Maasai - Livestock - Cattle
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The origin of cattle
Physical uses of cattle
Social and ritual uses of cattle
For the Maasai, cattle are everything: food, material, culture, ritual. Cattle are life. "I hope your cattle are well", they say in greeting.
More than any other Kenyan people, the pastoralist Maasai are a cattle-herders par excellence. Cattle provide almost everything they need for survival, and much more besides. They are a symbol of wealth and a source of pride, and a person's entire life revolves around the herds: the need to pasture and care for them, the need to protect them, and the need to move with them in search of fresh pasture and water. The paramount importance of cattle - the more the better - have also marked the aggressive nature of Maasai relations with their neighbours: warfare was inevitably fought over land and grazing rights, and cattle raids were essential in guaranteeing a family's prosperity, as well as to massage the warrior's ego and enable him to get married (for which he needed cattle).
With 14-19 head of cattle per person, the Maasai are one of the wealthiest cattle-owning peoples in Africa. A typical family (8-10 people) owns 125-140 head, of which over half are milk cows on which the family depends for daily subsistence. In monetary terms, they would easily be the richest tribe in Kenya if they ever sold all their stock. Which they certainly won't.
As a rule, the Maasai keep as many cattle as possible, so that only a portion of the milk yield is needed for human consumption, leaving plenty for the calves. As a result, Maasai cattle are generally larger and in better condition than those of their neighbours, thanks to the generous amount of milk the young calves get.
Women milk the cows unless there are no women around, whilst men herd and protect them: keeping livestock safe from predators and adequately supplied with water and fresh pasturage requires constant attention.
The Maasai believe that Ngai (God) entrusted all the world's cattle to them for safe-keeping when the earth and sky split at the beginning of time, and this is how they justify raiding cattle from other tribes. The story goes that Ngai (a name synonymous with sky) was once one with the earth. Then earth and sky separated, and Ngai delivered cattle to the Maasai by means of the aerial roots of the wild fig tree, which is sacred.
The belief is interpreted quite literally by the Maasai: any pursuit other than a pastoral one, specifically the herding of cattle, is regarded as demeaning to themselves and insulting to Ngai. in consequence, cultivation was a totally unacceptable alternative - perhaps because cattle were associated with grass and grass with the ground. No Maasai would break the ground to bury the dead or even to excavate for water.
The significance of grass is manifest in Maasai ritual: people passing the wild fig tree honour it (thus indirectly honouring Ngai) by placing handfuls of grass among the roots. Grass is also used on ceremonial occasions, such as circumcision, when gourds containing milk are closed with grass.
Click here for an alternative version of the fable concerning the origin of cattle. See the fable The Women's Cattle for an explanation of why it is that only men herd cattle (and possible proof that Maasai society was originally matriarchal).
As the Maasai traditionally eat neither fruit nor grain, milk, either fresh or curdled, is the basic food staple, and is often drunk mixed with blood (the mixture is called nailang'a) in the dry season, when milk yields are low.
It is generally stored and carried in long, decorated gourds which are washed with urine (despite our western preconceptions, urine is totally sterile when fresh, and thus acts as a mild antiseptic). Milk itself - the gift of Ngai's cattle - is symbolized on ceremonial occasions by the application of a mixture of white chalk and water to the bodies of participants.
Once a month, blood is also taken from living animals, usually to be mixed with milk. This is done as follows: a noose is tightened around a cow's neck, causing the jugular vein to swell. A short blunt arrow with a 1cm tip and its shaft bound with twine, is then fired at close range from a loosely-strung bow to puncture the vein. The blood which spurts out is caught in a gourd. The wound is not fatal and is stopped afterwards with a wad of mud and dung to stop the bleeding: all in all, not that different from people giving blood. The Maasai believe the blood makes them very strong. Curdled blood is called osaroi.
The living animals also provide dung, which is used as fuel and to plaster houses. The urine has some medicinal and cleansing qualities, and is also used in building.
Cattle are only rarely slaughtered, and this only in times of famine, ritual purposes (such as by warriors seeking strength before a raid), or when the animal becomes too old or lame to be of other use. Instead, meat is obtained from large herds of sheep and goats (around 150-200 per family) which the Maasai also keep. Game meat (including fish) is taboo, although eland and buffalo meat is allowed, as they are considered 'wild cattle'.
If a cow or bull is slaughtered, the hide serves many purposes: it can be made into mattresses and mats, sandals, slings, clothes and weapon sheaths. Leather is kept supple by rubbing in goat fat.
Given the many uses of cattle, and the story about their origin, it is not surprising that cattle hold great importance in ritual and ceremony. Virtually all social roles and status derive from the relationship of individuals to their cattle: cattle are a major sign of wealth, and are exchanged between a groom and his bride's family as a symbol of their bond (bridewealth). Essentially, their social use is to create or strengthen ties and loyalties. They are also used as payment for fines to re-establish social harmony (including cases of murder), and are offered as sacrifices on the most important ritual and ceremonial occasions - symbolising the people's bond with Ngai. These ceremonies include births, deaths, and all the rites of passage. Depending on the occasion, the sex and colour of the cattle is ritually significant.
The Maasai say that they have lived for centuries with wildlife without destroying it. Although this may once have been true, this is certainly no longer the case. With their grazing lands limited and their opportunities for territorial expansion no more, they nonetheless still keep as many cattle as possible, which have become the primary reason for the environmental degradation of Maasai land - overgrazing and consequent erosion is inevitable. Illegal bush clearance by fire to make fresh pasture and to control ticks and tsetse files has also increased, destroying the habitats of many species. It just takes one visit to Maasai Mara (itself under threat from mass tourism and off-road driving) to see the difference: the lands outside the park look arid and desolate in contrast, and are almost denuded of trees.
Many areas now also have additional wells, which were dug to stop the cattle dying in exceptionally dry seasons, but this has served only to further increase the cattle populations - artificially - and to increase the pressure on pasture.