In appearance, the Maasais are tall and slender, with long, small limb bones, narrow feet and hands, and long fingers. The colour of their skins varies from light chocolate to very dark brown.
The head is high and narrow. The face is thin and many of them have fine-cut features, thin nose, the lips are less thick than those of Negroid people.
The men have little hair on the face but on the head it grows longer and with a less crinkly curl than among Negroes. The girls and older men shave off their hair closely to the head.
The Maasais occupy the equatorial plateau of Africa to the east of Lake Victoria. Their territory extends from north to south for about 800 kms and from west to east 550 kms.
This elongated highland is traversed from north to south by the Great Rift Valley which extends from Jordon (Dead Sea) in the north up to the Nayasa Lake in the south.
Geologically, lava has been deposited on this plateau by the numerous volcanoes in which Kilimanjaro, Meru and Mt. Kenya are quite pronounced. The floor of the Rift Valley rises and falls in a number of separate and closed lake basins.
The territory of the Maasais (including all the lands occupied at the period of their greatest strength in the later part of the 19th century) extends from about 1°N to about 6°S. It covers all the rift valleys in this section and spreads irregularly across wide tracts of high plateau.
Owing to considerable altitude, the climate of the Maasai territory is much cooler and mild than the climates of the lower valleys, coast lands and the floor of the Congo basin to the west.
Though the habitat of the Maasai lies in the equatorial region but owing to high altitudes the temperature reads around 14°C which varies very little from month to month. The days are sunny and nights cool.
There are significant micro-level variations in the mean annual rainfall. The rainfall rarely exceeds 100 cms which is convectional in character. In lower altitudes, less than 75 cms of rainfall is recorded.
The major rains of the year fall in April and May, when a strong monsoon blows inland from the Indian Ocean. June to September is the period of severe drought, especially in the areas which lie below 1,230 metres (4,000 feet) above the sea level.
Under the prevailing geo-climatic conditions, the Maasai territory has tropical grassland climate. In the areas of low rainfall (below 50 cms), the grass reaches only a foot or so in height.
In the more favourable areas, it forms a complete cover; elsewhere it grows in tufts separated by patches of bare soil. Most of the territory has scattered trees of Babul (acacia).
During the long drought, the grass dries, the land becomes parched, and the trees lose their leaves. With the rains in January, a new growth springs up.
Where the conditions are more favourable and sub-soil water is available, the thorny trees and bushes close up, especially on the lower heights above the margins of the rift.
These low thorny forests are often impenetrable with trees and bushes of ten to twenty feet high. Such areas are not very conducive for the cattle herders.
The areas which receive over 75 cms of rainfall are covered by tall savanna grass studded with loftier Babul (acacia). The savanna grass is more than one meter in height and the flat topped Babuls (acacias) reach a height of about twelve metres.
The grass becomes brown in the dry season but still may be grazed. Many a times the grass is burnt in the dry season so t-hat better grass may grow in the subsequent season. At higher altitudes (above 2,000 metres), the drought is much shorter and mountain grass pastures are more perennial.
The grass grows about two metres which resembles to the temperate grasslands. The Maasai ascend the high altitude pastures during the period of drought and descend in lower pastures in the rainy season.
Cattle are the basis of the Maasai economy, providing food, mainly in the form of milk and blood, and property for payment of bride-price.
Maasais also keep many sheep, and some goats and donkeys. Cattle are by far the more important livestock and in normal time each family has its own herd. Sheep are also abundant, but their economic and social importance cannot be compared to that of cattle.
Both are used for their meat and blood, this being a favorite Diagrammatic Plan of a Maasai item in the Maasai diet. Milking is done by women; only some milk products, as cream and butter, are used; cheese is unknown among them. The milk and other foods are stored in wild gourds cut for this purpose.
Pastoralism among the Maasais, more than an economic activity, is a cultural pursuit. Cattle are kept not because they can be sold or consumed, but because they can be immolated in religious rites and magical ceremonies; because to have them in large number, no matter how uneconomic it may be, gives a man status and prestige before his own fellowmen.
Moreover, a cow, or even a lamb or goat is an object of affection which is known to the master by its name. Among the Maasai nobody is allowed to kill any domestic animal.
If any killing is to be done for them, it is performed by their neighbors—the Wandarobo. But as regards cows, on no accounts, may they be slaughtered, though when they die of natural or accidental death, their flesh may be eaten.
Second to pastoralism, the major occupation of the Maasais is warring. Practically all the young men from sixteen to twenty years of age have to undergo a special training as warriors.
The primary objective is to defend their cattle against the hypothetical incursion of their neighbours; but in reality it is they who mostly organize predatory cattle raids against neighboring tribes creating thereby a chronic state of cold war seldom interrupted by hot outbursts.
Tools and Weapons:
The main arms used by the Maasai are iron weapons such as the long-bladed spear, leaf-shaped sword, and the arrow. The demand for forged iron has given rise to a caste of smith-forgers who, being they Maasais, are strictly endogamous.
