Among the numerous tribes in Africa, the Maasai tribe are a Nilotic ethnic group that is indigenous to the Nile valley. The Maasai tribe is prominent due to its colorful culture and traditions. This ethnic group comprises semi-nomadic people that have settled in northern, central, and southern Kenya as well as northern Tanzania. The group resides near several national parks spread across East Africa. They are well-known because of their links to the reserves and the national parks.
The Maasai are one of the most traditionally distinctive tribes in Africa. They are easily recognizable for their cultural red robes and colorful bead jewelry. They are known to be fearless warriors, practicing calm and courageous behavior, as well as highly regarded for their physique. The Maasai speak the Maa language but most converse in Swahili as well.
The Maasai tribe has lived and looked after their land for hundreds of years. It is enlightening to learn about the indigenous Maasai and their origins before embarking on safari experiences in Kenya and Tanzania.
The settlement in East Africa
According to the group’s oral traditions, the Maasai were originally a Nilo-Saharan tribe centered around the area which is today called Sudan. Between the 17th to 18th centuries, they arrived from the lower Nile Valley to a landmass that stretched from present northern Kenya to central Tanzania. The Maasai territory reached its maximum size in the 19th century, covering most of the Great Rift Valley and the neighboring lands of Mount Marsabit and Dodoma. During that time, they were part of the larger Nilotic group and raised cattle till the Tanga coast in the east of Tanganyika, now referred to as mainland Tanzania.
In 1852, there was a report stating that a concentration of approximately 800 Maasai warriors moved into Kenya. They continued to expand their domain in the areas of Lake Victoria and Mount Kilimanjaro by sending their younger generations to settle in new pastures. They continued this practice wherein they looked for vacant or empty lands with a low existing population. As many other tribes started filling up East Africa, competition increased and the Maasai were forced to fight for their rights to raise cattle in specific areas. They used spears and shields but were most feared for throwing orinka or clubs which could be thrown precisely from up to 100 meters.
As they migrated, the Maasai became well-adapted to their new environment. Irregular rainfall in the inland zones of Tanzania and Kenya was observed, which led to the focus of stock-raising by the Maasai.
The period of expansion of the Maasai, also called ‘Emutai’, commenced in 1883 and ended in 1902. It was marked by the epidemics of smallpox, a contagious and deadly disease, that affected the Maasai tribe. Rinderpest killed 90 percent of the cattle and half of the wild species. The already difficult years coincided with drought wherein rainfalls ceased in 1897 and 1898.
The development of modern Africa brought European settlers to the continent. Before their arrival, the Maasai continued to thrive on fertile lands. However, after failing to preserve their territory from the settlers, the tribe signed the first agreement in 1904 which let them lose their best lands to the Europeans. In 1911, seven years later, a small group of Maasai groups signed a controversial treaty where they gave up their northern land or Laikipia to the settlers. The Maasai land in Kenya was cut down to almost 60 percent as the Britishers evicted them. The Maasai people of Kenya were thus, confined to the present-day Kajiado and Narok districts.
In Tanzania, the Maasai groups were forced out from their fertile lands between Mount Meru and Mount Kilimanjaro. In the 1940s they had to move out from the mountainous regions near the Ngorongoro and more land was claimed to build national parks and reserves. These two treaties resulted in the Maasai losing two-thirds of their lands and being relocated to less fertile areas of Kenya and Tanzania.
While other tribes have adapted to fit in modern Africa, the Maasai have staunchly denied this change. They have resisted giving up their traditional lifestyle as urged by the Kenyan and Tanzanian authorities. The Maasai have demanded the rights to pasteurize and graze in several national parks of Tanzania and Kenya.
The Maasai religion
The Maasai tribe is monotheistic, which means they only believe in one God. The deity, Enkai or Engai has a dual nature: Engai Narok is ‘Black God’ that is benevolent while Engai Na-nyokie is the ‘Red God’, known for being vengeful.
