Most travelers to the African continent have Masai Mara National Reserve at the top of their bucket list and for good reason. This stunning savannah wilderness in Kenya and Tanzania boasts sprawling green grasslands and majestic acacia trees, iconic animals such as cheetahs and elephants, and jaw-dropping sunrises and sunsets that inspired the opening scene of the Lion King movie. To put it simply – Masai Mara is quintessential Africa.
The natural beauty here is enough to bring you to tears but you can’t just stop at wildlife safaris. Inside the reserve and in the wider area are many “enkangs” where the Maasai live. An enkang is essentially a homestead. These villages are surrounded by thorn bush fences which keep the tribe and their cattle safe. The Maasai culture is known around the world for its colorful dress, rich customs and traditions, and connection to the land.
They speak the Maa language as well as Swahili. Today there are an estimated two million Maasai people – the majority of which have continued living a traditional, semi-nomadic lifestyle. Each tribe lives by herding cattle and goats (typically performed by men). Beyond that, what they are most famous for is the Maasai warrior men who wear red robes and carry spears, and the women who take care of the children and homes.
Meeting the Maasai people is something you will cherish forever. Imagine learning how the elders pass on wisdom from one generation to the next, or hearing the perspective of newlywed women or that of warriors who champion the role of defender. The responsible tour operator One Horizon Africa is the best in the business for this type of experience but before we go into their tours, let’s dive deeper into Maasai history and culture.
Complex History of the Maasai
According to Maasai oral history, which was passed down through the generations, the tribe originated in Lake Turkana (northwest Kenya). They started migrating south in the 15th century and came to Tanzania in the 17th and 18th century. Historians believe the territory which they occupied peaked in the mid-19th century. Back then, the warriors battled with other tribes for cattle and this took them as far east as Tanga in Tanzania.
Shields and spears were the main weapons of choice for the warrior men. Yet the most feared weapon of them all was an “orinka” (club) which they could throw from 100 meters away. The next chapter in Maasai history was unfortunately a tragic one. “Emutai” (meaning wipe out in Maa) occurred from 1883 to 1902: epidemics, diseases and droughts killed off large swathes of wildlife and cattle, and 60% of Maasai people sadly lost their lives.
Things got even more difficult for the Maasai in the early 20th century when the British evicted them from most of their land (through a series of exploitative treaties), and then later on more land was taken by the Kenyan and Tanzanian governments in order to create national parks and wildlife reserves. Although, the Maasai did manage to secure grazing and pasturing rights to certain sections of the parks in Kenya and Tanzania.
Despite these challenges, the Maasai have kept their traditions intact and have resisted the pull of modernity. By no means do they face it easy now but there is growing awareness in Africa that the tribe is a cultural treasure that needs protection, just like the animals they live side by side with. NGOs, conservation groups and socially conscious tour operators (like One Horizon Africa) are committed to making their future a bright one.
Rich Cultural Traditions of this Tribe
Maasai society is patriarchal whereby the male elders make most of the important decisions. The men are in charge of herding the cattle and protecting the tribe from threats (mainly roaming wildlife looking to kill and eat their livestock, rather than from other tribes as it was back in the past). The women are responsible for milking the cattle, and taking care of the children and homes. Women also cook and collect clean water daily.
Since the Maasai are a nomadic group, their homes are constructed in a very impermanent way. They utilize natural materials and clever designs to build “inkajijiks” (huts). The role of building the house is given to women, believe it or not, but the “enkangs” (fences) are the men’s prerogative. Fences have one purpose: protect the cattle from animals. This is their primary source of food after all, so it can’t be carelessly lost to a lion attack.
Men are measured in large part by how many cattle and children they have, and the more the merrier. One Maasai myth centers around the story of God granting the tribe access to all the cattle of the earth, which is why it used to be common for warrior men to raid other tribes for their cattle – claiming something that was their God-given right. This practice isn’t seen much these days though. The Maasai God is called Engai or Enkai.
Clothing is one aspect of the culture that is widely celebrated. It can vary by age, sex and location but usually it involves red shuka cloth, colorful beaded necklaces and spears for the warriors. That being said, the tribe you visit might be wearing blue, striped or checkered clothing. Personal taste plays a part in each tribe. Then there is the famous Adumu jumping dance of the Maasai which is a sight to see. Seeing them all sing and dance is pure joy.
How to Meet the Maasai in Kenya
We recommend One Horizon Africa for your Maasai cultural experience. Their My Maasai Life Series Tours help travelers immerse themselves in the traditional way of life that the Maasai hold dear. It won’t feel like a tourist activity at all as you interact and bond with the different group members in an authentic fashion. For example, My Life as a Married Maasai Women tour offers incredible insight into the life of a typical married woman.
This enriching tour kicks off with an exhilarating helicopter ride over Kenya to arrive near the village. At night you will be resting in a homestead with chef-cooked meals provided for breakfast and dinner. The property has epic views of the mountains which makes the stay that much more special. On day one you get the opportunity to meet a lovely young lady called Yiasire, who recently married a Maasai man, and hear her unique story.
She faced pressure to find a husband, a common occurrence in this culture, but she eventually had success finding a man in another village. Yiasire then left her home to move to her husband’s village. By meeting her and learning all the new roles she had to adopt – from herding goats to fetching water – you realize how different your own life is, but see similarities and a shared humanity as well. Soon Yiasire will be expected to have kids.
Another option is My Life as A Maasai Warrior. Men might find this one more relatable. Again, you travel via helicopter to reach the village and stay in a homestead. Maasai men have high expectations to find a bride and the stress involved negotiating a dowry can be intense. These warriors go through several rituals which see them transform from a child to a warrior. Witnessing their impressive warrior strength and skills is unforgettable!