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Maasai--"Native Americans" of Africa?
By Karla Dorman, The StormSpinner
Last edited: Monday, May 06, 2002
Posted: Sunday, May 05, 2002
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Maasai are faced with diminishing land and loss of control by the government and tourist industries. SOUND FAMILIAR???
There are many different peoples and cultures in East Africa; if one were to hear the word Maasai, instant images of red-robed warriors carrying spears and beautiful women wearing masses of beadwork would come to mind.
The Maasai, sometimes spelled Masai, are a Nilotic people. They are closely related to the Samburu, Turkana, and Pokot peoples. They share a common language, Kimaa ("speakers of Maa"); it is also called "Ol Maa" or simply "Maa." It is a very hard language to learn, as there are very few written texts available in this language.
They are a striking people in appearance. Most of them are tall, with a thin, muscular build. They move elegantly, effortlessly. They wear bright colored "shuka" (robes or blankets) that are usually worn knotted at one shoulder; their favorite color is either red or blue. The men, as well as the women, wear jewelry in the form of beaded necklaces and earrings. (The earlobes of both sexes have been pierced several times, and the lower lobe is allowed to be stretched; this is a sign of beauty in their culture.) The hair of the men is normally short, but during the "moran" (warrior) phase, they let their hair grow long; it is braided tightly and coated with an ochre paste, to enhance its beauty. Women usually have shaved heads and wear much more beadwork than the men.
The Maasai are a pastoral people; they rear cattle as their livelihood. (A common greeting in Maasailand is, "And how are your cattle?") Whenever the cattle have to move to find better pasture, their owners move with them. Cattle are fundamental to the Maasai's survival. Maasai believe that Engai (Ngai), or God, provided all cattle to them for safekeeping. Maasai rarely will kill one of their herd...only during certain important ceremonies or famine will it even be considered. Cattle provide milk (mixed with blood, or "asaroi", is a staple part of the Maasai diet); clothing, shoes, and other accessories; their dung is used in part for building and plastering Maasai homes during rainy times; the urine is sometimes used medicinally or as a cleansing agent; wealth (Maasai are said to be very rich if they have many cattle and many wives and children). Although cattle are very important to the Maasai, they also raise goats, sheep and some domestic animals. Recently, some Maasai have started turning to agriculture as a means of survival.
Traditional Maasai homes are constructed out of mud, branches and cattle dung; they are sometimes called "engang." They are very small, and not tall enough for them to fully stand up in; the interiors are very dark with a small doorway and tiny hole in the roof of the structure permitting the only light. Surrounding the engang is a sharp thorny fence, which is built as a means of protection against rival peoples and predators. A Maasai village is sometimes called a "manyatta."
Childhood in Maasailand is spent playing within the engang, closely supervised by the parents and all the adults of the village. As a child gets older, boys will be instructed in the arts of cattle herding and hunting; girls are trained in building houses and preparing for marriage...learning how to keep house (including repairs!), and performing wifely duties.
As a child gets older, around the age of 13-18, both boys and girls are circumcised; this enters them into adulthood. (Controversy has been widespread about the necessity of females getting a cliterodectomy, or female genital mutilation, as a way of "preparing" for marriage and womanhood.) It is a very important ritual in Maasai culture, whether right or wrong.
When boys have healed from their circumcision, they are now junior moran. They live as a group in a manyatta; they develop their survival skills and perform other warrior duties, such as protecting the cattle and village from rivals and predators, go on cattle raids and stealing cattle from neighboring peoples. (In the past, a moran was expected to prove his bravery by hunting and killing a lion, armed only with a spear. This practice is no longer allowed by law.) Warriors also perform feats of stregnth...one of the most impressive is the "adumu," the warrior's dance; participants jump straight up into the air and test how high they can jump; some can jump their own height and more.
Warriors will eventually go through another ceremony ("Eunoto") which will allow them to marry, begin raising cattle and start families of their own. Maasai believe in polygamy (more than one wife). After several years in the senior moran status, they will become elders, respected members of the village.
Girls, on the other hand, are married to an older moran shortly after their circumcision; sometimes the age difference can be as much as 30 years! Women are expected to tend to the children (although all adults help raise them, as Maasai look to children as a sign of wealth), milk the cattle, repair the engang, collect fire-wood, prepare food and look for water...she may have to walk many miles to find it. A Maasai woman's work is never done!
Maasai are facing what the Native Americans faced long ago...their land is being taken over by their government. They are not allowed to roam freely over the countryside; much of their land has been taken and converted to wildlife preserves or commercial needs; they are being forced to live on smaller and smaller plots of land (they mainly live in parts of Kenya and Tanzania). Many younger Maasai are being influenced by Western schooling and are forgetting the traditional ways.
Government is reducing the warrior's role in Maasai society, and taken much power away from the venerated elders. Some Maasai are being forced to derive income from the tourist industry (selling beadwork and crafts, parading for pictures, dancing on demand, opening their engangs and manyattas for public inspection), but the monies earned is insufficient to survival.
What a pity for a proud race of people.
Somehow, this has to stop before the Maasai are no more...
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|Reviewed by Karen Lynn Vidra, The Texas Tornado
|FASCINATING anology about the Maasai people of East Africa!! Makes one think on how badly one treats others just because they are different....|