History

History of the Maasai People

The Maasai were proud and strong warriors who according to their oral tradition migrated to East Africa from the lower Nile valley north of Lake Turkana, a lake in the Kenyan Rift Valley, in northern Kenya.

The migration happened gradually during the 15th century. Between the late 17th to 18th centuries they were well established in a large region from what is today known as northern Kenya to central Serengeti.

During their migration, the Maasai encountered various small groups who had already established themselves in the areas. These groups were either forcibly removed or assimilated into Maasai society.

During the 19th century, the Maasai “empire” reached its peak. Their controlled territory covered almost every square inch of the Great Rift Valley, from Dodoma to Mount Marsabit. From 1883 to 1902, the Maasai people were struck by two major setbacks which started a long period of hardship for the people.

The first setback came in the form of a Rinderpest outbreak. The outbreak decimated the vast Maasai cattle herds, with low-end estimates putting the mortality rate amongst the herds at 90%. The Rinderpest outbreak also targeted several of the wild animals, including the buffalo, which resulted in these animals completely disappearing from the region for many decades.

The second setback came in the form of a smallpox epidemic which resulted in almost two thirds of the entire Maasai population dying.

The setbacks continued for Maasai after both these epidemics. In 1904 and 1911, Maasai lands were reduced by up to 60% as the British Colonial Government evicted the local people to make room for British settlers to the region.

Further land grabs happened in what is today known as Tanzania where the most fertile lands were taken from Maasai in the 1940s. After this, the Maasai were again evicted from their lands in order to create various nature reserves in both Kenya and Tanzania. Since then, the Maasai have seen a slow erosion of their culture and lands as time goes by.

The Maasai people have made several requests to be allowed to pasture their cattle on their traditional lands within the respective game reserves. However, to this day their requests have been denied. Normally such requests would be treated with legitimate concern in view of poaching by native people. However, the Maasai do not consume game meat - their food is derived completely from their own live stock.

The problem of access to grazing land is exacerbated by Global Warming and the longer periods droughts currently being suffered in East Africa. These droughts severely limit the viability of the land still available to them to graze their cattle.

Also of historical note is the Maasai’s strong stance against slavery. Whilst in the past many African tribes contributed to the practice of slavery, the Maasai were known for their violent aversion to this practice. The old slavers in Africa avoided Maasai lands when they were looking for people to enslave.

The Maasai people are today concentrated into 12 sectors across their tradition lands. Each sector of the tribe has their own customs, traditional garb, dialect and leadership.

These tribe sectors or subdivisions are known as clans. The clans in alphabetical order are as follows:

  • Dalalekutuk
  • Damat
  • Kaputiei
  • Keekonyokie
  • Kisonko
  • Laitayiok
  • Loitai
  • Loodokolani
  • Matapato
  • Purko
  • Siria
  • Wuasinkishu

Photo of Lake Turkana Photo of Maasai men Loss of livestock A woman working in the land