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People of Kenya: Maasai

The Maasai are arguably the only ethnic group in Kenya that brings the real picture and symbol of ‘tribal’ Kenya. They are very famous and have a unique culture which has been preserved and conserved for centuries. They are also among if not the only tribe which has largely managed to stay outside the mainstream of westernization in Kenya and still maintain their cattle herds.


The Maasai are the southernmost of the Nilotic-speaking peoples, and are linguistically and physically related to the Samburu, Turkana and Kalenjin all through the Tanzania border. They speak ‘maa’ or ‘Olmaa’ language

The Maasai first came to the region from Sudan although some oral sources suggest that it may have been somewhere even further north, along the Nile Valley or even in North Africa and occupied a large region in central Kenya until in the late 19th century when they were affected by famine and disease and their herds died of rindepest. This forced them down to their present land. Before the creation of Masai Mara national reserve the Maasais’ had a vast grazing land but now the story is different as they have been forced to squeeze in a fewer parcels of land

Some get income from Tourism, either through selling items such as gourds, necklaces, clubs, spears and arrows to mentions but a few.

Meeting the Maasai is one of the high points of many safari holiday makers, together with seeing an elephant, a lion, rhino, cheetah and leopard for the first time. You can see Maasai dancing, grazing or simply in their day to day home chores in the ‘Manyattas’. The peak season for singing and dancing is during the rains, which is of course an auspicious time to celebrate important passages of life such as circumcision and marriage.

Their traditional foods are meat, milk and blood from cattle which provide for protein and caloric needs. People drink blood on special occasions; it is given to a circumcised person (o/esipolioi), a woman who has given birth (entomononi) and the sick (oltamueyiai). Also, on a regular basis drunken elders (ilamerak), use the blood to alleviate intoxication and hangovers. However, traditional Maasai staple of curdled milk and cow’s blood is rapidly being replaced by cornmeal ugali due to the pressure to development and need for settled agricultural life and civilization.

Maasai clothing varies by age, sex, and place. Traditionally, shepherds wore capes made from calf hides, and women wore capes of sheepskin. In the 1960s, the Maasai began to replace animal-skin with commercial cotton cloth. Women tied lengths of this cloth around their shoulders as capes (shuka) or around the waist as a skirt. The Maasai color of preference is red, although black, blue, striped, and checkered cloths are also worn, as are multicolored African designs. Until recently, men and women wore sandals made from cowhides; nowadays sandals and shoes are generally made of tire strips or plastic. Women and girls wear elaborate bib-like bead necklaces, as well as headbands and earrings, which are colorful and intricate. When ivory was plentiful, warriors wore ivory bands on their upper arms much like the ancient Egyptians. Jewelry plays an important role in courtship.

The Maasai are a patriarchal society; men typically speak for women and make decisions in the family. Male elders decide community matters. Girls learn to fear and respect their fathers and must never be near them when they eat.

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