Rethinking Our Perspective on the Rapid Transition of the Maasai

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Many people in the western world will immediately recognize the powerful image of a Maasai

warrior. This recognition may be followed by regurgitated anecdotes of African plains, lions, fierce male warriors, blood-drinkers, nomads, and pastoralists. Further elaboration may include mention of the Maasai as one of the few remaining untouched traditional tribes and express concern that their way of life may be in danger. The image of the Maasai warrior described by British colonist Johnston in 1886 as “the result of the development of Man into a beautiful animal” (qtd. in Once Intrepid Warriors 49) remains virtually unchanged today. Tourists seem to react in the same way to a Maasai warrior as they do to a lion. Coffee table books feature Maasai warriors directly adjacent to the great beasts of the African savannah. British colonization created conditions that stopped the Maasai culture from evolving. Limiting Maasai mobility to smaller areas and isolating them from other tribes and outside influences, created a cultural situation in which traditions remained static. The world has become attached to this Maasai culture for a number of nostalgic, anthropological, romantic and economic reasons. We are alarmed at the idea that the Maasai’s shift to a modern lifestyle could wipe out their traditional way of life. However, if we view this shift through a lens based on the pre-colonial opportunistic and adaptive qualities of the Maasai, one could suggest that the Maasai tribe is actually more true to their roots today, in this time of transition, than they have been at any time since colonization.


This paper is based on the analysis and evaluation of a collection of books, academic papers

and studies on the Maasai and other indigenous peoples. Also used are field interviews conducted by filmmaker Mckenzie Ring and first-hand observations by the author in 2010 during the design and construction of Oleleshwa Primary School in the village of Ewaso Ngiro, Narok, Kenya.

In order to provide a new perspective on the Maasai transition to a modern lifestyle, it is im-

portant to understand how they are currently viewed by the world. It is also important to understand who the Maasai were prior to colonial and western influence and some of the key issues the Maasai RING


have been exposed to ever since. The final section will provide an understanding of how the Maasai’s shift is generally perceived, provide a reframing of this perception, and will conclude with examples to reinforce this reframing.


The pre-colonial Maasai developed into a semi-nomadic society based on transhumance,

which allowed the environment to regenerate. They had a reputation as fierce warriors. Their territory reached its peak in the middle to late nineteenth century with the arrival of the British colonialists. The British were “baffled by the fluidity and flux of African social relations … multiple language groups, overlapping cultural traditions, intermingled populations, diverse modes of subsistence and fragmented political allegiances” (Once Intrepid Warriors 48) of which the Maasai were a part. The Maasai culture at that time was opportunistic and adaptive, continually re-shaped not only by its surrounding environment, but also by repositioning itself in relation to other tribes to maximize potential for raiding livestock and agricultural goods.


The Maasai way of life emerged as a strong and visible opposition to the modernist order the

British were attempting to impose on what they saw as the chaos of east Africa. They created a definition for Maasai and set aside land for a reserve. Each Maa-speaking person was forced to choose to be Maasai and live on the reserve, or no longer be considered Maasai. This definition created a very specific yet perforated boundary around the Maasai. Over time however the boundary solidified and the Maasai became both rigidly defined and isolated. The British boasted that the “Masai tribe is once more a corporate entity recovered from many fragments which were scattering themselves far and wide” (qtd. in Once Intrepid Warriors 54).

When the British forced the Maasai onto the reserve, societal roles remained strong; elders and

men held the highest places in the hierarchy; status depended upon the numbers of cows and children that each man controlled. With British-imposed taxes, such as the plural wives tax and the cattle RING


head tax, male dominance increased. The resulting cash economy helped to increase the importance of the male as the owner of his family and its resources. Women became a commodity equal in value to cattle. As a polygamous society, a hierarchy existed among the wives of each man dependant on the order in which they were married. Family roles were based on an age-grade system with specific gender-based duties. Elderly men and women were respected and advised the younger members of the family. Ceremonies were held to celebrate transitions through the age-grade system for men and women. In the case of coming-of-age, celebrations included female and male circumcisions.

The organization of the Maasai tribe was a structured system. Maasailand was divided into

clans, which contained a grouping of homesteads, with each occupying a specific region called an olosho. Homesteads were comprised of one family with several wives and many children and ranged in population from ten to a hundred people. A homestead had an exterior circular fence containing many gates, typically constructed from thorned acacia bushes. Houses were located directly inside the fence, constructed of wood, ash and cow dung. The head of the family had a separate house. Each wife had her own house arranged in a hierarchy adjacent to the male’s house. House plans varied depending on the role of the resident but typically had a centralized cooking hearth, a bed and a livestock pen. Clothing, architecture and tools varied little, but had been refined specifically to fit their culture, available materials, and environment at the time.

