There are over 40 tribes in Kenya, and the Maasai are one of the few tribes that have continued their traditional customs and lifestyle. When embarking on a trip to Kenya, one of the things travellers look forward to the most is visiting a Maasai village. You'll have the opportunity to meet Maasai people and learn about their fascinating history, listen to stories that have been passed down the generations, and take part in activities to gain a deeper understanding of their unique culture.
Who are the Maasai people?
The Maasai are a semi-nomadic tribe that live in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. Cows are highly sacred in Maasai culture and their life is centred around herding cattle and goats. The Maasai believe that Enkai, or God, created cattle specifically for them to look after, which is why they require a large amount of rural and pastoral land. Cows are the Maasai's main source of income – for trading in exchange for other goods and also to sell cow products like milk – and also food. The warrior is also a key part of the culture and Maasai men are trained from a young age to hunt game and protect their families and herds from animal predators.
Before European settlers arrived and colonised many countries in Africa, the Maasai occupied the majority of the fertile lands and co-existed with the wildlife here for hundreds of years. Following two treaties which were signed in 1904 and 1911 by a few members of the tribe, the Maasai lost around two-thirds of their land and were relocated to less fertile parts of southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. Despite this, the Maasai have retained most of their traditions and unique way of life and have not adapted to more modern lifestyles. One of the biggest threats to the Maasai people today is the continual development of Kenya and the transformation of rural areas to accommodate a growing population. As more land is developed, the Maasai –and their livestock and neighbouring wildlife – are being pushed out.
What is the Maasai culture like?
Music and dance
Singing and dancing ceremonies are a central part of Maasai culture, but the best-known dance is the adamu, more commonly known as the jumping dance. This dance is traditionally performed by a group of Maasai men who take turns jumping as high as they can to demonstrate their strength and potentially attract a wife. When you visit a Maasai tribe you'll most likely be invited to join in an adamu dance, but you'll soon find yourself amazing by how much higher they can jump than you!
In addition to the red clothing which symbolises Maasai culture and is believed to ward off wild animals, the Maasai are also known for their colourful beaded necklaces, bracelets and other jewellery. The beaded jewellery worn by men and women is so much more than a fashion piece. Every colour and design carries meaning and wearing the jewellery is a way to represent social status, age, resilience and more. Traditionally, people with higher social status will wear more colourful and elaborately designed pieces. The jewellery is made from a range of natural materials like wood, bone and metals and glass. Since European settlement, beads have also become an important source of income for the Maasai.
The Maasai's diet revolves around their beloved cattle. They eat cow meat and drink milk, and sometimes also the blood which is mixed with milk for ritual or celebratory drink, or given to sick people to help them heal. They also eat lamb, bulls and oxen on special occasions. Honey, bark, herbs and a small number of root vegetables are also part of the Maasai diet, as well as ugali which is a traditional Kenyan dish made from ground white corn. The Maasai use the animal skins and hides for textiles and the dung for building purposes, so nothing goes to waste.
What language do the Maasai speak?
The Maasai speak Maa, a language similar to Samburu, the language of the Samburu people of central Kenya. Maa is also closely related to Camus which is spoken south and southeast of Lake Baringo in west-central Kenya. There isn't much written documentation of Maa as it's a mostly spoken language. Stories, songs and folklore are passed down verbally through the generations. Maasai also speak English and Swahili, the lingua franca of East Africa.