homes and lands for white settlers.

The rinderpest epidemics of 1880-1890

It was at about this time that a series of disasters occurred that the Maasai believed were associated with the arrival of the British, which all in all amounted to the greatest catastrophe that any Kenyan tribe was to suffer in its history.

The first calamity was an epidemic of probable pleuro-pneumonia, which decimated their herds. Following that came a prolonged epidemic of febrile rinderpest, which by the end of the 1880s had reduced the Maasai herds by 80%. The Maasai themselves were hit with cholera, drought, famine and smallpox, which collapsed their population from approximately 500,000 to only 40,000. In the unbelievably anodyne words of G.R. Sandford, this "tamed their arrogance and largely deprived them of their means of subsistence and the subsequent disease found them weak and hungry and killed off large numbers."

To no one's surprise, the catastrophes forced the remaining Maasai to submit to the new colonial rulers rather than fight them.

Colonial (mis)rule

For a detailed historical account of the effect of colonisation on the Maasai and their land (with a view to achieving justice through the International Courts), see the article Maasai land, by the Honourable Justice M. ole Keiwua, at

The British colonisation of Kenya began in earnest around 1885, when construction began on the railway which would eventually link Mombasa on the coast with Kampala in present-day Uganda. By 1899, it had reached Nairobi, right on the edge of Maasai territory. Although the Maasai resisted British attempts to seize their land, they were in no state to do so effectively, and by 1904 - following several years of warfare with the British in which thousands more Maasai were killed - they had no choice but to accept the loss of their land.

The infamous 1904 Maasai Agreement effectively reduced their territory by two thirds, and a further wave of forcible 'relocation' took place in 1911-13, confining the Maasai to distant reserves in southern Kenya and Tanzania. This blatant theft was explained away in Machiavellian terms by Sir Charles Eliot in 1904:

"The right of the Maasai people to inhabit particular districts is undoubted, but their right to monopolize particular districts, and keep everyone else out appears to me most questionable. As a matter of expediency, it may sometimes be best to make 'reserves', but as a matter of principle, I cannot admit that wandering tribes have the right to keep other superior races out of large tracts merely because they have acquired the habit of straggling over far more land than they can utilize."

This, of course, conveniently forgetting that the British themselves had "wandered" half way round the globe to get there. The Report of the Kenya Land Commission of September 1933 added, with astonishing racism as well as stupidity:

"In view of the fact that the Maasai were decaying and decadent race when British administration was established and that the protection given to them, in all probability, saved them from disaster, it seems clear that they have been treated in an unduly generous manner as regards land..."

The Mau Escarpment by Lake Naivasha was one of the Maasai spiritual lands, promised them by God, and stolen by the British for white settlers, who continue to own most of it even today. Although parts of it were subsequently returned to the Maasai, the loss of the lake - which was the only place in the Rift Valley which provided fresh water all year round - was disastrous.

Lake Naivasha looking to Mt Longonot Lake Naivasha and the Mau Escarpment

The Maasai petitioned various courts from 1914 onwards for the return of some of their lands, and although they were finally given some back, they nonetheless lost over half of their territory for good. In the 1930s, a further wave of land loss occurred when the British began encouraging neighbouring tribes - whom they had similarly dispossessed - to settle in Maasai areas to allieviate 'congestion' (which had of course been caused by the colonial government in the first place).

But that was not all: by the late 1930s, the government introduced poll taxes to force Maasai to sell their livestock which by this time was increasing rapidly, which was intended to reduce the Maasai's need for more land. But the prices they offered were too low and the Maasai quickly questioned as to why no other group was being made to pay poll tax. They refused to comply, and so the question remained until the outbreak of the Second World War. This provided the colonial administration with the excuse they had been waiting for to 'legitimately' reduce the number of Maasai cattle: a quota of 2,000 cattle a month was imposed to be sold in order to meet the colony's contribution to the food reserve for the military. The quota had the effect of cutting Maasai livestock by a further 70% between 1936 and 1946.

Independence - more of the same

Land expropriationThings were no better after Kenyan independence, when under the country's first president, Jomo Kenyatta, yet more Maasai land was taken by agriculturalists under land redistribution programmes. It was no coincidence that the majority of these new beneficiaries were Kikuyu, Kenyatta's own tribe. At the same time, the Maasai lost still more land through the creation of Maasai Mara Game Reserve (subsequently enlarged to become a National Reserve), and from which they were completely excluded (it was only in the 1990s that Maasai 'encroachment' into the parks was finally tolerated). The resulting poverty and social disorganization were nonethelesss still insufficient to convince the Maasai to settle.

