The culture of the Maasai people is rich and varied. One could spend a lifetime learning about their culture and still not know everything. The following information is general, with each clan having their own variations of the traditions, dialects and roles.
Ages groups are vitally important to the Maasai people, with roles being designated purely on gender and age. When a Maasai child is born, they are born into what they call an age set. The people in a specific age set are as companions throughout their lives and they will share important milestones. As an example, boys of an age set will become warriors at the same time as well as elders. There are various cultural rules about age sets and the relationship within these groups are quite complicated. As an example, a wife may have affairs with men within her age set, but only within her age set and no other men.
The Maasai culture is patriarchal in nature. The laws of the Maasai people are contained within a rich oral tradition and up to the elders (men) to interpret these laws as well as making decisions for the entire group. Criminal matters are usually settled out-of-court and usually involves the exchange of cattle. Young boys are usually left to play, except for ritual beatings to test their courage and endurance. Young girls, on the other hand, are put to work. They are for instance expected to cook and milk the cattle.
Every 15 years, a new group of young warriors are formed by boys aged between 12 and 25. Each of the boys must have reached puberty. Part of their initiation is circumcision which is performed without any form of anaesthetic, painkillers or disinfectant applied to instruments. Complications in these conditions are not unheard of. The boys are required to go through this procedure without making a sound, as this brings about dishonour. Healing times can be as long 4 months with urination being painful and even at times impossible.
The circumcision is performed before sunrise by a male who is respected and usually experienced in performing a circumcision. Gifts from family and friends after the completion of the ceremony usually consist of livestock, giving many a man a start to his future wealth.
The young warriors, after being circumcised must wear black clothes for a period of 4-8 months. During this time, they live in a separate village built by their mothers. This little village, called a manyatta, has no fence as is the norm with a traditional kraal to keep the wild animals out. This is to emphasize their new role as a warrior for the village and is meant to show their bravery. After these trials, the warrior has reached the rank of junior warrior.
Ten years after becoming junior warriors, a ceremony called the Eunoto is performed. During this ceremony, the transition from junior warrior to senior warrior takes place. The ceremony is quite elaborate and takes place over an extended time period. During this time, warriors may not carry any weapons. They are expected to raise eight bulls before the ceremony as gifts to the elders at their graduation day.
After sufficient time has passed, the age set is initiated into becoming a junior elder. After the ceremony, the man’s warrior responsibilities are lifted. By this time he should be married and he would then assume full responsibility for his family. The general age for this to happen is around 35.
In order to transition from girl to woman, girls must also undergo circumcision. The Maasai people believe that in order to transition from a girl to a woman, a girl must be cut to prepare her for marriage. The procedure is done shortly after a girl starts menstruating and like the boys, it is done without any form of anaesthesia or painkillers. Due to modern anti-female genital mutilation activists, this practice is in decline, though still prevalent, especially in more rural areas. Activists are bringing about change, with spiritual alternatives to supplement the act of cutting. One of the forerunners of this is a Maasai woman named Sarah Tenoi, who has together with her community come up with an elaborate ceremony with milk spilt on the girl’s thighs to emulate the “cutting”.
After the ceremony, women are also required to wear black clothes. After the completion of the ceremony, it is quite acceptable that the girl is married off. Husbands tend to be much older and large age gaps between women and their husbands are quite normal.
Traditional roles of women include cooking, building the house, fetch water, collect firewood and milking the cattle.
Traditional manly roles include fencing the homestead (kraal) to prevent lions and other wild animals attacking their cattle. Warriors are further charged with the security of the clan, both from animals and other people. Boys meanwhile are required to take care of the livestock. If droughts become particularly harsh and livestock needs to be pastured in a very wide area, the warriors will also take to herding the animals to ensure the survival of the herds. The elders, in turn, decide the day to day business of the group and each morning one elder will announce the day’s schedule.
The Maasai live in circular homesteads named Kraals. The Kraal is surrounded by acacia thorns which are very effective at keeping wild animals from their livestock. The Kraal is usually home to a large extended family.
Maasai houses, called Inkajijik, are usually built in the shape of a bread loaf. The Maasai are semi-nomadic and they rotate the areas that they graze their cattle. This has led to their houses being a more of a temporary structure that is easy to disassemble, move and reassemble elsewhere. The women are the homemakers of the Maasai, quite literally as they are the ones to build the houses. Pregnant and elderly women are excused from building duties, however, the older women will guide the younger ones in the hut construction.
To build a Maasai hut, the women first build the frame. The frame consists of wooden poles which are stuck in the ground. The bark of a tree is used to fix these poles together and then they add the roof frame, made from smaller branches and bark. After the complete frame is built, the walls are covered with a plaster. The plaster is made from a mix of water, mud, cow dung and urine. The last step is to secure the roof. The roof is covered in plaster as well in order to make it waterproof. After this, some grass is added to provide insulation in the evenings.
The Maasai have a deep-seated respect for nature. They abhor the damaging of land and refuse to eat game meat. Their respect for the land goes so deep that they do not bury their dead, but rather leave them exposed to the elements in order to give back to nature. They also believe that digging up the earth is destructive of nature.
Land cultivation has always been alien to the Maasai people, however, a few groups have been left with no choice. Due to the small plots of land allocated to them, the only way to feed themselves is by farming. This practice is frowned upon by other Maasai as it violates their long-held custom of preserving their natural surroundings.
The Maasai warriors are known for hunting lions. The hunt is done as a show of bravery and skill. Traditionally, each hunt was conducted by a single warrior, however, this has changed as lion numbers have dropped due to disease. Today lion hunts are rare and if they are undertaken, it is a group hunt and the honour of the kill is shared.
Unlike trophy hunting, lion hunting was a sacred event for a young Maasai warrior. It was a contest of skill, strength and fighting ability. A lonely Maasai warrior would taunt a lion so that the lion would fight him.
One of the tactics used by the warrior to get the lion to fight was to taunt him at his kill. Lions will ferociously defend their kills and it is an almost guaranteed fight.
If the warrior is defeated by the lion, there is usually no retaliation by the tribe. The only time the Maasai participate in a “revenge” killing of lions is when their cattle are killed. The killings serve the purpose of killing lions that have learnt that their cattle make easy prey. However these days with government compensation to the Maasai who loose cattle due to lions, revenge killings happen very rarely.
The Maasai speak a language called Maa. Each clan has a separate distinct dialect, however, the root language stays the same.
Sentence structure is usually verb-subject-object. This can vary in some instances as the tone is the most important indicator between subject and object. The language has three gender nouns. Female, male and place. Place indicates gender due to the strict gender roles within the Maasai culture. As an example, when something is described inside the house, the place has a female gender as it is always women who work inside the house. Therefore, the inside of the house can be used as a female personal pronoun.
The Maasai traditionally only deal in livestock. Cattle, goats and sheep are the traditional currency within each group. Livestock is routinely traded for other food items, beads, clothing and other items. Family ties and friendly relations are reinforced with the gift of livestock and forms a major part of the social cohesion of a group of Maasai.