Africa's Most remarkable ethnic group
The Maasai (Masai or Masaai) are a semi nomadic Nilotic ethnic group, found in Kenya and also Tanzania, both countries in East Africa. The Maasai are amongst the most renowned ethnic groups in Africa, due to their distinctive traditional values. They speak a Nilo-Saharan language known as Maa. The Maasai are known to originate from North West Kenya, and started migrating to the South of Kenya around the 15th century.
Traditional administration in the Maasai community is carried out by the elder men, sometimes in conjunction with men who have already retired from traditional rule. Individual and collective conduct amongst the Maasai is governed by a set of oral principles and laws, which are carefully passed on from generation to generation. Capital punishment is entirely unknown within the Maasai community and sometimes individuals may decide to settle disputes out of the locally administered justice system. This practice is usually called amitu, and it’s a way of maintaining peace or arop. During this practice, the guilty party is usually required to offer a substantial apology to the person who has been wronged.
In view of religion, the Maasai are monotheistic, and worship a single God known as Enkai or Engai, which is essentially held to have a dual nature. Engai Narok (Black God) is viewed as being benevolent, while Engai Nanyokie (Red God), is considered to be vengeful. The principal religious or spiritual personality within the Maasai community is the Laibon, who is endowed with the qualification to carry out acts of shamanism, healing, divination and prophecy; while also ensuring that the community experiences adequate rainfall, amongst others. However, some Maasai have become Christians and others, Muslims.
The Maasai make use of locally available material and indigenous know-how to construct their houses. Due to their historically nomadic and currently semi-nomadic lifestyle, their houses were of an impermanent nature. The houses or Inkajijik are normally constructed by women skilled in this art; and they often assume a circular or star shape. Usually, the key framework of the house is made of wooden poles, directly fixed into the ground, and interlaced with a pattern of smaller branches, which is then plastered with a combination of mud, sticks, grass, cow dung, urine and ash. The houses are usually small and serve the purposes of cooking, eating, sleeping, receiving visitors, storing food, fuel and other important items.
More often, the bravery and endurance of young boys might be tested, through ritual beating. Girls are expected to perform certain tasks such as cooking and other household assignments, which they must have learnt from their mothers at an early age. About a period of fifteen years, a new generation of warriors is normally initiated. These warriors usually consist of young people within the age range of 12 to 25 years. The transformation from boyhood to junior warrior is characterised by a very painful circumcision festival, which is conducted by the elders of the community.
Upon the initiation of a new generation of warriors, the existing generation usually becomes junior elders, who are then entrusted with political decision taking, until they become senior elders. This passing from a warrior to junior elder usually occurs in large assemblies called Eunoto. During this time, the long hair of the emerging junior elder is shaved off, because short hair is one of the attributes of elders of the community. The warriors expend a majority of their time walking around their territory.
The Maasai also maintain a polygamous system of marriage, a tradition that had been prevalent, since the inception of this unique group of people.
The Maasai are also known for their distinctive musical style, for which the rhythms are offered by a chorus of vocalist singing harmonies, while the song leader sings the melody. A song leader is usually someone who is known to be well versed in a particular song. It’s a common practice for women to sing lullabies, humming songs and rhythms praising their sons. Groups of women usually assemble, while singing and dancing together.
The Maasai are also known to perform a kind of jumping dance to celebrate the coming of age of a warrior. This ceremony can actually last for ten or more days of singing. The warriors usually form a circle and each time in a rotating manner, one or two warriors enter the circle and begin to jump while maintaining a narrow posture and never letting their heels touch the ground. Those participating and singing may increase the pitch of their voice, to acknowledge someone who has achieved a very high jump.
It’s customary for Maasai women to pierce and extend their earlobes, using various materials such as thorns for piercing, twigs, bundle of twigs, stones, empty film canisters etc. This feature is more common amongst women than men. Maasai women usually wear very elaborate beaded ornaments and other locally made jewellery.
One of the most popular meals amongst the Maasai is soup, and the plant known as Acacia nilotica, is the most used in producing their soup. The bark of the stem or root is usually boiled in water and the decoction drunk alone or added to soup. This product is regarded as offering the consumer abundance of energy.
In terms of clothing, red is the most popular colour amongst the Maasai people, though blue, black, striped and checkered cloth are also commonly worn, including multicolour designs. Young men usually appear in black attire immediately after circumcision.
Maasai women are known to be very skillful in beadwork and indeed, the status of a woman in society is communicated through the volume of bodily ornaments the woman is wearing.
During most rituals, hair shaving is a common tradition, for this is seen as symbolising the starting of a new life, which one passes into, after such an initiation session.
A visit to the Maasai community is a truly compelling niche for anyone interested in a rare form of cultural tourism. Such a visit would take the visitor through an exploratory journey of the Maasai’s well kept cultural secrets. Be prepared to experience a combination of excitement, astonishment, bewilderment and even speechlessness. Hundreds of thousands of visitors to Kenya have had the opportunity to capture the lifestyle of the Maasai at close range, through a visit to their abode. Many television and radio programs had been made regarding this distinctive ethnic group in Kenya. However, you don’t need to watch out for a television documentary to capture the distinctiveness of the Maasai community; for, you can watch it live. See you in Kenya.
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