Although the Tanzanian and Kenyan governments have instituted programs to encourage the Maasai to abandon their traditional semi-nomadic lifestyle, the people have continued their age-old customs. Recently, Oxfam has claimed that the lifestyle of the Maasai should be embraced as a response to climate change because of their ability to farm in deserts and scrublands.
The Maasai are monotheistic, and their God is named Enkai or Engai. Engai is a single deity with a dual nature: Engai Narok (Black God) is benevolent, and Engai Nanyokie (Red God) is vengeful. The "Mountain of God", Ol Doinyo Lengai, is located in northernmost Tanzania. The central human figure in the Maasai religious system is the laibon who may be involved in: shamanistic healing, divination and prophecy, insuring success in war or adequate rainfall. Whatever power an individual laibon had was a function of personality rather than position. Many Maasai have become Christian, and to a lesser extent, Muslim.
A high infant mortality rate among the Maasai has led to babies not truly being recognized until they reach an age of 3 moons. For Maasai living a traditional life, the end of life is virtually without ceremony, and the dead are left out for scavengers. 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 which constitutes the primary source of food. The measure of a man's wealth is in terms of cattle and children. A herd of 50 cattle is respectable, and the more children the better. A man who has plenty of one but not the other is considered to be poor. A Maasai myth 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.
As a historically nomadic and then semi-nomadic people, the Maasai have traditionally relied on local, readily available materials and indigenous technology to construct their housing. The traditional Maasai house was in the first instance designed for people on the move and was thus very impermanent in nature. The Inkajijik (houses) are either loaf-shaped or circular, and are constructed by women. The structural framework is formed of timber poles fixed directly into the ground and interwoven with a lattice of smaller branches, which is then plastered with a mix of mud, sticks, grass, cow dung and urine, and ash. The enkaji is small, measuring about 3m x 5m and standing only 1.5m high. Within this space the family cooks, eats, sleeps, socializes and stores food, fuel and other household possessions. Small livestock are also often accommodated within the enkaji. Villages are enclosed in a circular fence (Enkang) built by the men, usually of thorned acacia. At night all cows, goats and sheep are placed in an enclosure in the center, safe from wild animals.
During this period, the newly circumcised young men will live in a "manyatta", a "village" built by their mothers. The manyatta has no encircling barricade for protection, emphasizing the warrior role of protecting the community. No inner krall is built, since warriors neither own cattle or undertake stock duties. Further rites of passage are required before achieving the status of senior warrior, culminating in the eunoto ceremony, the "coming of age".
When a new generation of warriors is initiated, the existing ilmoran will graduate to become junior elders, who are responsible for political decisions until they in turn become senior elders.
The warriors are in charge of society's security, and spend most of their time now on walkabouts throughout Maasai lands, beyond the confines of their sectional boundaries. They are also much more involved in cattle trading than they used to be, developing and improving basic stock through trades and bartering rather than stealing as in the past. Boys are responsible for herding small livestock. During the drought season, both warriors and boys assume responsibility for herding livestock. Elders are directors and advisors for day-to-day activities. Women are responsible for making the houses as well as supplying water, collecting firewood, milking cattle and cooking for the family.
One myth about the Maasai is that each young man is supposed to kill a lion before they are circumcised. Although lion hunting was an activity of the past, and lion hunting has been banned in East Africa, lions are still hunted when they maul Maasai livestock, and young warriors who engage in traditional lion killing do not face significant consequences. Increasing concern regarding lion populations has given rise to at least one program which promotes accepting compensation when a lion kills livestock, rather than hunting and killing the predator. Nevertheless, killing a lion gives one great value and celebrity status in the community.
Young women also undergo excision ("female circumcision" or emorata) as part of an elaborate rite of passage ritual in which they are given instructions and advice pertaining to their new role, as they are then said to have come of age and become women, ready for marriage. In Kenya female circumcision is practiced by 38% of the population. The most common form is clitorectomy. These circumcisions are usually performed by an invited 'practitioner' who is often not Maasai, usually from a Dorobo group. The knives and blades which make the cut are fashioned by blacksmiths, il-kunono, who are avoided by the Maasai because they make weapons of death (knives, short swords (ol alem), spears, etc). Similar to the young men, women who will be circumcised women wear dark clothing, paint their faces with markings, and then cover their faces on completion of the ceremony.