Since the Kalenjin president Daniel arap Moi came to power in 1979, the pressure on the Maasai has lifted somewhat, in part thanks to their usefulness as a bulwark - both physically and politically - against the Kalenjin's traditional Kikuyu enemies. And so it goes - some see the Maasai as lackeys of the Moi regime, engaged in ethnic rivalries which ultimately have nothing to do with them; others see them merely as armed thugs hired by the regime; since the ethnic clashes broke out in 1991, Maasai youths have often attacked the Kikuyu.

Yet the Kenyan and Tanzanian governments persist in their attempts, by hook or by crook, to convince the Maasai to make permanent agricultural settlements, and to give up their traditional way of life in favour of formal education and the cash economy.

Looking Forward

The mzungu arrives... with a polaroidMaasai girlSweet little angels?

The Maasai are indeed a proud and independent people, whose traditions and culture have survived almost completely intact, despite the incredible pressures and adversities that have been strewn across their way since the 1830s. The biggest challenge, however, still lies ahead. To quote from Richard Trillo's The Rough Guide to Kenya [6th edition; reprinted by kind permission]:

These days, the tourist industry gives the Maasai a major spot in its repertoire. Maasai dancing is the entertainment, while necklaces, gourds, spears, shields, rungus (knobkerries), busts (carved by Akamba carvers) and even life-sized wooden morani warriors (to be shipped home in a packing case) are the stock-in-trade of the curio and souvenir shops. For the Maasai themselves, the rewards are fairly scant. Cattle are still at the heart of their society; there are dozens of names for different colours and patterns, and each animal among their three million is individually cherished. But they are assailed on all sides: by uplands farmers expanding from the north; by eviction from the tourist/conservation areas within the reserve boundaries to the south; and by a climate of opposition to the old lifestyle from all around. Sporadically urged to grow crops, go to school, build permanent houses, and generally settle down and stop being a nuisance, they face an additional dilemma in squaring these edicts with the fickle demands of the tourist industry for traditional authenticity. Few make much of a living selling souvenirs, but enterprising morani can do well by just posing for photos, and even better if they hawk themselves in Nairobi or down on the coast.

Many men persevere with the status of warriorhood, though modern Kenya makes few concessions to it. Arrested for hunting lions, and prevented from building manyattas for the eunoto transition in which they pass into elderhood, the morani have kept most of the superficial marks of the warrior without being able to live the life. The ensemble of a cloth tied over one shoulder, together with spear, sword, club and braided hair, is still widely seen; and after circumcision, in their early days as warriors, you can meet young men out in the bush, hunting for birds to add to their elaborate, taxidermic headdresses. But there is considerable local frustration. When the pasture is poor, the morani have little compunction about driving their herds into the reserve to compete with the wildlife. All but a few of the Mara's black rhinos have been slaughtered for their horns in the last two decades (though a few more have now been brought in from elsewhere). And there have even been isolated attacks on tourist camps in and around the reserve.

Land is the great issue today. The Maasai have still not fully come to terms with the idea of individual ownership of it, although a promising development for them has been the recent introduction of wildlife reserves run by Maasai Group Ranches, which seems at last to be providing a steady source of income from tourism. "Range schemes" plans for growing wheat or rearing cattle are also common now, though they are just as likely to benefit newcomers from other parts of Kenya as the local Maasai. The lifestyle is changing: education, MPs and elections, new laws and new projects, jobs and cash, all impinge on the Maasai's lives - with mixed results.
   The traditional Maasai staple of curdled milk and cow's blood is rapidly being replaced by cornmeal ugali. Many Maasai have taken work in the lodges and tented camps, while others end up as security guards in Nairobi. For the majority, who continue to live semi-nomadic lives among a welter of constraints, the future would seem to hold little promise.
   But that stubborn cultural price - the kind of hauteur that keeps a cattle-owner thoroughly impoverished in cash terms, while he counts his 220 beasts - may yet insulate the Maasai against the social upheavals that seem certain to rock the lives of many Kenyans in the twenty-first century.


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

also by Jens Finke
Chasing the Lizard's Tail - across the Sahara by bicycle - fine art photography