The Maasai (alternately spelled Masai) people are found primarily throughout Kenya and Tanzania. They’re quite easy to spot–many still stick to their traditional ways, wearing the distinctive patterns of tartan cloth wrapped around their lean frames.
They are a semi-nomadic people, having originated not in Tanzania but instead from southern Sudan, Ethiopia, and northern Kenya (before any of these states were formally declared). You will no doubt encounter them on your way to the next safari experience—by the roadside tending to their herd of cattle, or practicing a way of life largely unaltered by the modern age in their settlements throughout the country. A few of their settlements are even open to visitors, and we can assist in arranging a private visit to their community so that you can meet the families and get to know a bit about their way of life.
Their language is called Maa, and their tribe is actually named after the language. Many can also speak Swahili (the national language of Tanzania), and some can even speak a bit of English, as well. Numbering around two million people in total, they are not considered one of the largest ethnic groups of the area, but where they live you will definitely spot them all over the place. Their traditional village buildings are made of mud, cow dung, and branches, and are quite distinctive, popping out here and there near the main roads leading to the safari parks.
Every day, the men take the cows out to pasture, while the children are in charge of the sheep and goats. The reason for the huge herds is that their wealth is not measured in money but instead in cattle—the more you have, the richer you are. Try asking a Maasai how many cattle he owns and they will no doubt give you a roundabout answer, for it is the same thing as asking a stranger how much they have in their bank account! It’s not uncommon for the more wealthy among the tribe to own hundreds of heads of cattle, which they use primarily as a food source (drinking the milk and even the blood). When a cow dies they make use of the meat, the skin, and just about everything else. As for the other animals they raise, they’ll barter with the goats and sheep, and on special occasions even eat them.
If you see a young boy dressed in black with a white painted design on his face, that is a Maasai boy undergoing the ritual to manhood. Around the age of thirteen to fifteen, a group of similarly-aged boys are put together as a group, whereby they are schooled in the ways of bush survival and are left to fend for themselves for a period of three months, where they’ll need to be self-sufficient for much of the duration. The face paint is so that they are harder for nearby neighbors to recognize, and signifies their status as warriors-in-training. After this they will undergo ritual circumcision (without anesthetic), and be welcomed as a full-fledged warrior, joining the ranks of the other men in tending to the cattle and defending their villages.
Joshua, one of the founding partners of Pamoja Safaris, is Maasai. He grew up in a traditional village and underwent the adulthood ceremony with other children of roughly the same age when he was about 15 years old (we’ll do a separate post on this intriguing custom in the future). Later on in life he moved to Arusha city, became a safari guide, married, and had children, but he still has some very interesting tales to tell.
Be sure to ask him next time you’re on a safari with us!