Marriage and inheritance of property are ruled by clan membership which is patrilineal and exogamous. Polygamy is generally permitted, though monogamy prevails.
Cattle are the main wealth of every Maasai family. The cattle are mixed in type, for as a result of predatory raids on all neighboring peoples every variety of cattle in East Africa has found its way into the Maasai kraal (enclosure). But all are humped cattle. The humped cows yield only about 2.5 kg milk per day.
The cows are mulched by the women before sunrise, after which the cattle are taken out to pastures by men and boys, and again in the evening when they return after sunset. Milk vessels are washed out with cow urine and fumigated before use.
Male calves are slaughtered for meat and hides for the payments, gifts and feasts. Waldoboro (a tribe) are employed to do the slaughtering, for no Maasai should kill a domestic animal.
Cows are treated with great care and affection. Each has its personal name and the herdsman has his favorite among them. They are branded with cuts or burns on the ears and flank, but with the clan mark, not the individual mark of a particular owner.
The main food is obtained from livestock. Milk is taken either fresh or sour; it is boiled only for the sick. Butter is made from milk by laboriously shaking it in a large gourd, but cheese making is unknown.
Ox blood is a favorite and important ingredient in the diet. For obtaining the blood of bullocks, his neck is tightly strapped with a leather Cora so that a large vein swells up.
The swollen vein is then pierced with a special arrow having a wide, transverse blade which is released from a light bow. A considerable quantity of blood is collected and drunken fresh, clotted or mixed with milk.
Sheep are almost as numerous as cattle, and their milk, blood and meat are eaten, but they play a far less important role in the life of the Maasai. Most of them are of a white fat-humped breed with a coarse curly fleece.
The ewes are regularly milked after lambing. Goats are less numerous and are herded with the sheep. To prevent mating at the wrong season or between different herds, leather flaps are often tied to the bellies of bulls and rams.
Donkeys are used as the beasts of burden while some of the Maasais, living in the eastern parts, have acquired camels from Somalia for transportation.
No animals are ridden and all herding and travel is done on foot. The livestock of a kraal is herded as a unit by the young men under the guidance of a married man. The Maasai dogs are of little use in herding, and only give warning of the presence of strangers and beasts of prey.
On special occasions and public ceremonies, animals are slaughtered, but meat must not be eaten in the camp. It is cooked and served in secluded spots.
Meat and milk may never be eaten on the same day, nor these be allowed to come into contact with one another. The infringement of this rule would, it is believed, cause serious disease among the cattle.
Millet and maize are the staple food. Root crops and banana, although scorned by the men, are eaten by women and children. These cereals and vegetable foods are obtained in exchange for hides and livestock from wandering groups of Negro traders. They are boiled and mixed with milk and butter.
Some wild game and birds are hunted or obtained by barter for their skins, horns, and feathers, but their flesh is almost never eaten. Wild honey is eaten fresh or fermented into a beer which is a favourite food.
The clothes of the Maasais are simple and mostly made of skin. But, the young women and warriors wear elaborate ornaments, especially on ceremonial occasions. The preparation of skin is done by women. The warrior’s only garment is a calf’s skin with hair left on.
A triangular flap of skin is sometimes worn over the buttocks to give protection from thorns when sitting down. Apart from thick bull hide sandals, which are worn by all, the rest of the body is naked. Women wear goat skin aprons.
For religious and social ceremonies, dances and wars, the warriors wear elaborate feather head dresses set on a frame of leather or wood and held by a chin strap.
At other times are worn high pointed caps of lion, baboon and other skins of wild game. Bracelets and neck bands of iron and sheep skin and girdles closely covered with beads are the other items of a warrior’s attire.
The daughter of a well-to-do family prides herself on the size and massiveness of the long, close coil of iron wire that is fitted on her lower arms, legs and neck.
The huts in which the Maasais live are about 4 or 5 metres long and about four metres wide. These are walled and roofed with layers of long grass well set with poles and ropes, and plastered with mud or cow-dung.
A number of these huts, from about 20 to 50, constitute one kraal. This is made up of nearly closed circle of huts, protected by an outer ring of thick thorn fence, with two entrances at the opposite sides for the cattle. The circular plan of the kraal is particularly suited for defence.
In the Maasai society, community is more important than individual. The clans are patrilineal exogamous groups, and some of them are divided into smaller divisions or sub-clans which are they exogamous.
The clans in Kenya are grouped into two major divisions: (i) the people of the Black Ox, and (ii) the people of the Red Bullocks. These clans can intermarry. The clans are of domestic rather than of political importance and coincide only to a limited extent with territorial division.
Although a girl may be engaged to a boy when he is an infant or even unborn, marriage does not take place until he has passed through his warrior hood and becomes an elder, i.e., when he is over twenty years of age.
At the time of marriage, a few cattle and sheep are given to the bride’s father, but large quantity of honey beer is given to the girl’s father at the birth of first child. Polygamy is popular and most elders marry several wives at intervals and at a time acquire three, four or even more.
