The Maasai People and Culture

The Maasai People

The Maasai people of East Africa live in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania along the Great Rift Valley. They have a population of approximately 500,000 people. They were once a proud and self-sufficient society who lived in an area of lush lands where their animals could graze freely, the land was not privately owned, but shared by everyone. However, the government took away much of their best land to establish national parks and reserves, leaving the Maasai without critical water sources and grazing areas. The land they have left is arid or semi-arid, lacks reliable clean water sources and they often experience droughts. Because of their tradition of sharing, no one is denied access to the water and land that is available.

Livestock such as cattle, goats and sheep are the primary source of income. To the Maasai, having a cow is like us having money in the bank. Livestock are traded for other livestock, cash, vegetables and other products or services that they need. If a family wants a sheep for slaughter, it can go to another family and trade for a young bull. “Meishoo iyiook enkai inkishu o-nkera” is a Maasai prayer which means, “May Creator give us cattle and children.”

The Maasai rely on meat, milk and blood from cattle for protein and caloric needs. People drink blood on special occasions. It is very rich in protein and is good for the immune system. More recently, the Maasai have grown dependent on food produced in other areas such as maize meal (unga wa mahindi), rice, potatoes and cabbage (known to the Maasai as goat leaves). Since cultivated land is no longer suitable for grazing, they usually must trade for these vegetables. Very recently, they have started growing some of their own crops which either requires them to fence in the area to protect if from wild animals, or to construct greenhouses.

The Maasai houses, Inkajijik, are arranged in a circular fashion. They are loaf-shaped and made of mud, sticks, grass, cow dung and urine. There is no electricity or running water. Women are responsible for making the houses as well as supplying water, collecting firewood, milking cattle and cooking for the family. The women are also noted for their beautiful beadwork, and sell their jewelry to earn money for the education of their children.

In the past the Maasai were nomadic. But today their villages are more permanent as women and children stay in the compound and the young men, (called warriors), and boys are responsible for herding livestock. Although the young men are called “Warriors” they are a peaceful people who learn to use the spear, sword and shield to protect their village and cattle. In periods of drought the men must go very far away to find suitable grazing land and must move their herds frequently in search of food for their cattle. As global warming becomes more of an issue, the weather patterns are no longer predictable, so that following grazing land is not as easy.

The children have many responsibilities. Girls must help their mothers take care of younger children, get water, collect firewood and milk cattle. Boys must help with the herding and care of the animals. Parents and children are now seeing the value of education and are making a big effort to have their children attend school.

Even though a recent law made primary education free, the government often does not supply an adequate number of teachers. The Ilnagarrooj Primary School has 450 students and 8 teachers supplied by the government. The parents hired 4 additional teachers. The salary for these additional teachers is a community responsibility and each villager with a child in school has to sell a goat, sheep or cow to cover school uniforms, basic school supplies and the teachers’ salaries. It is mandatory for each child to wear a school uniform and shoes in Kenya’s public schools. Books are supplied by the government, but often not enough are provided and it is common for 3 children to share one book. Classrooms and desks are built by the community.

Schools are often over five miles from where students live, and they walk each day, five days a week. Because of the dangers of wild animals on their walk to school and the distance they must go, most children start school when they are older. Many cannot go to school continuously because their families cannot afford the school fees or the children are needed to do work at home. Therefore, it is not unusual to see older children, and even adults, still in primary school. Presently there is a grassroots push by the Maasai to open small feeder schools for children in kindergarten to third grade. These would be closer to the children’s homes so they could start school at age 5 or 6.

High schools are usually boarding schools, and very expensive, (approximately $700-$800 US dollars a year.) Therefore, most Maasai children cannot go beyond the 8th grade of Primary school. Country wide standard examinations must be passed in order to continue in school at the higher grades. Maasai children are competing against students living in the cities who have electricity, abundant teachers, small class sizes, school supplies and computers. Colleges and Universities are available, but extremely expensive and most students must board, so the cost is quite prohibitive, (approximately $2500 to $3500 US dollars per semester.)

The Maasai have a long tradition and knowledge of using herbal medicines. From the plant life that is available, they have treatments and preventative practices for the various illnesses that they encounter. They may also visit dispensaries and clinics in cities when the need arises.

If you were living among the Maasai, you would hear them speaking in a language called Maa. When speaking to those from other places in Africa, you might hear them speak in Swahili. Those who have visited us in the United States, have learned to speak excellent English. English is now taught in the primary schools starting in grade 4. So today, many Maasai children would be able to speak and write to you in English even though their parents could not.

Some Maasai phrases you might hear include:

The vowels sounds for: a (short a), e (long a), i (long e), o (long o), u (oo) ;

Supa—The greeting—hello, hi 

Ipa—the answer to the greeting Swahili for hello

Karibu—Welcome—as in welcome to my house 

Ashe—Thank you 

Ashe oleng—Thank you very much

Ole Sere—Good-bye 

Simba—Lion in both languages, Maa and Swahili 


                                  written by Alice Sparks

Maasai Cultural Exchange Project (MCEP) aims to support the culture of the Maasai and sponsors water, education and cultural awareness projects with the Maasai in Kenya. 


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