Who are the Maasai?

The Maasai are an indigenous African ethnic group of semi-nomadic people located in Kenya and northern Tanzania. Due to their distinctive customs and dress and residence near the many game parks of East Africa, they are among the most well-known African ethnic groups internationally. They speak Maa, a member of the Nilo-Saharan language family that is related to Dinka and Nuer, and are also educated in the official languages of Kenya and Tanzania: Swahili and English. The Maasai population has been variously estimated as 377,089 from the 1989 Census or as 453,000 language speakers in Kenya in 1994 and 430,000 in Tanzania in 1993 with a total estimated as “approaching 900,000″ Estimates of the respective Maasai populations in both countries are complicated by the remote locations of many villages, and their semi-nomadic nature. The figures on the Maasai numbers have been challenged by the maasai themselves. The notion of counting livestock and children is considered an abomination bty the Maasai and they will never give the correct figures.

The Maasai are straddled between Kenya and Tanzania. They are several maasai sections based on their territorial occupations. In Kenya, We have Maasai groups in Kajiado, Narok, Baringo, Laikipia, Nakuru, Naivasha and pockets of others have migrated into other areas. In Tanzania, the Maasai are spread mostly in the North, Arusha, Monduli, Ngorongoro, Kiteto, Simanjiro, Moshi among others. The Il Paruyo are more spread southwards.

The 1904 and 1911 treaties signed between the Maasai spiritual leader Olonana and Imperial British Colonial Governments dispossesses the Maasai of big chunks of land putting them to a precarious living situation- that makes them among the poorest in national statistics. There a number of on- going where the Maasai are fighting for their land, human and cultural rights.

Based on their rich heritage and means of cultural expressions, it has emerged that a number of trading ventures are using the Maasai culture, identity, place names, heritage to promote tourism and profiteering. Due to poverty a number of maasai have set up commercial homestead to showcase their culture to the tourism. Maasai ahs emerged as an international trading brand- but with very little if any benefits to the Maasai people.

Although the Tanzanian and Kenyan governments have instituted programs to encourage the Maasai to abandon their traditional semi-nomadic lifestyle, the people have continued their age-old customs. Recently, Oxfam has claimed that the lifestyle of the Maasai should be embraced as a response to climate change because of their ability to farm in deserts and scrublands.

Maasai’s society is strongly patriarchal in nature with elder men, sometimes joined by retired elders, deciding most major matters for each Maasai group. A full body of oral law covers many aspects of behaviour. Formal execution is unknown, and normally payment in cattle will settle matters. An out of court process called ‘amitu’, ‘to make peace’, or ‘arop’, which involves a substantial apology, is also practiced.

A high infant mortality rate among the Maasai has led to babies not truly being recognized until they reach an age of 3 moons. For Maasai living a traditional life, the end of life is virtually without ceremony, and the dead are left out for scavengers. Burial has in the past been reserved for great chiefs, since it is believed to be harmful to the soil.

The Maasai are divided into Socio-territorial sections and they now number close to 1.5 million in both countries. Census data in both countries have tended to separate certain Maa speaking groups from the Maasai proper i.e. the Samburu, Ilparakuyo, Itiamus have not included in the Maasai category in the national census thus perpetuating confusion as to who are Maasai and who are not. The Maasai remain a numerical minority in various regions where they continue to live, other communities are now increasingly becoming dominant in various aspects and its increasingly becoming difficult for the Maasai to express their cultural and self identity and in some cases they are dominated politically in the what remains of their ancestral lands. A people once known as the lords of East Africa are now known as the lords of poverty and marginalization. Yet, their culture is one single factor that attracts tourists into Kenya and Tanzania.

The Maasai Experience and Safari: Experience Kenya through the Maasai Heritage Tourism!


I have no desire to protect Masaidom. It is beastly, bloody system, founded on raiding and immorality, disastrous to both the Maasai and their neighbours. The sooner it disappears and it’s unknown, except in books of Anthropology, the better.[1]”

Sir Charles Eliot, to
Lord Lansdowne, 11th April 1904


Maasai Livelihood

The Maasai livelihood and society revolves around livestock (cows, goats, sheep and recently camels). Livestock is a source and indicator of wealth, medium of exchange, source of food, symbol of relationship and it plays a significant role in their indigenous spirituality. These people and their main source of livelihood are threatened and are fated to die away by the Nation state as well as the mainstream society. The Maasai and the other indigenous people in many other parts of the world find themselves socially and politically excluded and thus marginalized. They remain among the poor and culturally marginalized.

It is imperative to note that the Maasai are a self-determined people. They have sustained enormous socio economic pressures and have maintained their livelihoods despite all the pitfalls against them.

Conditions for pastoralism are rapidly deteriorating rapidly. The freedom for herds mobility as a drought coping mechanisms is now very limited and its not strange to find Maasai and their herds in the suburbs of major cities like Nairobi. Deeply concerned about how the plight of the Maasai people is being affected by diminishing of grazing land and how it is undermining their livelihood as a people, the community has started seeking alternative means of livelihoods such as heritage tourism, eco tourism and also seeking a stake from mainstream tourism.

As transhumant pastoralists, the Maasai use their land seasonally and their mobility and that of their herds enable them to utilize the range resources in a sustainable way, survive drought and maintain their culture. However, it is increasingly becoming difficult for the Maasai to properly practice their traditional occupation and means of livelihoods due to historical injustices that they have suffered under the hands of the British colonial regime and perfected by subsequent independent Government. Several significant factors have continued to directly contribute to the process of Maasai social economic, cultural marginalization and exclusion of the Maasai people. There is only one you can learn, through a real life experience living closely and interacting with the Maasai livelihood, heritage, culture and life experiences;


As a historically nomadic and then semi-nomadic people, the Maasai have traditionally relied on local, readily a available materials and indigenous technology to construct their housing. The traditional Maasai house was in the first instance designed for people on the move and was thus very impermanent in nature. The Inkajijik (houses) are either loaf-shaped or circular, and are constructed by women.

The structural framework is formed of timber poles fixed directly into the ground and interwoven with a lattice of smaller branches, which is then plastered with a mix of mud, sticks, grass, cow dung and urine, and ash. The enkaji is small, measuring about 3m x 5m and standing only 1.5m high. Within this space the family cooks, eats, sleeps, socializes and stores food, fuel and other household possessions. Small livestock are also often accommodated within the enkaji. Villages are enclosed in a circular fence (Enkang) built by the men, usually of thorned acacia. At night all cows, goats and sheep are placed in an enclosure in the center, safe from wild animals.

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