The herds are generally looked after by these wives. At the death of the head of the family, the livestock’s are equally divided among the sons.
An elderly father, his wives and married sons constitute a household or family, and has its own encampment or kraal of about twenty huts.
Each wife has her own hut which she builds and repairs. The huts are made up of stakes and grass. Some small huts are covered with ox-hides. Cattle are also kept in the enclosure of the encampment. Each family has a smith who makes weapons for the family.
The smiths are known to be unclean because the weapons they make lead to the spilling of blood. The weapons must be purified by rubbing with cow fat or butter when they are taken over. The sons of smith do not become warriors, but settle down to the business of something after their initiation at puberty.
One of the remarkable features of the Maasai society is the system of dividing the boys into warrior groups, who take the place of retiring warriors. This is known as a system of age-groups. Traditionally, Masai males have been age-graded in the stages of boy, warrior and elder.
A man may marry only after he has served as a warrior, at about age 30. Maasai residence groups are divided into elders’ and warriors’ kraals or villages.
When the boys of a micro region have attained puberty, they form small bands which visit all the encampments, demanding presents, which they present to influential elders while asking them to arrange for their initiation.
Initiation covers a period of four years or more during which the boys are circumcised one by one in their own kraal (camp) by a skilled Wandarobo (tribe), not Maasai, who travels from camp to camp.
When all the eligibles have at last circumcised and the elders are prepared to admit a new group into the warrior class, they are assembled for hair-shaving ceremony, which is the signal for their entry into the warrior stage. All youths who are shaved at the same time form a single age-group. They receive weapons from their fathers and take a common name, such as Raiders, the White Sword, etc.
From three to five years after its first initiation into the warrior’s class, an age-group holds a festival which is attended by all members of that age-group in the district.
All members of an age-group are expected to give mutual help in any difficulty, and the mourning of a dead man is conducted by his age-mates.
Thus, among the Maasais, there are three stages through which every male passes—the boy, the warrior, and the elder. At any given time, there is a large fighting force divided into a number of separate encampments, each wholly devoted to the defence of its territory and to the raiding of neighboring people.
Besides defence and raids, the purpose of the Maasai warriors is to protect their sacred herds and to extend the range of their pastures. They also mitigate the influence of Laibon (magic man) on the Masai society.
Among the Maasais, cattle determine a man’s rank. In some of the Maasais, chiefs are appointed to rule over a given number of cattle instead of a given region.
Among the Maasais, a man has an ox that he treats like a pet that sleeps in his hut and is called by name. When this man dies, the skin of the ox is his shroud, its flesh supplies his funeral feast.
The Maasais have a developed system of law than among the hunters like Pygmies and Bushmen. Rape, seduction and adultery, homicide and wounding as well as theft have their well-defined penalties and punishments. Due to religious reasons, asylum is also well developed.
The administration of justice lies in the hands of the chiefs and elders of the clans and tribes. Their duty is to interfere in disputes and feuds of families and clans, bring about reconciliation between the contending parties, and to fix the amount to be given as blood money.
Like all the other tribal groups, the Maasai tribes also have a religious leader locally known as Laibon. He has little executive power, and is very much respected.
He is a religious (priest) rather than an executive authority, and his influence is based on the firm belief in the success of his prophecies, the great power of his magic and the efficacy of his intercession with the God of Maasais.
The office is hereditary and descends from father to son in one family. Whenever the Laibon has political and strategic ability, he can use his influence to control and unify the action of all divisions of the people.
He can direct and concentrate the attacks of the various warrior groups and can maintain a policy calculated to safeguard the tribe against external attack.
Neither he nor any of his clansmen take part in actual warfare, but he alone can prepare and give power to the war magic necessary for success in raids and victory in more serious fighting. Defeat must come, on the other hand, if he foretells it and withholds the magic.
He also controls the most effective magical remedies against diseases among both men and cattle, and he can perform miracles of healing.
His diet is carefully restricted to goat liver, milk and honey, for other food would deprive him of his power. In his decisions he is often advised by other elderly people. Thus, by divination, prophecy and oracle the Laibon” serve spiritual needs as well as curing physical sickness.
The Maasais provide a unique example of the ethnic groups who deliberately limit the exploitation of their resources and physical environment.
Despite their many contacts with peoples of other economies, they have rejected hunting as well as cultivation of crops. Moreover, they have dispossessed cultivating peoples of land which they themselves use only for grazing and have driven their agricultural relatives (the Lumbwa) into the more arid parts of the region.
Their life in an unusually clear way shows how completely a cultural bias and traditional mode of life may determine and restrict the use of territory and land resources which offer other possibilities.
Maasai, being pastoral people, is a masculine society. Its religion is more concerned with the heavens than with Mother Earth. The sky, the sun, the thunder, and the storm are the powers under which the herder spends his life and to which he renders adoration.