May 11, 2024 | Jamie Hayes

Photos Of The Fearsome Nomadic Tribe Roaming Kenya


The Last Nomads

Humans used to roam far and wide, but since we started farming, most of us settle in one place. But the Maasai people of East Africa continue to live as nomads to this day, rarely settling in any place for long before moving on.

Msgallery

They Invaded

The Maasai originally came the south of Sudan, but in the 15th century they began migrating up the Nile, conquering tribes as they went, until they arrived in the Great Lakes region they inhabit today.

Maasai peopleMongkolchon Akesin, Shutterstock

They're Cattle Rustlers And Fierce Warriors

The Maasai and related tribes such as the Turkana and the Kalenjin are all known for two things: Cattle and terrifying warriors.

Maasai Man, Eastern Serengeti, October 2006Steve Pastor, Wikimedia Commons

Their Warriors Had A Terrifying Weapon

Maasai raiders used both spears and shields, but the weapon that most struck fear into the hearts of their enemies was the rungu, a wicked throwing club that Maasai warriors could throw accurately from 300 feet.

Maasai Men Throwing SpearsDanijel Mihajlovic, CC BY-SA 4.0 ,Wikimedia Commons

They're Pastoralists

Rather than rely on settling down and farming, the Maasai rely on their cattle as their primary food source. That means that nearly every aspect of Maasai life revolves around their cattle.

A Maasai herdsmansafaritravelplus, Wikimedia Commons

Their Cattle Do Everything

The Maasai's cattle provide all the food they need, but it's not just the milk, meat, and fat that they eat.

Maasai peopleGideon Ikigai, Shutterstock

They Drink Cow Blood

The Maasai drink cow's blood on occasion, obtained by nicking the jugular vein. They will then mix the blood with milk, though it's usually reserved for special occasions, or to provide extra nourishment to the sick.

Maasai peopleNowaczyk, Shutterstock

They Drink From Gourds

Maasai people will hollow out calabash gourds to use as portable milk jugs.

Maasai peopleKatiekk, Shutterstock

They Rarely Drink It Raw

The Maasai drink more milk than just about anyone on earth, as it's a staple part of their diet, but they rarely drink it raw. Usually, they drink fermented milk or buttermilk.

Maasai people in traditional clothesKatiekk, Shutterstock

They Have A Limited Diet

The only foods Maasai regularly eat that don't come from their cattle are honey and tree bark/roots that are used for medicinal purposes.

Young Maasai Woman in traditional clothesNagarjun, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

They Don't Only Have Cows

Though they do mainly keep cows, Maasai also herd goats and sheep, included the aptly named Red Maasai sheep.

Maasai tribe's sheepVolodymyr Burdiak, Shutterstock

Their Sheep Don't Make Wool 

Don't go thinking the Red Maasai sheep make beautiful wool sweaters—they're a fat-tailed species, which means that they don't produce wool. The Maasai primarily keep them for their meat.

Maasai people in traditional clothesMekoce Walker, Shutterstock

Meat Is A Special Treat For Them

Though drinking milk is a regular occurrence, meat is less common. Only for special occasions and rituals will the Maasai slaughter one of their bulls, goats, or lambs.

Maasai people in traditional clothesNajmie Naharuddin, Shutterstock

They Don't Just Use Animals For Food 

The Maasai use animal hides for bedding, clothing, and other textiles—but that's not all they find use for.

Masaai villageAbdelrahman Hassanein, Shutterstock

Their Houses Don't Smell Great

Maasai use cow dung and cow urine as a coating for their houses, which are otherwise made of mud, sticks and grass.

Maasai House Hutsabine_lj, Shutterstock

It Serves A Purpose

They Maasai don't just use the dung and urine as potpourris—it keeps bugs aways and insulates the interior from the blazing sun outside. At what cost though...

maasai warrior in traditional clothesKatiekk, Shutterstock

At Least They Don't Last Long

As nomads who constantly need to move from one place to the next with their cattle, Maasai shelters are thankfully not meant to be permanent, and can generally erected and deconstructed very quickly.

