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Sun, 08.03.1400

The Maasai People of Africa, a story

*The Maasai people are celebrated on this date in 1400.  They are a Black African Nilotic ethnic group inhabiting northern, central, and southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. They are among the best-known local populations internationally due to their residence near the many game parks of the African Great Lakes and their distinctive customs and dress.  

The Maasai speak the Maa language, a member of the Nilotic language family related to the Dinka, Kalenjin, and Nuer languages. Except for some elders living in rural areas, most Maasai people speak the official languages of Kenya and Tanzania, Swahili and English. The Maasai population has been reported as numbering 1,189,522 in Kenya in the 2019 census, compared to 377,089 in the 1989 census.  Culturally, jumping is the essence of the signature Maasai Adamu or jumping dance. A rising beat, sweeping emotion into its path.

A universal rhythm. ... For the Maasai, theirs is a celebration to mark the rite of passage to welcome young men to the next stage of their lives.  In the 21st century, the Tanzanian and Kenyan governments have instituted programs encouraging the Maasai to abandon their traditional semi-nomadic lifestyle, but the people have continued their age-old customs.  Many Maasai tribes throughout Tanzania and Kenya welcome visits to their villages to experience their culture, traditions, and lifestyle in return for a fee.  

The Maasai arrived in the 15th century via South Sudan.  Most Nilotic speakers in the area, including the Maasai, the Turkana, and the Kalenjin, are pastoralists famous for their fearsome reputations as warriors and cattle rustlers.  The Maasai and other groups in East Africa have adopted customs and practices from neighboring Cushitic-speaking groups, including the age-set system of social organization, circumcision, and vocabulary terms.  Maasai society is strongly patriarchal, with older men, sometimes joined by retired elders, deciding most major matters for each Maasai group. A full body of oral law covers many aspects of behavior. Formal capital punishment is unknown, and normally payment in cattle will settle matters. An out-of-court process is also called amitu, 'to make peace, or arop, which involves a substantial apology.  

The monotheistic Maasai worship a single deity called Enkai or Engai. Engai has a dual nature: Engai Narok (Black God) is benevolent, and Engai Na-nyokie (Red God) is vengeful.  There are also two pillars or totems of Maasai society: Oodo Mongi, the Red Cow, and Orok Kiteng, the Black Cow, with a subdivision of five clans or family trees.  The Maasai also have a totemic animal, the lion; however, the animal can be killed. The way the Maasai kill the lion differs from trophy hunting as it is used in the rite of passage ceremony.  The "Mountain of God," Ol Doinyo Lengai, is located in northernmost Tanzania and can be seen from Lake Natron in southernmost Kenya.  

Maasai wear red because it symbolizes their culture, and they believe it scares lions away. Also, most of the men wear a Shuka, which is a red robe. The women wear clothes that are colorful and decorated with beads. ... Warriors wear their hair in braids that are dyed red. The central human figure in the Maasai religious system is the laibon, whose roles include shamanistic healing, divination and prophecy, and ensuring success in war or adequate rainfall. Today, they also have a political role due to the elevation of leaders. Whatever power an individual laibon had was a function of personality rather than position.  Many Maasai have also adopted Christianity and Islam.  

The Maasai, known for their intricate jewelry and decades, have sold these items to tourists as a business.  A once high infant mortality rate among the Maasai has led to babies not truly being recognized until they reach an age of 3 months ilapaitin. Educating Maasai women to use clinics and hospitals during pregnancy has enabled more infants to survive. The exception is found in extremely remote areas. For Maasai living a traditional life, the end of life is virtual without ceremony, and the dead are left out for scavengers.  A corpse rejected by scavengers is seen as having something wrong with it, and liable to cause social disgrace; therefore, it is not uncommon for bodies to be covered in fat and blood from a slaughtered ox. Burial has in the past been reserved for great chiefs since it is believed to be harmful to the soil.  

Traditional Maasai lifestyle centers around their cattle, their primary food source. The measure of a man's wealth is in terms of cattle and children. A herd of 50 cattle is respectable; the more children, the better. A man with plenty of one but not the other is considered poor.  A Maasai religious belief relates that God gave them all the cattle on earth, leading to the belief that rustling cattle from other tribes is a matter of taking back what is rightfully theirs, a practice that has become much less common.  Their cattle meet all of the Maasai's needs for food. They eat meat, drink milk daily, and drink blood on occasion. Bulls, goats, and lambs are slaughtered for meat on special occasions and for ceremonies. Though the Maasai's entire way of life has historically depended on their cattle, more recently, with their cattle dwindling, they have grown dependent on food such as sorghum, rice, potatoes, and cabbage (known to the Maasai as goat leaves).

A traditional pastoral lifestyle has become increasingly difficult due to outside influences of the modern world. Garrett Hardin's article, outlining the "tragedy of the commons," and Melville Herskovits' "cattle complex" helped influence ecologists and policymakers about the harm Maasai pastoralists were causing to savannah rangelands.  This concept was later proven false by anthropologists but is still deeply ingrained in the minds of ecologists and Tanzanian officials.  This influenced British colonial policymakers in 1951 to remove all Maasai from the Serengeti National Park and relegate them to areas in and around the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA). The plan for the NCA was to put Maasai interests above all else, but this promise was never met. The spread of HIV was rampant. 

Due to an increase in the Maasai population, loss of cattle populations to disease, and lack of available rangelands, the Maasai were forced to develop new ways of sustaining themselves.   Also, new park boundaries, and the incursion of settlements and farms by other tribes affected sustenance.   This is also the chief reason for the decline in wildlife-habitat loss, with the second being poaching.   Many Maasai now cultivate maize and other crops to get by, a practice that was culturally viewed negatively.  Cultivation was first introduced to the Maasai by displaced WaArusha and WaMeru women who married Maasai men; subsequent generations practiced a mixed livelihood.

To further complicate their situation, in 1975, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area banned cultivation practices. To survive, they are forced to participate in Tanzania's monetary economy. They have to sell their animals and traditional medicines to buy food. The ban on cultivation was lifted in 1992, and cultivation has again become an important part of Maasai's livelihood. Park boundaries and land privatization have continued limiting the Maasai's grazing area and have forced them to change considerably.  

Over the years, many projects have begun to help Maasai tribal leaders find ways to preserve their traditions while also balancing the education needs of their children for the modern world.  The emerging forms of employment among the Maasai people include farming, business (selling traditional medicine, running restaurants/shops, buying and selling minerals, selling milk and milk products by women, embroideries), and wage employment (as security guards/ watchmen, waiters, tourist guides), and others who are engaged in the public and private sectors.  

Many Maasai have moved away from the nomadic life to positions in commerce and government. Yet despite the sophisticated urban lifestyle they may lead, many will happily head homewards dressed in designer clothes, only to emerge from the traditional family homestead wearing a Shuka (a colorful piece of cloth), cowhide sandals, and carrying a wooden club (o-Rinka) - at ease with themselves. 

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