To others the practice of female circumcision is known as female genital cutting, and draws a great deal of criticism from both abroad and many women who have undergone it, and in some cases has recently been replaced by a "cutting with words" ceremony involving singing and dancing in place of the mutilation. However, the practice remains deeply ingrained and valued by the culture, as well as being held as necessary, since Maasai men typically reject any woman who has not undergone it as either not marriageable or worthy of a much-reduced bride price. FGC is illegal in both Kenya and Tanzania.
Married women who become pregnant are excused from all heavy work such as milking and gathering firewood. Sexual relations are also banned.
The Maasai are polygamous by necessity: a long standing and practical adaptation to high infant and warrior mortality rates. Polyandry is also practiced. A woman marries not just her husband, but the entire age group. Men are expected to give up their bed to a visiting age-mate guest. The woman decides strictly on her own if she will join the visiting male. Any child which may result is the husband's child and his descendant in the patrilineal order of Maasai society. "Kitala", a kind of divorce or refuge, is possible in the house of a wife's father, usually for gross mistreatment of the wife. Repayment of the bride price, custody of children, etc, are mutually agreed upon.
Women chant lullabies, Huming songs, and songs praising their sons. Nambas, the call-and-response pattern, repetition of nonsense phrases, monophonic melodies repeated phrases following each verse being sung on a descending scale, and singers responding to their own verses are characteristic of singing by females.
One exception to the vocal nature of Maasia music is the use of the horn of the Greater Kudu to summon morans for the Eunoto ceremony.
Both singing and dancing sometimes occur around manyattas, and involve flirting. Young men will form a line and chant rhythmically, “Oooooh-yah”, with a growl and stacatto cough along with the thrust and withdrawal of their lower bodies. Girls stand in front of the men and make the same pelvis lunges while singing a high dying fall of “Oiiiyo..yo” in counterpoint to the men. Although bodies come in close proximity, they do not touch.
Eunoto, the coming of age ceremony of the warrior, can involve ten or more days of singing, dancing and ritual. The warriors of the Il-Oodokilani perform a kind of march-past as well as the often photographed adumu, sometimes referred as “the jumping dance” by non-Maasai.
The girlfriends of the moran (intoyie) parade themselves in their most spectacular costumes as part of the eunoto. The mothers of the moran sing and dance in tribute to the courage and daring of their sons.
Contemporary Hip Hop musicians X Plastaz from northern Tanzania are incorporating traditional Maasai rhythms, beats and chants into their music.
With increasing poverty and migration, the traditional authority of Maasai elders appears to be lessening.
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 of traditional medicine,running of restaurants/shops, buying and selling of 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 responsible 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 (colourful piece of cloth), cow hide sandals and carrying a wooden club (o-rinka) - at ease with themselves and the world.
The piercing and stretching of earlobes is common among the Maasai. Various materials have been used to both pierce and stretch the lobes, including thorns for piercing, twigs, bundles of twigs, stones, the cross section of elephant tusks and empty film canisters. Fewer and fewer Maasai, particularly boys, follow this custom. Women wear various forms of beaded ornaments in both the ear lobe, and smaller piercings at the top of the ear. The removal of deciduous canine tooth buds in early childhood is a practice that has been documented in the Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania. There exists a strong belief among the Maasai that diarrhoea, vomiting and other febrile illnesses of early childhood are caused by the gingival swelling over the canine region, and which is thought to contain 'worms' or 'nylon' teeth. This belief and practice is not unique to the Maasai. In rural Kenya a group of 95 children aged between six months and two years were examined in 1991/92. 87% were found to have undergone the removal of one or more deciduous canine tooth buds. In an older age group (3-7 years of age), 72% of the 111 children examined exhibited missing mandibular or maxillary deciduous canines. diagram
Studies by the International Livestock Centre for Africa (Bekure et al. 1991) shows a very great change in the diet of the Maasai towards non-livestock products with maize comprising 12 – 39 percent and sugar 8 – 13 percent; about one litre of milk is consumed per person daily.
