The Maasai warrior, spear in hand, braided hair, bright beads and scarlet shuka cloak provides one of Kenya’s most iconic images. Nomadic cattle-herders who are renowned for their enigmatic presence and legendary bravery, the Nilo-Hamitic Maasai have a style of life that has remained essentially unchanged for centuries.
Thought to have migrated to Kenya from the lower valleys of the Nile, the Maasai are distinguished by their complex character, impeccable manners, impressive presence and almost mystical love of their cattle. According to the Maasai, all the cattle in the world belong to them. Maasai legend states that the sky god, Enkai, was once at one with the earth. But, when the earth and the sky were separated, Enkai had no choice but to send all the world's cattle into the safekeeping of the Maasai. Some say the cattle travelled down a long leather thong, others that they climbed down the roots of a great fig tree. But howsoever they arrived, the Maasai believe that it is their duty to love their cattle; and to amass as many of them as possible in a lifetime. Consequently the more cattle a man owns, the greater is his standing within the community. Cattle are rarely slaughtered, and then only for ceremonial purposes, and every animal in the herd will typically have it’s own name, rank, position and character.
Historically famed as brave and ruthless warriors, the Maasai instilled terror in all who came up against them, most especially the early explorers. ‘Take a thousand men if you face the Maasai,' advised the famous explorer Henry Stanley, ‘or write your will'. Within the seclusion of their own tight-knit and villages, however, the Maasai are both harmonious and peaceful.
A typical Maasai settlement consists of a brushwood enclosure into which the community’s livestock are herded at night and an adjacent enclosure typified by a circle of low mud huts. Each woman has her own hut and male society is built upon a complex hierarchy of age-sets. Maasai life is punctuated by an annual round of celebration. Typically colourful and always joyous, there is seemingly a ceremony to mark every event in Maasai life: birth, adolescence, adulthood, seniority and death. In time-honoured fashion, the daily rhythm of Maasai life revolves around the quest for water and grazing for their cattle. These days, many Maasai have migrated into the business sector, where they excel. Others provide the bedrock of the conservation sector – excelling as guides, managers and drivers. But for all this, you’ll still find that cattle remain the central pivot of Maasai life. And that, even today, the polite greeting amongst the Maasai is, ‘I hope your cattle are well?’ As far as the Maasai are concerned, their cattle provide all that they require. Cattle act as marriage bonds, they also provide the currency for a complex system of fines that maintain the social harmony of the group. Milk and blood (taken from the veins of living animals) constitute the preferred diet; hides serve as mattresses, sandals, mats and clothing.
A Maasai proverb
Do not wave your arrow before you are ready to throw it!
(Do not be impatient; wait until the right time arrives for your action).
A Maasai riddle
Question: What is the fastest thing on earth?
Answer: Your sight.
The Maasai and the early explorers
The Maasai men and women began to crowd into camp, and we mutually surveyed each other with equal interest. The women had all the style of the men. With slender, well-shaped figures, they had brilliant dark eyes, Mongolian in type, narrow, and with an upward slant. Obviously they felt that they were a superior race, and that all others were but as slaves before them.
Journey through Masailand 1885
In March 1883 the Scottish explorer, Joseph Thomson, set off from Mombasa with a caravan of 140 porters, to explore East Africa for the Royal Geographical Society. The journey, to Lake Victoria and back, took him considerably longer than expected however, due to his continual confrontations with the fearsome Maasai. Indeed judging from his book, Journey through Masailand, it is doubtful whether he would have survived at all, but for his selection of ‘magical tricks’ (to include such horrors frothing at the mouth with the help of Eno’s Fruit Salts and removing two of his false teeth) all of which served to convince the Maasai that he was ‘ a wizard of the north’ and best left alone. Thomson was fortunate, not many explorers emerged unscathed from an encounter with the Maasai and he was the only man the Royal Geographical Society could persuade to undertake the expedition – no one else was willing to approach the Maasai with anything short of an artillery regiment. ‘Take a thousand men’ advised the famous explorer Henry Stanley, ‘or write your will’.