“Welcome to our home,” announces Sam, our Masai guide for the day.
We are here in a village tucked within the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. The Masai (also spelled as Maasai) are a semi-nomadic people from East Africa who are known for their unique way of life as well as their cultural traditions and customs. Living across the arid lands along the Great Rift Valley in Tanzania and Kenya, the Masai population is currently at around 1.5 million, with the majority of them living in the Masai Mara. They are reputed to be strong warriors who hunt for food and live closely with wild animals.
As part of our Kenya itinerary, we have come to visit a Masai village to understand a bit about their way of life. Draped in bright red Shuka cloth and carrying a wooden club in his right hand, Sam leads us towards his village where his extended family is waiting to welcome us with a dance. Addressing us in fluent English, the young 23-year-old first introduces us to his grandfather, who greets us politely in the Maa language.
The seventy-year-old man is lean and strong despite his age. As Sam tells us, he has five wives and dozens of children and grandchildren, all of the 300 people who live in the village are his descendants. The Maasai are traditionally polygynous, which is thought to be a long standing adaptation to high infant and warrior mortality rates.
Jumping for Excellence
Sam’s cousins, uncles, and brothers soon gather around, all dressed in red shuka and adorning colorful beaded necklaces and bracelets symbolic of their Masai identity. They form a line and start to sing, moving their necks back and forth in tune with the rhythm of the music. As Sam tells us, this is a kind of march-past known as the adumu or the jumping dance. They form a circle, and one or two will enter the center at a time to begin jumping while maintaining a narrow posture, never letting their heels touch the ground. Clearly, the higher you jump, the more respect you gain from your peers.
We are mesmerized by the hypnotic sounds of the melody and synchronicity of their movements. After applauding their excellent performance, we’re eager to ask questions and learn more about their nomadic way of life. Sam responds, “We are semi nomadic, that means we build new manyattas and move every ten years in search of new pastures. Our land and animals are communal and shared amongst everyone in the village.”
According to the Maasai Association, this communal land management system allows them to utilize resources in a sustainable manner. The Maasai traditional land agreement states that no one should be denied access to natural resources such as water and land.
Living Close to Nature
Sam leads us to the living area of the village, known as kraal, where houses are arranged in a circular fashion. “We put up a fence made of acacia thorns around our kraal to prevent lions from attacking the cattle. We get lions and elephants here quite often.” We gasp at the prospect of living in such close proximity to these dangerous wild animals. It’s no wonder the Masai are known as tribal warriors. One myth about the Masai is that each young man is supposed to kill a lion before he is circumcised. We ask if it is still practiced here in the village.
Sam explains, “Lion hunting was something our grandparents did but it’s now banned in Kenya. They used to hunt the lions when they kill our livestock, but these days we get compensation from the government, so we don’t kill lions anymore.” It was a relief to hear that not only are the Masai being taken care of, but wildlife are also protected.
In the kraal, we find livestock such as cattle, goats and sheep huddled in a fenced enclosure. Traditional Masai lifestyle centers around their cattle which constitute their 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. Traditionally, the Masai eat meat, milk and blood from cattle. These days, the Masai have started eating cultivated crops such as maize, rice, potatoes, and cabbage, using the money they’re making from tourism.
We then continue on to visit the mud houses that they live in. A young Masai man named Lanet leads us into his mother’s hut. He explains that these circular mud houses also known as inkajijik are usually constructed by women and they are made with a mix of cow dung, mud, sticks, grass, and human urine. We bend our backs to enter the small hut and we’re greeted by a family of five. There are two rooms in the hut, with a kitchen and several beds. Within this space, the family cooks, eats, sleeps, socializes, and stores food, fuel, and other possessions. Even though it is small and compact, we feel warm and cosy with the fire and the smell of burning charcoal.
Keeping the Masai Identity
We chat with Lanet to find out more about his life here. Spotting rasta hair and a Billabong t-shirt under his Shuka cloth, Lanet speaks immaculate English and doesn’t seem to quite blend in. “As you can see, the older people have piercings in their ears, and that means they did not attend school. We the young generation go to secondary school. We all learn English there.” He takes pride in his education – but when I ask if he wants to move somewhere else to seek a better life, he responds, “No, I like living here. It’s simple but it’s home.”
Indeed, life may be changing for the Masai. While modernization and influence from the outside world are altering Masai traditions and way of life, I selfishly wish that they continue to keep their culture alive.
This Masai village visit was arranged as an optional activity by Africa Travel Co as part of the 24-day Gorillas, Game Parks and Zanzibar trip. The two-hour visit costs US$10 and the village is a short ten-minute walk from the Masai Mara campsite. You’re expected to make payment directly to the Masai village during your visit.
Disclaimer: While this trip was made possible by Africa Travel Co, I paid for this Masai village experience myself. All opinions of course are my own.