The Maasai Tribe: Descriptive Essay on Ceremonies

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Take a deep breath. If you want to be known as a fearless warrior, you must do this. You sit quietly looking at the beast spear in hand preparing yourself for the events that are about to unfold. You take your chance and throw your spear in hopes your target is hit. All your practice and training at the warrior camp pays off. You watch with pride as the lion, your lion collapses. In modern-day to day life this not a common even that takes place, however, for the Maasai tribe's warriors, it is a rite of passage. The Maasai people are a semi-nomadic tribe that is recognized as one of Kenya's fifty native tribes. One of which who refuse to adapt to modern society and still practices the lifestyle and traditions of their ancestors (The Maasai Culture and Traditions).

The Maasai we speak a combination of languages including English and Swahili. These languages were brought about due to them being surround by Tanzania and Kenya. That being said their native language is Maa. The Maa language is a part of the Eastern Nilotic language group (Jennings). Maasai, the name of the tribe, means 'my people' (Maimai). This is often misspelled as Masai, which has no meaning to the people of the tribe. It is believed by linguistics that people who speak maa lived together in an area where the language was common and broke apart roughly 300 years ago to migrate to Rift Valley (Jennings). This theory aligns very well with the oral history of the Maasai Tribe.

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According to the oral history of the tribe's people, the tribe originated North of Lake Turkana. After this, they began to migrate in the fifteenth century. Upon the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it is said that arrived at a 'long trunk of land' (The Maasai Tribe). This trunk of land being referred to is a stretch of land across Tanzania and Kenya. The greatest size of the Masaai territory reached was in the nineteenth century. At this point, the tribe covered the land from the Great Rift Valley to parts of Dodoma and Mount Marsabit. However, it would not last forever. The Maasai Emutai or wipeout took place from 1883 to 1902. During this time they were plagued with smallpox, contagious bovine pleuropneumonia, and rinderpest. Due to the rinderpest, they lost about half of the wild species surrounding them and ninety percent of their cattle (The Maasai Tribe).

These are not the only issue the Maasai have face though. In the early twentieth century, they were bombarded by European settlers who wanted their fertile lands. The Maasai were not quick to give in but their spears were no match to the armed Europeans. By 1902 the tribe decided to sign their first treaty with the Europeans. This was held in British courts with British lawyers, leaving the Maasai at a disadvantage. When the treaty was all said and done the Maasai signed away the best of their land to the Europeans. Just a few years later in 1911, another agreement was signed. This one was very controversial, was only signed by a small group of tribe members that did not represent the entire tribe. This agreement gave European settlers The Maasai's best northern land. These two treaties alone are responsible for the loss of two-thirds of their lands. They are also the reasons why the tribe had to relocate to new less fertile lands. This is not the only issue the Europeans caused though. Due to their interactions with the Maasai, the tribe's name is now very often missed spelled for Masai. The incorrect spelling was brought about by the British and is still used to this day (The Maasai Culture and Traditions). Unfortunately, the Maasai do not resonate with this name as it means nothing in their native language.

Today the Maasai can be found in Southern Kenya and Northern Tanzania. The society is currently separated into sixteen sections or iloshon in Maa. These colonies are Ildamat, Ilpurko, Ilkeekonyokie, Iloitai, Ilkaputiei, Ilkankere, Isiria, Ilmoitanik, Iloodokilani, Iloitokitoki, Ilarusa, Ilmatatapato, Ilwuasinkishu, Kore, Parakuyu, and Ilkisonko. In these sections, the Maasai live in Kaarls that are set up in a circle. These are surrounded by a fence of acacia thorns in hopes of keeping lions out. Their homes or Inkajijik are made of mud, sticks, grass, manure, and cow urine. In their society women are found responsible to build the homes (Maimai). This leads us to the roles that women and men are expected to fill in the tribe.