Maasai ShelterD. Gordon E. Robertson, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

They Build Moving Villages

When the Maasai find new grazing lands, the women will build the houses while the men build a circular fence called an Enkang around the encampment to protect the cattle from wild animals at night.

Maasai women in traditional clothesBorkowska Trippin, Shutterstock

They Speak Maa

The Maasai get their name from the language they speak, maa, in which Maasai just means "people who speak maa".

Maasai tribe members in traditional clothesRita Willaert, Flickr

They Live In A Patriarchy

Maasai culture is heavily patriarchal, and women are viewed as property, with men taking several wives.

African Maasai man in traditional clothesGrigvovan, Shutterstock

They Measure Wealth Differently

Money doesn't mean much to the Maasai. Instead, they measure a man's wealth with three things: wives, children, and cattle.

Man and woman from Maasai tribe in traditional clothesKureng Workx, Pexels

They Need Both

For a baseline, a herd of 50 cattle is considered respectable. As far as wives and kids, the more the better. But don't go putting all your eggs in one basket!

A man who has 50 cattle but no wife, or a man with a wife and children but no cattle, is considered poor.

Maasai family in front of a traditional houseMagdalena Paluchowska, Shutterstock

They Were A Big Deal

When European colonists began arriving in Africa, the Maasai were the dominant tribe in their region. They were powerful enough that, unlike the majority of tribes, they have been able to keep the same traditions and lifestyle that existed before colonization.

Maasai Tribe in traditional clothesUnknown Author, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

They Need A Lot Of Land 

There's a reason the Maasai warriors are so reknowned: They need a lot of land. One of the last nomadic tribes in Africa, they Maasai rely on their cattle herds for their livelihood, so they constantly have to move to find new pastures.

Maasai Tribe Kenyasafaritravelplus, Wikimedia Commons

They Hit Their Peak In The 1800s

By the mid-19th century, Maasai influence was at its peak. Their lands covered nearly the entire Great Rift Valley, including most of modern Kenya and Tanzania. 

Unfortunately, the Maasai were in for hard times ahead.

Great Rift Valleyshankar s., Flickr

The Destruction

The Maasai call the period of 1883-1902 the "Emutai," which roughly translations to "destruction," and its effects are still felt in Maasai culture today.

Maasai tribe in front of their hutInternet Archive, Picryl

Outbreak

A smallpox outbreak decimated the population. One German doctor in the region claimed that 50% of the people he saw had pockmarked faces from the disease. But that was just the start of the destruction.

Lenana Maasai Medicine ManUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

The Cows Got The Worst Of It

Between epidemics of contagious bovine pleuropneumonia and rinderpest viral infections, it's estimated that 90% of cattle in the region—and about half of wild bovines—perished.

For the Maasai, that was very bad news, but it could still get worse.

Young Masai  in traditional clothesAleksandar Todorovic, Shutterstock

The Rains Failed

When it rains, it pours—or in this case, doesn't pour. The rains failed in Maasai territory in both 1897 and again the following year in 1898. 

Each of these disasters would have been brutal. Three together was hard to comprehend.

Maasai women and childrenUniversity of Toronto, Picryl

Their Population Was Decimated

It's estimated that two out of every three Maasai perished during the Emutai. And sadly, things weren't going to get much better.

Maasai VillageZdravko Pečar, CC BY-SA 4.0 , Wikimedia Commons

They Weren't The Alpha Anymore

Thanks to their fierce warriors, the Maasai had all the best land in the Great Rift Valley—and that was the land that the Europeans wanted when they showed up.

In 1904, the Maasai agreed to give up the best of their land to the Europeans.

maasai Warriors in traditional clothesPaul Thompson, Wikimedia Commons

They're Trying To Keep Their Way Of Life

Both the Tanzanian and Kenyan governments have long tried to make the nomadic Maasai settle down and adopt farming, but the Maasai not only resist every time, but they demand grazing rights in each country's national parks.

