Encounter with the Masai tribes of Kenya

Encounter with the Masai tribes of Kenya

Passing through the forest, we soon set our eyes upon the

dreaded warriors that had been so long the subject of my waking

dreams and I could not but involuntarily exclaim:” What

splendid fellows!”—THOMSON 1885, 160

Fried Eye notes– We are bringing before you some of our special posts in every issue as a part of special promotions on our part to offer better visibility to those deserving articles. This article had already been published previously but we believe you will enjoying going it through again.

At first sight it looked strange that there were men and women walking alongside the roads with heavy loads – closer look revealed that each tribe’s person was carrying part of their hut, walls, doors and roof strung to their shoulders. The elders were in the front followed by women. Adolescent boys and girls were herding cattle. These are the Maasai pastoral nomadic tribes of Kenya. They walk for miles carrying their homes on look out for fresh pastures where they will re-assemble their homes in a circular formation. The circle of huts (known as Enkang in Maasai – Maa language) is surrounded by acacia thorn bushes which act as barbed wire to keep wild animals at bay.


Maasai ancestors originated from North Africa, they followed the course of River Nile conquering many tribes on the way to eventually settle in the lush green valleys of escarpment in Kenya and Tanzania. The rift valley known as the escarpment was result of volcanic action that created Mount Longonut, lakes and massive sunken valleys. The lava provided fertile pastoral land where they graze their cattle. Their migration continued to south of Kenya to Tanzania. Today, their homeland is bounded by Lake Victoria to the west and Mount Kilimanjaro to the east including picturesque Ngorongoro Crater which also shelters one of the most beautiful wildlife lion country havens.

They are very tall, handsome and almost sharp Arabic features. The warriors carry spears and a double edged flat knife called Simi. Originally, they wore animal skins. Indian traders who migrated to Kenya introduced them to blankets – selling these from their shops called Duka in remote areas. Maasai men are hunters and women/girls role is as gatherers. It is a male dominated society and polygamy is a norm. Additionally, circumcision rite brothers have a right over each other’s wife. Maasai men have pierced ear lobes and these lobes have been stretched until a hand can be put through. Sometimes to stop from dangling they wrap it around the ear.

Women, remove gourds from jungle vines, clean these and use as storage utensils for milk and honey. Apart from these roles girls also build huts and perform domestic cooking chores. Women and adolescent girls construct their dwellings known as Manyatta. It is constructed using branches for wooden structure and plaster is made of cow dung and mud. The walls and roofs are detachable which can be carried with them to their next stopping place.

Tribal hierarchy is led by the Maasai elders who often organise bonding ritual blood drinking sessions within the tribes. The cow’s jugular vein is pierced with arrows and blood is collected in gourds which are passed around the men folk. Adolescent boys and girls romp together. However separation of sexes occurs when the boys gather for manhood ceremony. These are communal circumcisions and the participants acquire the title of Moraine. This is the right of passage to adulthood. Those who are circumcised together also become brothers with right to each others wife. In the old days they had to prove their manhood by killing a lion with a spear single-handed. Nowadays this is illegal and banned. However, the practice of lion hunting is still existent but in search of lions that prey on their livestock or threaten a particular area of inhabitants.

Cattle are integral part and parcel of Maasai lives. They believe that when the earth and sky split, God bequeathed cows to them. As all the cattle belong to them according to God’s edict, it therefore follows that rustling and stealing herds from other tribes in not sinful. They believe that they were placed in the centre of universe by God as the chosen people.

The material wealth is measured in number of cows a man owns. A woman’s worth depends on how many cows will her father demand for dowry. Since Maasai practice polygamy, a man with many wives is considered wealthy because he has been able to get many wives by parting with his cattle.

The traditional Maasai calendar has no designated holidays. It is divided into twelve months belonging to three main seasons: Nkokua(the long rains), Oloirurujuruj(the drizzling season), and Oltumuret (the short rains). The names of months are very descriptive. For example, the second month of the drizzling season is Kujorok , meaning “The whole countryside is beautifully green, and the pasture lands are likened to a hairy caterpillar.”*(source – Everyman.com)

Having read about the Maasai tribesmen, their culture and traditions in our geography lessons, our teacher arranged for a field trip for us to live amongst the Maasai in a Manyatta for a week. We set off from Nairobi and travelled through the picturesque rift valley. At the bottom of the rift valley is a church built by Italian prisoners of war. Though missionaries tried to convert Maasai, they have steadfastly refused to yield their beliefs, culture and traditions. This church has never been attacked by them.