Studies have also found that the Maasai consume approximately 1 litre of milk per person per day. Most of the milk is consumed as fermented milk or buttermilk - a by-product of butter making. Milk consumption figures are very high by any standards. The needs for protein and essential amino acids are more than adequately satisfied. However, the supply of iron, niacin, vitamin C, vitamin A, thiamine and energy are never fully met by a purely milk diet. Due to changing circumstances, especially the seasonal nature of the milk supply and frequent droughts, most pastoralists, including the Maasai, now include substantial amounts of grain in their diets
The Maasai herd goats and sheep, including the Red Maasai sheep, as well as the more prized cattle. Electrocardiogram tests applied to 400 young adult male Maasai found no evidence whatsoever of heart disease, abnormalities or malfunction. Further study with carbon-14 tracers showed that the average cholesterol level was about 50 percent of that of an average American. These findings were ascribed to the amazing fitness of morans, which was evaluated as "Olympic standard".
Soups are probably the most important use of plants for food by Maasai. Acacia nilotica is the most frequently used soup plant. The root or stem bark is boiled in water and the decoction drunk alone or added to soup. The Maasai are fond of taking this as a drug, and is known to make them energetic, aggressive and fearless. Maasai eat soup laced with bitter bark and roots containing cholesterol-lowering saponins; those urban Massai who don't have access to the bitter plants develop heart disease. Although consumed as snacks, fruits constitute a major part of the food ingested by children and women looking after cattle as well as morans in the wilderness.
The mixing of cattle blood, obtained by nicking the jugular vein, and milk is done to prepare a ritual drink for special celebrations and as nourishment for the sick. However, the inclusion of blood in the traditional diet is waning due to the reduction of livestock numbers. More recently, the Maasai have grown dependent on food produced in other areas such as maize meal, rice, potatoes, cabbage (known to the Maasai as goat leaves), etc. The Maasai who live near crop farmers have engaged in cultivation as their primary mode of subsistence. In these areas, plot sizes are generally not large enough to accommodate herds of animals; thus the Maasai are forced to farm.
Clothing varies by age, sex, and place. Young men, for instance, wear black for several months following their circumcision. However, red is a favored color. Blue, black, striped, and checkered cloth are also worn, as are multicolored African designs. The Maasai began to replace animal-skin, calf hides and sheep skin, with commercial cotton cloth in the 1960s.
Shúkà is the Maa word for sheets traditionally worn wrapped around the body, one over each shoulder, then a third over the top of them. These are typically red, though with some other colors (e.g. blue) and patterns (e.g. plaid.) Pink, even with flowers, is not shunned by warriors. One piece garments known as kanga, a Swahilli term, are common. Maasai near the coast may wear kikoi, a type of sarong that comes in many different colors and textiles. However, the preferred style is stripes.
Many Maasai in Tanzania wear simple sandals, which were until recently made from cowhides. They are now soled with tire strips or plastic. Both men and women wear wooden bracelets. The Maasai women regularly weave and bead jewellery. This bead work plays an essential part in the ornamentation of their body. Although there are variations in the meaning of the color of the beads, some general meanings for a few colors are: white, peace; blue, water; red, warrior/blood/bravery.
Beadworking, done by women, has a long history among the Maasai, who articulate their identity and position in society through body ornaments and body painting. Before contact with Europeans beads were produced mostly from local raw materials. White beads were made from clay, shells, ivory, or bone. Black and blue beads were made from iron, charcoal, seeds, clay, or horn. Red beads came from seeds, woods, gourds, bone, ivory, copper, or brass. When late in the nineteenth century, great quantities of brightly colored European glass beads arrived in East Africa, beadworkers replaced the older beads with the new materials and began to use more elaborate color schemes. Currently, dense, opaque glass beads with no surface decoration and a naturally smooth finish are preferred.