Saturday cattle Maasai marketMagdalena Paluchowska, Shutterstock

Their Lifestyle Is Changing

Maasai have relied on their cattle for centuries, but with cattle numbers dwindling, they have come to rely more and more on staple crops like sorghum, rice, potatoes, and cabbage, which they call "goat leaves".

A Cow As A Plough Used By MasaiRahimMngwaya, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

It Hasn't Been An Easy Process

Getting any Maasai to adopt farming has been a slow process, as agriculture is culturally looked down upon. However, cultivation started integrating into Maasai society as displaced women from the farming WaArusha and WaMeru began to marry Maasai men.

Group of maasai women singingPere Grau, Shutterstock

They Are Monotheistic

The Maasai worship a single deity, Enkai, with a dual nature. There is Enkai Narok, the Black God, and Enkai Na-nyokie, the Red God.

Maasai people gatheringR. Bociaga, Shutterstock

Good Vs. Evil

The Maasai's Black God is benevolent and represents goodness, which the Red God is vengeful and violent.

Portrait of Maasai mara manMongkolchon Akesin, Shutterstock

They Leave Out Their Dead

The Maasai believe that burying a person in ground will taint the soil, so only great chiefs are put to rest under the earth. For most people, there is no funeral ceremony at the end of life, and bodies are left in the fields for scavengers—but it's not as bad as it seems.

Africa Maasai tribe menRita Willaert, Flickr

They Practise Predator Burial

At the end of life, the Maasai will cover the deceased's body in blood and fat to draw predators before leaving it in a field. They believe this is better for the land—and it certainly brings each Maasai into Africa's food chain in a very real way.

Maasai village and peopleSteve Pastor, Wikimedia Commons

It Creates Demons

If no predators have picked at a body after two days, then the Maasai believe engooki, a curse, has befallen them and their family.

maasai familyKatiekk, Shutterstock

They Have Elaborate Ear Adornments

Both Maasai men and women take part in the practice of piercing and stretching the earlobes, often adorning them with thorns, twigs, stones, and elephant tusks. Or, more recently, things like film canisters.

Maasai womanWilliam Warby, CC BY 2.0 , Wikimedia Commons

They Are Named After Three Moons

Maasai babies receive their name when they reach their third moon, after which their head is shaved apart from a tuft of hair.

Young Maasai tribal women with kidsSun_Shine, Shutterstock

Only Warriors Wear Long Hair

Most Maasai wear their hair cut short, but warriors proudly grow their hair long, which they weave into many braids and spend hours grooming and styling.

Member of the Maasai tribeManamana, Shutterstock

Clothing Means A Lot

In Maasai culture, your clothing represents both your ethnicity and your social status. Clothing also takes part in many rituals, such as how young men will wear black for months after their manhood ceremony.

Maasai woman with beautiful traditional clothingetreeg, Shutterstock

The Shúkà Is Their Iconic Garment

A Shúkà is a large, sheet-like garment, typically red and often adorned with bright patterns and colors. Other examples of Maasai dress include the dress-like kanga and a breezy, sarong-like garment called a kikoi that is worn more frequently near the coast.

maasai women in traditional clothingKatiekk, Shutterstock

They Make Jewelry For Tourists

Tourism has affected the Maasai's nomadic way of life, but they are adapted. Many Maasai make elaborate jewelry to sell to tourists.

Maasai woman making jewelryAndrzej Kubik, Shutterstock

They Love Music

The Maasai love music, but they don't use any instruments except for large horns that are used for special songs. The majority of their music is vocal, with a chorus providing rhythms and harmonies, while a song leader, called the olaranyani, sings the melody.

Members from Masai tribe dancingLal Nallath, Shutterstock

They Love To Dance

They may not use instruments, but Maasai love to jump and dance, and the beads they wear on their clothing add jingling to their songs.

A group of Maasai men performing their ritual danceAnastasiia-S, Shutterstock


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