The traditional role of women in the tribe is very simple. They are to maintain the home. The women are responsible to build the homes while the men build the fence of acacia thorns. They are expected to cook and milk cattle, as well as, raising children and collecting water and firewood. Women are often married very young to much older gentlemen and may one of many of his brides. Generally, they will give birth to three to five children. However, half of those children will most likely pass away before they reach the age of five (Bonde).

In 'My Walk to Water,' by Tara Zolonikov shares her experience spending time with the Maasai women as they journey to collect water. She explains that the trek to the river was not terrible as it was mostly downhill, and the temperature was not bad due to the cloud coverage. All of the women carry their own jerrycan to fill. When they reached the river, the woman informed Zolonikov that she needed to take her sandals off and head to the middle of the river to fill her jug. She described it as difficult as she had trouble keeping her balance over the rocky surface of the riverbed. Once she reached the middle, the water was not high enough to simply lay the bottle down and fill it completely. She shares that the women then indicate for her to use her hands as a cup and finish filling her container. After finishing this Tara, made her way back to the shore to secure the lid on and wrap ropes around her can. Next, the women in her group help her to place the rope to the middle of her forehead so that the jug rest and falls in the hollow of her back. Zolonikov shares that this instantly created an uncomfortable, unfamiliar pain in the head and neck. Next, her mission is to carry the jug up the hill back to the house. She explains how women make fun of her for not taking a break. All together it took her an hour round trip. This was only one trip many women make up to four trips a day to supply enough water. The women also tell her that they complete the trip at all stages of pregnancy and even with their newborns sometimes. Zolonikov jug only weighed a total of twenty pounds when filled, while most women's jug weighs a total of 50 pounds, as they care a twenty-five-liter jug instead of a ten-liter (Zolonikov). This is just one example of how tedious their lifestyle can be and just how committed to it one must be. A society such as the Maasai can only survive on teamwork and help from all parts of it. The women of the Maasai require a certain amount of strength and perseverance to contribute to the tribe.

Men, however, need to live a life of pride and honor. Their role is determined by their age. Every fifteen years, a new generation of warriors is selected and initiated. This group includes boys and men from the ages of twelve to twenty-five who have reached puberty. However, being a warrior is an honor and to achieve such honor they must complete many rites of passage to do so. After a new generation of warriors is initiated the eldest warriors become a junior elders. The junior elders become senior elders and the senior elders retire. Chores and responsibilities are based on generations. Young boys are required to herd the small livestock. Warriors are to watch over the tribe and provide security. As well as, trade and barter for cattle. Junior elders are to make the political decisions and the senior elders are to make the day to day decisions (Bonde). Karen Blixen, an author who moved to Africa in 1914, described a Maasai warrior as, 'a fine sight. Those young men have, to the utmost extent, that particular form of intelligence which we call chic; daring and wildly fantastical as they seem, they are still unswervingly true to their own nature and an immanent ideal. Their style is not an assumed manner, nor an imitation of a foreign perfection; it has grown from the inside and is an expression of the race and its history, and their weapons and finery are as much a part of their being as are a stag's antlers' (The Maasai). She paints a clear picture that being a warrior is not a job for the Maasai, but a way of life. Being a warrior is not a choice, it is something the Maasai believe you are born to do.

