April 25, 2014
Article by Global Pre-Meds
Hospital doctor shadowing & global health experience programs.
The Maasai are an extraordinary people who have lived in areas of Kenya and Tanzania for centuries and continue to graze their cattle in both countries even today. Through the years, the Maasais have retained their extraordinary culture with their unique customs and rituals. A trip to visit the Maasai tribes can be an interesting experience during your medical placement to Tanzania.
There are an estimated one million Maasai spread across Tanzania and Kenya. They live near many of the popular tourist attractions in the area, including the Massai Mara, Serengeti, Amboseli, Ngorongoro and Tarangire game reserves.
The Maasai are semi-nomadic. The whole tribe moves along with their livestock to different pastures in keeping with seasonal rotation so their cattle always has access to the best grazing, no matter what the season. Cattle play an important role in Maasai life. To them, their cows come before everything else and the Maasai men take great pride in herding as their cows are their most prized possessions. A man’s wealth within the community is measured in terms of cattle he owns and children he has.
Wherever they decide to settle, the families live in an enclosure that they set up at that place. This enclosure is called an Enkang. An Enkang is typically made up of 10 to 20 tiny, 1 to 2 room huts called Inkajijiks. These huts are surrounded by a protective fence made up of thorny bushes. The huts are often too low for these tall people to stand in.
The language of the Maasais is called Maa. An interesting aspect of this language is that it is a spoken language. Hardly anyone writes in this language and this is because they have such a strong oral tradition, they do not feel the need to write anything down. Their history, customs and traditions have all been passed down orally from one generation to the next for centuries. There is even an extensive oral law that covers many aspects of Maasai behaviour.
Today, the Maasai are also schooled in English and Swahili, which are the official languages of Tanzania and Kenya, though they still speak Maa within their community. The name ‘Maasai’ itself means ‘people who speak Maa’.
The Maasai believe in one god named Engai or Enkai. They believe that this god has a dual nature, one that is kind and benevolent and the other that is vengeful and unforgiving.
The Maasai believe that burials harm the soil so they do not bury their dead. When somebody dies, they just leave the dead body outside for scavengers to feed on. Burials are reserved only for some chiefs.
The Maasai hunt lions but it’s never for the fun of the sport. They hunt for food and take it very seriously, targeting only male lions. They do not hunt lionesses. Going on a solo hunt is considered a display of great bravery and strength but it is not uncommon for this extremely dangerous practice to result in hunters being injured or killed. The practice has a deep traditional root that cultivates a sense of fearlessness among the tribe’s warriors. However, with the recent dwindling lion population, the Maasai have created a new rule that only allows hunters to hunt in groups, so that the lion population has a chance to recover.
While some of their customs and traditions may seem highly unusual, the Maasai people have lived this way for centuries and seeing them firsthand will make the rest of the world seem a million miles away.