Embracing Maasai Culture in Tanzania
I’ve never been so happy to depart a destination as I was the day we left Lake Natron. Wrecked by a stomach virus, relentless heat, and winds that pelted us with stinging sand, I was miserable and ready for pampering at Lake Manyara’s Escarpment Luxury Lodge. But it’s our time learning about Maasai culture in a nameless village along the way that I’ll forever remember most about that day.
There were no signs pointing travelers to the village, which is located about 10 minutes outside Mto Wa Mbu en route from the Ngorongoro Conservation Area to Lake Manyara National Park. In fact, even calling it a village might be a stretch.
There were perhaps a dozen small circular bomba (houses) made from grass, mud, sticks, and cow dung, all enclosed inside a circular fence (enkang) fashioned from thorned Acacia branches. The surrounding scenery was dry and desolate, with dust devils swirling across the horizon.
But from the moment the Maasai villagers came walking out to greet us, singing a song of jubilant welcome that hit me square in my soul, I felt my mood being lifted for the first time in days. And by the time we left, I realized that my face hurt from smiling so much…
The Maasai: An Introduction
Wherever you go on the East African safari circuit of southern Kenya and northern Tanzania, the Maasai people are a near-constant presence.
You’ll spot the brightly colored reds, blues and purples of their shúka (sheets worn wrapped around the body, with one over each shoulder and a third over the top of them) standing out vividly against the landscape.
You’ll see them alongside the road in small villages such as the one we visited, modern towns such as Arusha, and walking across the vast open pastures on which they continue to graze their cattle, as they have for more than 500 years now.
While it may be the world-renowned wildlife that draws most travelers to Tanzania, it’s the Maasai people who give the region its distinctive cultural flavor. So it’s worth learning more about these semi-nomadic pastoralists before you visit.
A Brief History of the Maasai
The Maasai are a Nilotic people indigenous to the African Great Lakes region, with roots that can be traced back to South Sudan.
According to their oral history, they began migrating south from the lower Nile Valley north of Kenya’s Lake Turkana sometime in the 15th century. They ultimately arrived in their current range between the 17th and late 18th century.
Many of the ethnic groups that had established settlements in the area were either displaced or assimilated by the Maasai, who also adopted certain customs from them (including ritual circumcision and a social organization focused more on age than descent).
By the mid-19th century Maasai territory included the entire Great Rift Valley as well as the lands that surrounded it. The Maasai people soon became as well-known for their strength as hunters and warriors (using spears, shields, and clubs that could be thrown accurately from up to 70 paces) as they were for their cattle-herding.
Embracing Maasai Culture
According to our guide, Rama Mmasa, the village we visited was relatively new to welcoming travelers. So our time there felt less like an organized tour and more like being welcomed into a new friend’s home.
They greeted us with the traditional polyphonic music of the Maasai culture. A leader (called the olaranyani) sang the rousing melody while females sang harmony on call-and-response vocals. The males made guttural throat-singing sounds to provide rhythmic syncopation. All of them were tall and lean, with shaved heads and gorgeous skin the color of fine dark chocolate.
When Maasai warriors come of age, the ceremony (known as eunoto) involves 10+ days of singing, dancing, and rituals, including the competitive jumping for which the Maasai are known. The celebration of our arrival was much shorter, but no less exuberant. Within five minutes, we were brought into a semicircle to dance with them (see video above).
Since many of the Maasai did not speak English, a man named Daniel served as our guide. As the ladies performed a more demure dance and young men showed off their jumping prowess, he gave me a few basic instructions. Then it was our turn to enter the circle.
I’m highly competitive by nature, so I was determined to make a decent showing. I matched Daniel jump-for-jump the first few times, but by the end my “verts” were becoming decidedly more horizontal. Still, my efforts were earnest enough that the men smiled and shook my hand enthusiastically.
Through body language, it was easy to see that there was mutual respect there– from us for the richness of Maasai culture, and from them for our eagerness to participate in it.
Inside A Maasai Hut
When the dancing was over, Daniel invited us inside a hut to learn more about Maasai culture and customs. Teenage girls Gladys (in blue) and Anna (in purple) tagged along, welcoming a chance to practice their English. The home was small and spartan, with a large sleeping area for the male, a smaller one for his wife and children, and a cow dung fire for cooking.