One very special tradition to the Maasai's warriors is lion hunting. Many believe that this is trophy hunting since the Maasai do not eat game meat, but this not the case at all. The Maasai believe that lion hunting is a rite of passage and a way to showcase bravery and achievement. It is a chance for them to prove their fighting skills on a target that is not a human. The Maasai also have many rules when it comes to lion hunting that they must follow. For instance, they can not hunt a lion suffering from a drought, poison, or snare. They are also not allowed to hunt female lions, as they are the ones to bring life to the lion populations. The rules are followed by every warrior. There are two main strategies when it comes to lion. One can either lion hunt solo, which is a very difficult process, or in a group of warriors. Only warriors are to know about the lion hunt before it happens. For this reason, many junior warriors are excluded from the proceedings. If a warrior is caught telling about a hunt, he is punished by his fellow warriors with a beating. The group selected to go on the hunt was chosen by the senior warriors and were called the Ilmeluaya or fearless warriors. The rejected warriors were instructed to give up their weapons and sent home. When a group or individual returns with a lion a one-week celebration began. The warrior who landed the first spear would receive a beaded double-sided shoulder strap to wear during many of the ceremony's held in the village. He also received the lion's mane. The women would take and bead it for him. The mane would then be worn during special ceremonies as a tool for visiting warriors to recognize the group's strongest warrior. After the meat ceremony, where a warrior becomes an elder, he is obligated to throw it away. Along with the mane, the tail and claws were collected. The tails were collected in the warrior camp so that at graduation, the warriors could come together and pat respect to all the lions hunted. The tails were then thrown away (Maimai).

The Maasai have a multitude of rituals and ceremonies they perform. The first being the Enkipaata. This specific ceremony is held for young boys ages fourteen to sixteen initiation and was organized by their fathers. During this ceremony, the boys travel for about four months accompanied by a group of elders. There is a group of houses built, thirty to forty, in one large kraal that is chosen by the prophet. Boys from all across the region will be initiated here. The day before the ceremony, the boys are to sleep outside in the forest. When morning comes, they run back to the village and spend the day dancing. After this ceremony, they are ready for the next step of initiation or ceremony (Maimai).

Following Enkipaata, is Emuratare or the circumcision ceremony. This is the most important initiation ceremony for the Maasai. Both men and women partake in this ceremony. The circumcision ceremony is a part of the process of going from childhood to adulthood. This ceremony takes place shortly after puberty. Being circumcised means you are mature now. . . . You now have responsibilities in the community. A participant in a study on circumcision in the Maasai society stated 'If you are not circumcised . . . , whether you are 40 or 50 years old, they still consider you a child' (Van Bavel). For the boys, they are to spend seven consecutive days of herding before the operation. On the eighth day, the boys are to stand outside in the cold and receive a cold shower to cleanse himself. The circumcision takes place right before sunrise and is performed by a man with many years of experience. There is no antiseptic or medication for the pain. The boy mustn't flinch, as this is a test to prove bravery. Very often on his way to have the procedure done male family members and friends will shout out to the boy words of encouragement and threats. They may well that if he runs or flinches that the society will disown him and other things along these lines. The boy is to then wear black clothing for four to eight months as they heal. Once the healing is completed, they are given the status of a warrior. (Maimai).

As for the women, the ceremony is a little bit different and harder to find information on, but not impossible. This is because the tribe is not allowed to talk about a woman's circumcision out of respect for the women of the tribe. Instead of age groups, women are classified in life phases. These consist of entito, young girls before circumcision, esiankiki, a circumcised young lady with no kids, entasat, circumcised lady with children, and koko, a grandma. The women receive the procedure shortly after puberty as well at ages twelve to fifteen. The Maasai practice clitoridectomy and excision. For a girl, this procedure is done because the Maasai believe that for a woman to bear children she must be opened up. Some of the Maasai's people belove that if an uncut woman gives birth it can lead to abnormalities in the baby's physical and mental condition. This, not the only reason circumcision is completed on the women. It also increases her marriageability. Some men may even refuse to marry a woman if she has not gone under circumcision (Van Bavel).

The next step of a boy's initiation is Emanyatta or warriors camp. The camp is made up of twenty to forty houses that are selected by the senior warriors. During this period many elders choose to relocate their wives as the kraal becomes a free visit zone. The two most common camps are the Ilaiserr and Irmolelian clans. At the beginning of the camp, a pole is placed in the center of camp and the Maasai's flag is hung from it. This pole and flag will remain in its place until the camp is over. From then two warrior chiefs are chosen to lead and represent their camp or clan. The purpose of the camp is to teach the new age set about the brotherhood of the warriors. They can spend up to ten years in Emanyatta before they move on to the next step of initiation (Maimai).