Further on past the church – one is travelling at the floor of the rift Valley – past Mt Longonut. It is about 1500 meters high. We stopped here to climb the mountain which is easy climb and has a crater at the top. Next to the mountain is Lake Navivasha. It is a beautiful fresh water lake. Nearby is Lake Nakuru which is home to the flamingos. Maasai legend states, “the day these lakes dry, the mountain will erupt spewing out red hot lava” – the lakes keep the lava cool. We walked around the crater looking down into the depths from where lava emanated once upon a time. Wild animals live in the crater. Our first encounter was with Maasai warriors who appeared out of nowhere with menacing spears whilst we were descending. This apparently turned out to be the advance guard sent by the Manyatta elders to escort us.

We were naturally treated with great curiosity by Maasai women and girls. Though men and boys were curious but it would be against their tradition to show it. Women and girls, touched and felt our hair as they had never had close encounter with straight hair men. After customary exchange of gifts, we sat down for a feast. Two goats were slaughtered to honour the guests. I declined to drink blood. Maasai girls built wooden fire on which the goats were roasted. They also made a maze meal for us called Ugali to be eaten with meat. The roasted meat is known as Nayama Choma. Each one of us was given a knife to tear the meat of the goat. This communal eating was great bonding session. Home made brew blew our heads off. Indians had introduced them to vegetable salad which they call Kuchumbri.

Staying in these huts, each individual hut is called Enkaji was quite an experience. At night it was scary as it appeared all the wild animals in the jungle howled relaying messages about presence of strangers in Manyatta. We went herding with Maasai Moran – circumcised boys who are now considered as men. They were surprised that at our ages, we hand not undergone this ceremony. We saw women create elaborate designs of beads, necklace and wrist bands. They also mix lava rich red soil with ochre to anoint their skins and hair. It is in reality really sun cream – protection against the sun heat and rays. They also introduced us to their dance – standing in circle, chanting and jumping sky high – as they continued jumping up, it induces a trance. We were quite dizzy trying to keep up with them.

We returned with pleasant memories of encounters with the Maasai. Males do not display emotion which would be akin to admission of weakness of character. Some women and girls wailed. Some asked us to return to make a baby for them with long straight hair. We returned to Nairobi taking a detour via the house where Joy Adamson and George Adamson of Born free fame lived. Their residence abounds with bushy tailed colobus Monkeys. The bottom of the garden borders with another lake called Crater Lake. During our visit George was away on safari and she met us. She was very pleasant lady though had fame of being very cantankerous towards humans.

In 2008, I travelled through the Maasai Land, climbed Mt. Longonot our favourite childhood haunt, went past several Enkang – but the one where I stayed had moved on to fresh pastures with their huts – Instead, I saw that the Maasai were now trading handicrafts made by them, selling to tourists, refusing to have a photo taken unless they were paid in cash. They also only accepted American dollars – spoilt by American tourists. Maasai now go to rural schools and some have started wearing western attire. However, hardcore of the Maasai tribe still retain their culture, traditions and beliefs and have refused to convert or move to the cities.

My nephew has purchased a farm in the Maasai area. It was during this visit that we were warned that two rogue lions were at large. One Maasai girl who had been herding cows and sheep witnessed lions kill one sheep. She ran to the village and another Maasai girl who was on vacation joined us for the lion hunt. She was now working as a receptionist in one of five star hotels in Nairobi city. Though she was adamant about Maasai traditions, beliefs – her role in their society had changed with education. Others will follow the suit. One of the most prominent Maasai is Cabinet Minister of Kenya – Professor George Saitoti.

In the Maasai lands one also find some cafes for the tourist trade – The favourite snack is Maru’s Bhajia pioneered by one Gujrati trader in the 1930’s. Several Gujrati shop owners selling provisions in this area speak fluent Maasai language. Exposure to them has also changed Maasai cuisine- they utilise similar tadka to prepare some dishes. Tadka cuisine is called Karoga cuisine.

My close encounter left a lasting impression on my mind of these fearless warrior tribes.

Their pastoral lands are now being acquired by developers who want to spin out high rise apartments to carter for growing urban population. This development not only cuts through their lands but also migration routes of wild animals. Maasai too are one of the tourist attractions nowadays and earn money by performing traditional dances for the tourists. Part of the dance routine is to invite one of the tourists to pretend being a Maasai and dance like them.

In large cities like Nairobi, Maasai are in demand as low paid – night watchmen. Their reputation as fierce warriors with spears provides a backdrop to employ them. Little can a spear wielding night watch man can do faced with armed robbers wielding guns and machine guns.

A traditional dance that has been debased to appease the tourists. Maasai warrior appear to be irresistible to western women, and especially sophisticated white European women from many parts of Europe and America, who carry off their lovers to the west by marrying them. They have glare of publicity in tabloids but most marriages flounder with the ex-massai lover heading back to where he belongs.

Let’s hope they continue to resist change.

One day we may have to launch a campaign to save the Maasai culture, traditions and beliefs.