Daniel explained that the Maasai people have a patriarchal social structure, with elder men making most of the decisions and the number of cattle and children a man has determining his wealth. Maasai men often have several wives, each with her own house, but the women must build their own houses every five years due to termites.
Boys are expected to shepherd the family’s cattle (which provides their 3 main food sources: meat, milk and blood). Girls help their mothers gather firewood, cook and handle most of the family’s other domestic responsibilities. Both sexes have historically undergone a ritual circumcision known as emorata, although the practice is gradually waning due to criticism from Maasai activists and foreigners alike.
Adolescent boys who undergo the procedure (which is performed without anesthetic, using a very sharp knife) are expected to do so in silence. Crying out in pain brings dishonor to the family. Afterwards they are known as Moran, and sent to live in a manyatta (or village) built by their mothers for many months, during which they make the transition to becoming warriors.
You’ll see many Moran alongside the roads in Kenya and Tanzania, with their distinctive white facial markings, offering to pose for tourist photos for money. When we asked Rama if this practice was frowned upon by Maasai elders, he explained that this was basically the only way these boys can support themselves during their transition to adulthood.
Threats to the Maasai Way of Life
Problems between the Maasai people and government authorities date back more than 100 years, to when a pair of treaties with the British reduced Maasai land in Kenya by 60% to make room for ranches for colonial settlers. In Tanzania in the 1940s, the pastoralists were displaced from the fertile lands around Mount Meru, Mount Kilimanjaro and the Ngorongoro Crater.
Much of the land taken from the Maasai was used to create many of the world’s most famous wildlife reserves and national parks, including Kenya’s Amboseli, Masai Mara, Samburu and Tsavo and Tanzania’s Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro, Tarangire and Serengeti.
More recently, the Maasai have resisted the urgings of the Kenyan and Tanzanian governments to adopt a more sedentary lifestyle and send their children to government-approved educational facilities. According to Rama, this is because the Maasai believe that most people go to school to learn how to become rich, and they believe that they are already wealthy due to the richness of the Maasai culture and lifestyle.
Non-profit organizations such as Survival International are currently working with tribal leaders to help the Maasai regain grazing rights to their historic lands and resist government efforts to force them to adapt to modern notions of “progress.” With more than 1 million Maasai estimated to live in these popular ecotourism hotspots, here’s hoping their rich, distinctive culture and lifestyle continues to thrive for many centuries to come.
A Chance to Support the Maasai
Wherever we travel, we always buy souvenirs directly from local artists and craftsmen to help them earn a decent living. Now that we’ve launched our Green Global Travel Fair Trade Boutique, we’re selling some of those souvenirs and using the profits to give back to conserve indigenous nature/wildlife and culture around the world.
Gladys, the young woman mentioned above, is very interested in pursuing a higher education and hopes to be a teacher someday. But in Tanzania families must pay for education beyond 9th grade.
We’re selling some of the bracelets and necklaces we bought from the Maasai as part of our Private Collection. At the end of the year we’ll be sending $300 to Gladys, which will fund her education for 2017. We hope you’ll stop by our boutique and purchase a piece of Maasai culture, and help us help an intelligent young woman who’s keen on preserving that culture for many generations to come! –Bret Love; photos by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett
Our trip to Tanzania was sponsored in part by Adventure Life and Tanzania Journeys, with clothing provided by ExOfficio. But we will never compromise our integrity at the expense of our readers. Our opinions remain our own.
If you enjoyed our story on Maasai Culture, you might also like:
TANZANIA: Ngorongoro Conservation Area
TANZANIA: Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro
SOUTH AFRICA: Zulu Memories
PHOTO GALLERY: Serengeti National Park Wildlife Safari
The co-founder of Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media, Bret Love is an award-winning journalist/editor who’s been published in over 100 publications, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, National Geographic and Rolling Stone. He’s an in-demand public speaker, covering topics ranging from branding and content marketing to responsible travel and how DMOs can work with bloggers. He’s also made a name for himself as a content and influencer marketing strategist, advising companies such as Discover Corps and International Expeditions. You can follow GGT’s adventures on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and YouTube.