From Emanyatta, they enter the Eunoto ceremony. This is the senior warrior's initiation that takes place after the warriors have been juniors for ten years. This ceremony also allows for the warriors to marry. The ceremony takes place in a special camp with a total forty-nine house, where the forty-ninth house is known as Osinkira. This is a big hut made of mud. During this time each warrior must shave his hair that is done by his mother. Before the ceremony can occur, the warriors must raise eight bulls to given to the elders as gifts on graduation day and three important positions must be selected, the Olaiguanani lenkashe, Oloboru enkeene, and Olotuno. The Olaiguanani lenkashe receives a specially chosen female cow. The Oloboru enkeene receives a leather strap with a knot. At the end of the ceremony, the knot will be untied to represent the freedom of the warriors from each other. Lastly, the Olotuno is not a position that the men want to accept. This is because the man who does get this position is responsible for all the men's good and bad deeds.

The next stage that a man goes through is the Enkang oo-nkiri or meat-eating ceremony. This ceremony is performed to initiate junior elders. This is performed in a camp of ten to twenty houses, with specific houses set aside for the wives of the junior elders. During this ceremony, the warriors and wives the age set are allowed to eat a specially chosen bull that has been prepared by the women. Also, at this time a wife must prove to her husband that she has not cheated on her husband with a man from a younger age set. It is okay for a woman to sleep with multiple men from her age set, but not a younger one. If she is found guilty, she will be disrespected by the entire age set.

Lastly, the Maasai hold the Orngesherr ceremony. This then is the junior elders' initiation to become a senior elder. Of all ceremonies, most men look forward to this one the most as every male in the age set is rewarded with an elder's chair at the end of it. In the morning of the ceremony, a man is to sit on his chair and allow his wife to shave him. If the elder has multiple wives, the oldest one is to shave him. After the ceremony, the man takes full responsibility for his family and is considered independent. The chair stays with the man until he dies, or it is broken. Since the Maasai do not keep track of exact ages it is believed that a man assumes full responsibility at the age of thirty-five or so.

The people of the Maasai tribe undergo a multitude of ceremonies and imitations in their lifetime, all of which are non-negotiable. The importance they put on boys to become strong men who are willing to give their life for their tribe exemplifies their patriarchal society. Today they continue to practice these traditions against the approval of surrounding tribes and societies. The Maasai tribe is known for its unique culture and traditions, as well as their unwillingness to accept modern-day life.

Works Cited Page

  1. Bonde, Paula. 'What are the Traditional Roles of Men and Women in Maasai Culture?' Coins for Change, Coins for Change, 10 Oct. 2016,
  2. Jennings, Christian, and CHRISTIAN JENNINGS. 'Nilotes, Eastern Africa: Maasai.' Encyclopedia of African History, edited by Kevin Shillington, Routledge, 1st edition, 2004. Credo Reference, Accessed 07 Dec. 2019.
  3. Maimai, Ole. Maasai Association, Maasai Association, 2018, Accessed 7 Dec. 2019.
  4. 'The Maasai Culture and Traditions.' Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust, The Wild Co., 2016, Accessed 7 Dec. 2019.
  5. 'The Maasai Tribe.' Siyabona Africa, Siyabona Africa (Pty)Ltd, 2019, Accessed 7 Dec. 2019.
  6. Van Bavel, Hannelore, et al. 'Changing Practices and Shifting Meanings of Female Genital Cutting among the Maasai of Arusha and Manyara Regions of Tanzania.' Culture, Health & Sexuality, vol. 19, no. 12, Dec. 2017, pp. 1344–1359. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/13691058.2017.1313449.
  7. Zolnikov, Tara Rava. 'My Walk to Water.' American Journal of Public Health, vol. 106, no. 4, Apr. 2016, p. 623. EBSCOhost, doi:10.2105/AJPH.2016.303066.
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