The Maasai are a pastoralist tribe indigenous to southern Kenya and northern Tanzania, along the Great Rift Valley. They are semi-nomadic with lifestyle centering around cattle, which is typically the primary source of food and income for a family. They are known for being a tribe that continues to live very traditionally.
A few cultural facts:
- The language of the Maasai is Maa, an oral language that historically has not been written.
- The Maasai are distinguished by their cultural dress, which characteristically consists of red, blue, or dark purple shukas (cloth) with either striped or plaid patterns, and white beaded jewelry. Red is the color most associated with the Maasai. Traditionally, the Maasai pierce and stretch their earlobes.
- Wealth is measured in terms of cattle, livestock, and children.
- The Maasai live in a boma, which is a circular arrangement of mud huts that typically include extended family, with wooden fencing around the perimeter and holding pens for cattle.
- Communities use traditional governance systems of tribal leadership, and the roles of village leaders are very important and held in high regard.
- Gender roles are strong in Maasai culture. Men herd and protect the livestock; women care for the children and the home, collect water and firewood, milk the cattle, and cook for the family. Women are also the ones to construct the homes.
- Some Maasai men have multiple wives, but younger generations—especially those with higher education—are moving away from this tradition and taking only one wife.
- The Maasai are divided into age sets and have important ceremonies/rites of passage when each generation moves into a new grade, designating the start of a new stage of life. (These apply primarily to men; women take on the age-set of their husbands.) Young Maasai men in the warrior age set are often referenced by outsiders and used as a symbol of Maasai culture.
- Though education about and government bans of the practice of female genital cutting have reduced the practice somewhat in Tanzania, it is still fairly widespread and regarded as a significant cultural ritual.
With expanding exposure to other cultures and increasing governmental regulations, Tanzanian Maasai as a whole are slowly moving away from strictly traditional lifestyles.
In fact, it is not entirely uncommon to find yourself in an extremely remote village and surrounded by Maasai with cell phones! As their culture shifts, they are finding ways to integrate traditional lifestyle and ‘modern’ lifestyle, so that both may exist together.