Due to their marginalization on the reserve, the Maasai became isolated from their “network

of interaction and exchange” (Once Intrepid Warriors 51) with adjacent tribes, essentially halting their cultural evolution. Many of their adaptive and opportunistic cultural characteristics went into hibernation. At the same time, other adjacent African cultures changed, for better or worse, by adapting to many British norms.


By the time Kenya and Tanzania gained independence from Britain in the 1960’s, the Maasai

were viewed as culturally conservative. State officials often said “The Maasai don’t want development or change … they’ve never changed!” (qtd. in Once Intrepid Warriors 148). The Maasai represented traRING


dition and all that the newly-independent countries were trying to leave behind. The newly-established governments shrank Maasailand further and focused development funds on other areas that were considered more progressive. In addition, they tried to force modernization on the Maasai by banning Maasai traditions such as the wearing of blankets by men, the wearing of leather skirts by women, and the use of red ochre in one’s hair. The Maasai responded by retreating further from populated areas where the laws were enforced. Although the British isolation of the Maasai was removed, government policy, development focuses, and cultural attacks marginalized the Maasai in a new way.

While the outside view of the Maasai remained much as it had been since colonization, within

the Maasai community a struggle was taking place. Due to increased importance within the family, and memories of negative interaction with the British, many elder males were against contact with the unrecognizable non-Maasai world. Many of the younger males saw opportunity in such contact as did the women who were frustrated with their increased daily labour roles and decreased influence within the family. As some of the women and young men began to interact with the outside world through education and religion they became labelled as ormeek and emeeki, gender-related Maasai pejoratives referring to all that is modernity. For a couple decades following independence, the Maasai remained more or less marginalized as the elders with power did not want to interact with the outside world, and those who attempted to interact were frowned upon.


More recently, external forces have made it apparent to the Maasai that they can no longer live

in isolation. As a result, they have begun transitioning to a modern way of life. It appears to most that the Maasai are leaving behind many of their traditional cultural characteristics, such as their nomadic way of life, temporary housing, traditional clothing, rituals, and polygamous society. It is hard not to argue that Maasai tradition is being lost as they modernize. In actual fact, the Maasai are once again calling on their pre-colonial traditional characteristics of opportunism and adaptation. They are assimilating some aspects of the modern world; they are adapting some of their traditions to be more in line with the outside culture; and they are committed to maintaining many aspects of their traditions. RING


Now the Maasai are looking to the ormeek and emeeki to be guides through this transition. The young educated men, in particular, have become a new kind of warrior, no longer fighting lions but taking on the new role of finding a way to modernization. This includes rediscovering and utilizing the latent opportunistic and adaptive traits of their pre-colonial culture.

The major external forces that the Maasai are facing today in their transition to modernity can

be divided into the four sub-headings of globalization, permanence, climate change and education. By viewing these forces through the lens of the re-emergence of the Maasai’s adaptive skills one could suggest that the Maasai are struggling to understand, mediate, and gain from foreign influences while respecting their own culture and values. GLOBALIZATION

In Maasailand, large areas of grazing land are being lost to government-owned wildlife parks,

government-forced individual land ownership, and commercial farming for export. The Maasai receive little to no economic compensation for this loss of communal land, which stresses their traditional way of life. Destruction of the savannah has typically been blamed on pastoralists like the Maasai, however recent studies show that traditional pastoralism is as effective as modern ranches. In areas such as Shompole in the Lake Magadi region of Kenya, the Maasai are reassessing the relationship between the land, grazing, and tourism. By combining their land into privately-owned wildlife conservation areas, they now receive the economic and social benefits of tourism. The same land acts as a grass bank for their livestock during dry seasons and drought and prevents the sale of now privatelyowned Maasai land to foreigners.

