The Maasai

The Maasai

The Maasai are an indigenous African ethnic group of semi-nomadic people located in Kenya and northern Tanzania. Due to their distinctive customs and dress and residence near the many game parks of East Africa, they are among the most well-known African ethnic groups internationally. They speak Maa, a Nilo-Saharan language related to Dinka, Nuer, Turkana, and Songhai. The Maasai population has been estimated as 841,622 in Kenya with a total population of over 1 million. Estimates of the respective Maasai populations in both countries are complicated by the remote locations of many villages, their semi-nomadic nature and their being the only ethnic group allowed free travel over the Kenyan-Tanzanian border.

Maasai are pastoralist and have resisted the urging of the Tanzanian and Kenyan governments to adopt a more sedentary lifestyle. They have demanded grazing rights to many of the national parks in both countries and routinely ignore international boundaries as they move their great cattle herds across the open savanna with the changing of the seasons. This resistance has led to a romanticizing of the Maasai way of life that paints them as living at peace with nature. For the Maasai to find their place in the larger human world, there needs to be a balance between their traditional lifestyle and beliefs, and more universally acceptable cultural norms.


According to Maasai oral history, they originated from the lower Nile valley north of Lake Turkana (southern Sudan) and began migrating south around the fifteenth century, arriving between the seventeenth and late eighteenth century. Other ethnic groups were forcibly displaced as they settled in a long trunk of land stretching from northern Kenya to central Tanzania.

The Maasai territory reached its largest size in the mid-nineteenth century, and covered almost all of the Rift Valley and adjacent lands from Mount Marsabit in the north to Dodoma in the south. At this time the Maasai, as well as the larger group they were part of, raided cattle as far east as the Tanga coast in Tanzania. Raiders used spears and shields, but were most feared for throwing clubs accurately up to 70 paces. In 1852 there was a report of a concentration of 800 Maasai warriors on the move in Kenya. In 1857, after having depopulated the “Wakuafi wilderness” in southeastern Kenya, Maasai warriors threatened Mombasa on the coast of Kenya. Because of this migration, the Maasai are the southernmost Nilotic speakers.

The period of expansion was followed by the Maasai “Emutai” of 1883-1902. This period was marked by epidemics of contagious bovine pleuropneumonia, rinderpest, and small pox. The estimate first put forward by a German lieutenant in what was then northwest Tanganyika, was that 90 percent of cattle and half of wild animals perished from rinderpest. German doctors in the same area claimed that “every second” African had a pock-marked face as the result of smallpox. This period coincided with drought. Rains failed completely in 1897 and 1898. By one estimate, two-thirds of the Maasai died during this period.

Starting with a 1904 treaty, and followed by another in 1911, Maasai lands in Kenya were reduced by 60 percent when the British evicted them to make room for settler ranches, subsequently confining them to present-day Kajiado and Narok districts. More land was taken to create wildlife reserves and national parks (Amboseli, Nairobi National Park, Maasai Mara, Samburu, Nakuru, Manyara, Ngorongoro, Serengeti, and Tsavo).


Maasai society is patriarchal in nature with the elders deciding most matters for each Maasai group. The laibon or spiritual leader acts as the liaison between the Maasai and God, named Enkai or Engai, as well as the source of Maasai herblore. The Maasai are mostly monotheistic in outlook, but many have become Christian under the influence of missionaries. Traditional Maasai lifestyle centers on their cattle which constitutes the primary source of food. They also believe that God gave them his cattle to watch over. Women can only marry once in a lifetime, although men may have more than one wife (if enough cows are owned, they may have more than one at a time).


Traditionally, the Maasai measure a man’s wealth in terms of cattle and children rather than money – a herd of 50 cattle is respectable, and the more children the better. The main staple to Maasai life and culture is cattle. For hundreds of years the Maasai have lived sustainably through grazing their herds. Cattle are the traditional staple of Maasai diet, which used to consist of meat, milk and blood, and also are tightly intertwined in Maasai economy, social structure, religion, and relationships. Herd size has always been a way to distinguish the rich from the poor and have long been the bond between many social and personal bonds. Upon marriage tradition constitutes the bride price of cattle and upon social disputes cattle have been used for trading or reconciliation. Of equal importance is the use of cattle slaughtering in religious transitional ceremonies for boys. As boys move up to the status of men a cow is slaughtered as an offering, marking their completion into the next chapter of their lives. For the Maasai, cattle have always been an integral part of culture and survival.

The Maasai are indigenous to North Central Tanzania and Southern Kenya. In old traditional Maasai stories it is said that the Maasai journeyed from Northern Africa in search of fertile grasses to feed their cattle. Their cattle were dying and consequently they did not have enough food to feed their children. The elders knew that they must move their people to a more prosperous place, but they had no idea where to go. Upon turning to nature to provide them with answers, they saw a bird land in a bare tree with green grass in its beak and work on building a nest. They watched the bird as it flew over the horizon and up into the cliffs. The elders sent a few boys to go climb that cliff and see what was beyond