MAASAI Information

Location: North central Tanzania, southern Kenya
Population: 350,000
Language: Ol Maa (Nilotic)
Neighbors: Samburu, Kikuyu, Kamba, Chaga, Meru, Pare, Kaguru, Gogo, Suk
Types of Art: Maasai are best known for their beautiful beadwork which plays an essential element in the ornamentation of the body. Beading patterns are determined by each age-set and identify grades. Young men, who often cover their bodies in ocher to enhance their appearance, may spend hours and days working on ornate hairstyles, which are ritually shaved as they pass into the next age-grade.
History: Maasai are the southernmost Nilotic speakers and are linguistically most directly related to the Turkana and Kalenjin who live near Lake Turkana in west central Kenya. According to Maasai oral history and the archaeological record, they also originated near Lake Turkana. Maasai are pastoralist and have resisted the urging of the Tanzanian and Kenyan governments to adopt a more sedentary lifestyle. They have demanded grazing rights to many of the national parks in both countries and routinely ignore international boundaries as they move their great cattle herds across the open savanna with the changing of the seasons. This resistance has led to a romanticizing of the Maasai way of life that paints them as living at peace with nature.
Economy: Cattle are central to Maasai economy. They are rarely killed, but instead are accumulated as a sign of wealth and traded or sold to settle debts. Their traditional grazing lands span from central Kenya into central Tanzania. Young men are responsible for tending to the herds and often live in small camps, moving frequently in the constant search for water and good grazing lands. Maasai are ruthless capitalists and due to past behavior have become notorious as cattle rustlers. At one time young Maasai warriors set off in groups with the express purpose of acquiring illegal cattle. Maasai often travel into towns and cities to purchase goods and supplies and to sell their cattle at regional markets. Maasai also sell their beautiful beadwork to the tourists with whom they share their grazing land.
Political Systems: Maasai community politics are embedded in age-grade systems which separate young men and prepubescent girls from the elder men and their wives and children. When a young woman reaches puberty she is usually married immediately to an older man. Until this time, however, she may live and have sex with the youthful warriors. Often women maintain close ties, both social and sexual, with their former boyfriends, even after they are married. In order for men to marry they must first acquire wealth, a process that takes time. Women, on the other hand, are married at the onset of puberty to prevent children being born out of wedlock. All children, whether legitimate are not, are recognized as the property of the woman's husband and his family.
Religion: The cow is slaughtered as an offering during important ceremonies marking completed passage through one age-grade and movement to the next. When warriors (moran) complete this cycle of life, they exhibit outward signs of sadness, crying over the loss of their youth and adventurous lifestyles. Maasai diviners (laibon) are consulted whenever misfortune arises. They also serve as healers, dispensing their herbal remedies to treat physical ailment and ritual treatments to absolve social and moral transgressions. In recent years Maasai laibon have earned a reputation as the best healers in Tanzania. Even as western biomedicine gains ground, people also continually search out more traditional remedies. Maasai are often portrayed as people who have not forgotten the importance of the past, and as such their knowledge of traditional healing ways has earned them respect. Laibons are easily found peddling their knowledge and herbs in the urban centers of Tanzania and Kenya.
Credit: McIntyre, L. Lee and Christopher D. Roy. 'Art and Life in Africa Online.' 1998: The Art and Life in Africa Project,