In the popular imagination, the Maasai warrior, with his red robe, spear, and braided ochre-smeared hair, is the archetypal African, and a disproportionate amount of attention has been lavished on them, ever since the explorer, Joseph Thomson published his bestseller Through Maasailand in 1885. In those days, the Maasai were seen as perfect “noble savages”, but their story is much more complex.
The Maasai History
What we know of their distant history is little more than conjecture – some say that they are one of the lost tribes of Israel and others that they came from North Africa. Still, others believe that they are the living remnants of Egyptian civilization, primarily, it seems, on account of their warriors’ braided hairstyles. Linguistically, the Maasai are among the southernmost of the Nilotic-speaking peoples, a loosely related group that came from the north, presumably from the Nile Valley in Sudan. It’s thought that they left this area sometime between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, migrating southwards with their cattle herds along the fertile grasslands of the Rift Valley.
The Maasai eventually entered what is now Kenya to the west of Lake Turkana, and quickly spread south into northern Tanzania, whose seasonal grasslands were ideal for their cattle. They reached their present extent around the eighteenth century, at which time they were the most powerful and feared tribe in East Africa. Their tight social organization, offensive warfare, deadly cattle raids, and mobility as semi-nomadic cattle herders ensured that they could go where they pleased, and could take what they wanted. Their military prowess and regimentation meant that they were rarely defeated and as a result their history before the arrival of the British was one of ceaseless expansion at the expense of others. Their combined Kenyan and Tanzanian territory in the seventeenth century has been estimated at 200,000 square kilometres. The Maasai territory today is less than a quarter of what it was before the Europeans arrived, and they have been progressively confined to smaller and smaller regions.
The British took much of their land away to serve as farms and ranches for settlers, and in recent decades the land expropriations have continued, this time to form the wildlife preserves of Serengeti, Tarangire, Mkomazi and part of Ngorongoro, to which the Serengeti Maasai were relocated when they were evicted.
The Maasai Today, And in The Future
Politically and economically, the Maasai remain marginalized from the Tanzanian mainstream, having refused to abandon their pastoralist way of life, or their traditions, despite repeated attempts by both colonial and post-Independence governments, and missionaries, to cajole or force them to settle. Many men persevere with the status of warriorhood, though modern Tanzania makes few concessions to it. Arrested for hunting lions, and prevented from building manyattas (cattle enclosures) for the eunoto transition in which they pass into elderhood, the warriors (morani) have kept most of the superficial marks of the warrior without being able to live the life.
The ensemble of a red or purple cloth shuka 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 the Maasai lifestyle is changing: education, MPs and elections, new laws and new projects, jobs and cash are all having mixed results. Their traditional staple dish 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 Arusha and Dar es Salaam.
A main source of income for those who remain is provided by the tourist industry. Maasai dancing is the entertainment, while necklaces, gourds, spears, shields, rungus (clubs, also known as knobkerries), busts and even life-sized wooden warriors are the stockin-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 but they are assailed on all sides by a climate of opposition to the old lifestyle. Sporadically urged to grow crops, go to school, build permanent houses and generally settle down, they face an additional dilemma in squaring these edicts with the demands of the tourist industry for traditional authenticity. For the majority, who still live semi-nomadic lives among a growing tangle of constraints, the future would seem to hold little promise. However, the creation of community-run conservation areas outside the parks and reserves looks promising, generating income from annual land rents paid by tourist lodges and tented camps, and often a percentage of profits or overnight receipts.
Visiting Maasai Communities
Visitors can meet the red-robed Maasai in cultural bomas – “traditional” Maasai villages set up in various roadside locations in Ngorongoro Conservation Area expressly for tourists (entrance fees are negotiable, plus a $20 per vehicle levied by the Conservation Area authorities). The experience can feel uncomfortably staged and voyeuristic at times, but for many, it’s the only time they’ll be able to meet one of Africa’s traditional tribes, and of course, the money is welcomed by local communities.