The tribe also has two pillars or totems of the Maasai society: Oodo Mongi or the Red Cow, Orog Kiteng or the Black cow, and a subdivision of family trees or five clans. The laibon is the central human figure in the Maasai religion, who performs the role of prophecy, divination, and shamanistic healing. The lion is a totemic animal of the tribe that can be killed. However, in contrast to trophy hunting, a lion was usually hunted by Maasai for the rite of passage ceremony. This has become an activity of the past as lion hunting is now completely banned in East Africa.
The Maasai society
The Maasai society is strictly patriarchal in nature. The elder men, sometimes joined by retired leaders, determine most of the matters for the Maasai tribe. The traditional Maasai lifestyle focuses on livestock which is a further indicator of prosperity and status. The cattle owned by the tribe fulfills the needs of each individual. Constituting a primary source of food, they eat meat as well as drink the blood of the slaughtered animals on certain occasions. The meat of bulls, goats, and lambs is eaten during special ceremonies. However, as the cattle are dwindling, the Maasai have turned to food such as sorghum, rice, potatoes, and cabbages.
Long before the creation of national parks and reserves, the Maasai have employed a sustainable approach to land management. They grazed their herds throughout the Rift Valley without causing any damage to the wildlife. The group migrated seasonally across large territories, leaving enough time to recover before coming back to graze it again. They disapproved of agriculture, believing that it would ruin the land meant for grazing. The Maasai did not kill any animals and relied on their herds for food.
Bead working has a long history of its own, practiced by the Maasai women. They represent their identity and position in society through body painting and body ornaments. Before the arrival of the Europeans, the beads were produced from local raw materials such as bone, ivory, clay shells, seeds, charcoal, ivory, brass, and more.
In the late 19th century, brightly colored European glass beads arrived in Southeast Africa which replaced the older beads.
The Maasai shelter
The Maasai have continually relied on local and readily available materials to construct their houses. Without any elaborative setup, the tribe’s house was impermanent in nature as they would move around often.
Mostly constructed by the Maasai women, the houses are rectangular or circular shaped. The villages are surrounded by Enkang or fences, built by men to protect the livestock from wild animals.
The Maasai Warriors
Along with being pastoralists, the Maasai are also regarded as warriors. In the past, various tribal groups clashed with each other, including the Maasai, for land and resources. The Maasai warriors or moran were controlled and guided by the laibons. These warriors lived a distinctive life within the tribe: they resided and traveled together in groups, trained and improved their physique by fighting mock battles, and hunted lions to display their courage. They wore a vivid red dress, a short cape and grew their hair long. They often wore a beaded belt attached with a short knife and occasionally, a beautiful ostrich feather headdress.
One of the most famous war dances of the moran is jumping up and down on the spot or the Adamu. In this ritual, the warriors gather in a semicircle and chant rhythmically in unison. Then, each steps out in front of the group and jumps several times in the air, as high as possible. This war dance displays a show of strength for young Maasai warriors and they are carefully observed by Maasai women.
The Maasai Mara
The Maasai Mara National Reserve is a large area of preserved savannah wilderness in Southwest Kenya, along the Tanzania border. It is named in honor of the Maasai people who are the ancestral inhabitants of the land. The word ‘mara’ means spotted in the local Maasai language and refers to short bushy trees that are seen in the landscape.
Maasai Mara was established in 1941 and has become of the most popular parks in Africa, celebrated for its abundant wildlife population as well as the Maasai culture. The tribe is still allowed to graze their livestock in particular parts of the reserve. Visitors can enjoy authentic cultural interactions in Maasai Mara. Many of the safaris and game viewing are conducted by the Maasai people who are experts of the land and garner all the secrets of the wildlife. Maasai people living near Serengeti and the Ngorongoro area are generous and welcoming as they share their culture and wisdom with the visitors.
The Maasai tribe has managed to reject the modern practices of the world and continue to follow their long-established lifestyle. Various East African lodges, camps, and safaris support the Maasai tribe and help them economically as well as educate visitors about their heritage.
If you loved reading this story, then subscribe to our blog here (it will ask to verify your email) to get inspiring travel stories and trivia delivered to your email. Stories about wildlife trivia, cultural experiences, curated luxury hotel lists, underrated places to travel, polar journeys and much more.