New economic opportunities have also developed with the increase in tourism. Many Maasai

are reinvigorating their traditional crafts by adapting their production for sale as tourist artefacts at curio shops. Some are working with foreign designers to develop products, which use traditional beading and wood-working skills, and can be marketed internationally. Others, such as those in the village of Maji Moto, District of Narok, Kenya, have adapted some of their traditional homesteads to act as overnight cultural camps where tourists can explore traditional Maasai culture. These new enterprises allow Maasai traditions to survive and flourish while providing monetary compensation which allows RING


them to modernize sustainably using new green technologies such as solar panels and gravity toilets. These new forms of employment have not only increased and diversified their economic situation, but also act to protect traditional crafts and skills. PERMANENCE

The assigning of individual land ownership by the Kenyan government in the 1980’s and 1990’s

resulted in a loss of communal lands with an attendant loss of the benefits implicit in communal culture. At the time of this land distribution, thirty families in the village of Ewaso Ngiro, district of Narok, Kenya, took a different approach with their land. The government provided each family with a plot of land for farming (approximately fifty acres) as well as a smaller one-acre plot in what was to become the urban centre of Ewaso Ngiro. At that time, the families requested that their one-acre plots be combined and held in trust as a space for community gatherings and for a primary school. This community is now working with the not-for-profit group, Harambee 4 Humanity, to design and construct Oleleshwa Primary School, an education and community centre, on this land. It has used its communal tradition to adapt from communal land and structures to the more modern concept of public space and public architecture. It still retains its communal decision-making tradition as observed by the author during his visit there. The town of Ewaso Ngiro also hosts a growing weekly market, which attracts thousands from all over Maasailand. Maasai herd their animals to this market for several days, sometimes a fortnight, from as far away as Tanzania, crossing the artificial international border that divides Maasailand. The market acts as a link between the Maasai and the network of non-Maasai buyers, sellers, and global markets.

As a response to the loss of their semi-nomadic way of life, the Maasai are adapting more

permanent construction techniques into their houses and evaluating their effectiveness. This is evident in houses with several additions where each one shows experimentation with new construction techniques. Maasai adaptation to permanent accommodation retains aspects of their traditional homestead, such as the cattle kraal and fencing, but repositions them within a new context where families are smaller and more isolated from each other. Homestead and housing layouts are adapting to accommodate spaces for diversified income sources, evolving family roles, and an increase in the RING


prevalence of animal diseases due to non-migratory husbandry. Public architecture, urban markets and permanent homesteads are providing opportunities, which were never avaliable before, for the Maasai to express their culture in new ways. CLIMATE CHANGE

In recent years, the effects of climate change have become more apparent in sub-Saharan

Africa. Traditionally the rainy season extended roughly from November to April with a reduced period of rain in January and February. Heavy rains have now become unpredictable causing extended periods of either drought or heavy rains. Overgrazing due to restricted grazing areas and drought have left huge areas of the savannah with little plant cover. As a result, when it does rain, most of the water runs across the surface, causing flooding, large-scale erosion of topsoil, and little water retention in the soil. These conditions directly affect the reliability of both animal husbandry and farming. By partially shifting to agriculture, which is now feasible due to their settled nature, the Maasai are diversifying their economic sources and therefore reducing their reliance on herding alone. By cultivating a rich topsoil that absorbs water and reduces runoff, the Maasai agricultural practices mitigate some of the effects of climate change. The introduction of schools in Maasailand has provided the Maasai with a better understanding of climate change and access to technologies and techniques which they can adopt or adapt in order to combat its effects. It has also offered families the opportunity to pursue economic options outside of their pastoral and agricultural occupations. This provides further economic diversity thereby improving their ability to survive extreme climate conditions. EDUCATION

As the Maasai population becomes more educated there are many positive effects for the com-

munity. Schools often contain non-Maasai children, preach the Christian religion, and teach the official languages of English and Swahili. Education has exposed the Maasai to other cultures with their differing norms, values, and ways of thinking. Education has also provided both young women and young men with the means to become financial contributors to their families. With the acquisition of English and Swahili at school, educated Maasai can operate in business, governmental and international circles. This has increased their importance to the community and changed their roles within the Maasai RING


family. It has also allowed them to begin advocating for and speaking out on behalf of the Maasai. Maasai girls and young women are now questioning the Maasai traditions of polygamy, forced marriage, marriages of girls as young as fourteen, and female circumcision. Female circumcision has traditionally marked the passage to womanhood. Older women still hold the belief that a girl remains a child until this ritual is performed. Young educated women are challenging their families by refusing circumcision. Some families are adapting the traditional ritual, “the girl would receive a ritual nick on her thigh, while screaming loudly enough for people outside to hear” (Benanav 2). Many Maasai believe that “we are not changing our culture, we are ending a harmful practice” (Benanav 2). For young educated girls whose families refuse to allow them to opt out of marriage and circumcision, the ability to communicate in English or Swahili enables them to seek help in finding other options.

The high number of widows in Maasai culture is a problem resulting from two traditions; women

are only allowed to marry once; men take any number of wives, even into old age, and most of these wives outlive their husbands. Education has provided some of the many Maasai widows a means to support themselves and their children. Maasai women are starting to create a new definition of what it is to be a woman in the Maasai culture. An exceptional example is Teriano Lesancha, who was able to convince her father to pay for her high school education. He thought this action would result in the loss of an arranged marriage with its dowry of five cows. Lesancha has now completed her post-secondary education in Canada and, much to her father’s surprise, has repaid her debt to him with interest by presenting him with ten cows (Brown). Women such as Lesancha, a now respected emeeki, are becoming irreplaceable resources to the community by providing leadership into the modern world.


It is important to question whether the potential loss of the well-known Maasai traditions and

way of life is acceptable. It is also important, however, to ensure that retaining these traditions will not unfairly restrict the Maasai cultural evolution. By looking at the Maasai from a different perspective, we realize the Maasai are more than their traditions. They are a people who, through their fluid and opportunistic ways, developed into the culture that we revere today. In the words of Maasai RING


leader David Koisikir, the Maasai have been “left behind” (qtd. in M, Ring) but they believe that their “time has come” (qtd. in M, Ring). They are now looking to the future. It is important for the nonMaasai world to keep in mind that “Every culture, whether “primitive” or “sophisticated,” has it’s good and bad features and admiration for the good aspects should not blind one to the undesirable practices or attitudes that might be perfectly legitimate targets for modification” (qtd. in Once Intrepid Warriors 1). If the Maasai are left to their adaptive and opportunistic ways, Maasai culture and customs will likely evolve further into an amalgam of the traditional and modern. Who knows, in a hundred years we may become enamoured all over again by a new image of the Maasai, an image no less impressive and no less Maasai than that which we hold onto today.



8. SOURCES AlSayad, Nezer, et al. The End of Tradition?. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print. Andersen, Kaj. African Traditional Architecture: A Study of the Housing and Settlement Patterns of Rural Kenya. Nairobi: Oxford University Press, 1977. Print. Benanav, Michael. “Through the Eyes of the Maasai.” New York Times 9 Aug. 2013: Web. Brown, Louise. “Young woman dares Maasai culture with big, bold dreams.” Toronto Star 26 July 2013: Web. Coast, Ernestina. Maasai Socioeconomic Conditions: A Cross-Border Comparison. Human Ecology 30.1 (2002): 79-105. Print. Felix Mukwiza Ndahinda. Indigenousness in Africa. DE: Springer Verlag, 2011. Print. Hodgson, Dorothy. Being Maasai, Becoming Indigenous. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011. Print. Hodgson, Dorothy. Once Intrepid Warriors: Gender, Ethnicity, and the Cultural Politics of Maasai Development. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001. Print. Homewood, Katherine et al. Staying Maasai? Livelihoods, Conservation and Development in East African Rangelands. New York: Springer, 2009. Digital Book Ibrahim, Fouad, N, and Barbara Ibrahim. Pastoralists in Transition - A Case Study from Lengijape, Maasai Steppe. GeoJournal 36.1 (1995): 27-48. Print. Meikuaya, Wilson, and Jackson Ntirkana. The Last Maasai Warriors: An Autobiography. Toronto: Me to We, 2013. Print. Rigby, Peter. Class Formation among East African Pastoralists: Maasai of Tanzania and Kenya. Dialectical Anthropology 13.1 (1988): 63-81. Print. Ring, Mckenzie. Interviews with the Maasai of Ewaso Ngiro. Dir. Mckenzie Ring. Mring Productions, 2010. Digital Video Recordings Ring, Alec, Kyla McMullin-Dent. Harambee 4 Humanity. 2013. Web. 30 Sept. 2013. Rukwaro, R. W., and K. M. Mukono. Architecture of Societies in Transition — the Case of the Maasai of Kenya. Habitat International 25.1 (2001): 81-98. Print. Shahack-Gross, Ruth, et al. “Reconstruction of Spatial Organization in Abandoned Maasai Settlements: Implications for Site Structure in the Pastoral Neolithic of East Africa.” Journal of Archaeological Science 31.10 (2004): 1395-411. Print.