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40 thoughts on “Encounter with the Masai tribes of Kenya

  1. This was a fascinating article about the Masai,what an experience to spend time with such a noble and historic tribe and to get such an insight into their way of life.Also the chance to meet Joy Adamson,who must be 1 of the most famous animal conservationists of the 20th century, she must have been in a good mood that day, as i have also heard she prefered animals to humans and suffered people grudgingly!!. It is interesting that a visit years later has highlighted the changes that have occured to their way of life and how modernization has changed the traditional roles and ways of life, this of course is not just happening to the Masai, but to most ethnic groups the world over. It is a shame that worship of the almighty dollar has now reduced these proud warriors to tourist attractions, and land once sold off has gone for ever.I would love to visit Kenya but have a fear my romantic view gathered from many books would be shattered, maybe better to leave things to the imagination .!!

  2. Karam, You should approach the BBC to let you make documentaries for them. You are truly a people’s person. Wherever you have travelled you have gone out of your way to meet the locals and tell us about your interesting encounters with them. This article covers practically all aspects of the fascinating life of this nomadic tribe. With changing circumstances, Maasais are now seen even in the streets of Daressalaam & Zanzibar; as you said, many work as watchmen or are there as tourist attraction. For them the boundary between Kenya & Tanzania means nothing, They roam freely between the two countries without a passport.

    Could you please put a date to the excursion when you went down the crater in your school days?

  3. Thank you for a fasinating look at Maasai people and culture. It makes me want to go to Kenya to see for myself. Implicit in the article is need the need to protect their culture and beliefs. Excellent photographs!

  4. @Harkjodh – You are more adventurous and truly baptised as a Maasai – having drunk cow’s blood.
    You have also descended to the bottom of the Mt Longonot crater, which must have been an amazing experience. I believe there is a colony of monkeys that live in the crater. We must meet up when the weather changes.

  5. Karam

    Another superlative tale from you; well done!
    I see that your trip to the Maasailand of Kenya was in 2008; I too spent a couple of days in the Masai Mara Lodge in September of that year and saw the beauty of the place, so your piece brought some fond memories of the place.

  6. A comprehensive and inspiring account of the Masai tribe, starting with history.
    There’s a good deal of detail included and supporting photos.

    Like you, I’ve lived in Kenya but you have retained an enduring affection and interest for the place.
    Why not put together your whole collection of pieces into a book?

  7. Good article – I have had 1st hand experience of what you have written – when I went to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro on the ‘outward bound school'(I got lost on my solo night in the forest and ended up spending the night in a masai manyatta – till the morning when I was rescued by the school ) and unlike you I drank the blood & milk which was very good – you might want to add that the masai do not eat cow meat but will drink their blood.
    Also I have descended to the bottom of the Mt Longonot crater, which was an amazing experience.

  8. a fascinating article on the masai’s – enough to lure us to the wilderness of kenya. The photographs are lovely, hoping to see more of it. Amazingly there is a lot of similarity between the masais and many of the hill tribes of the northeast india, example the naga’s and the tribes of arunachal pradesh. You must plan a trip to the northeast to capture its pristine through your lenses.

  9. @Laxmi – WOW not one comment but two from YOU!
    I will start answering your questions from bottom up!!Swhelli is lingua franca of East Africa. I was brought up speaking Swhelli – so it was easy to communicate with Maasai.Most speak swahili in addition to their Maa language. Indians living in Maasai areas speak fluent Maa. Personal encounter was initially frightening as one has a mental image of them as ferocious warriors- Very friendly people though they are known to be devious, cunning and sly – not too dissimilar to traits of prey they hunt. They can be very hyper and energetic which leaves one bit exhausted.They live very close to nature and will not do unnecessary killing, have their own tried and tested medicinal plants they use.I loved their freedom of the forests, living in harmony with nature. Took tuition from them throwing spears.They were fascinated by two things we introduced to them. Carrom and Dart boards. They took to both very quickly – but their approach to carrom board was like stalking prey – even getting up walking around the board, bending and sitting to find perfect angle!

  10. Karam,

    Amazing that u went through this intriguing journey & even more amazing that u shared it with us. Would love to see more pictures tho.

    So how was it like for u when u left their realm?

    What kind of energy do they exude?

    What was your personal encounter with them like?

    Did u communicate with them one on one?

  11. Thanx for giving us a look at the masai livestyle.

    The masais are known for their beauty. Tall lean gorgeous skin etc etc. so no wonder the white women are all over these men. smilzzzzzz!!!

    Wonder what happens to these men when they get back to their villages? There has to be some kind of influence?

    As for saving the Masai culture tradition etc…..the hungry tribes end is inevitable… starts with the “tourist attraction” ends with blending in with the general masses. Its only a matter of time!

  12. Your account is fascinating especially recounting the week you spent amongst the Masais in a menyatta.Tell me who was this enlightened teacher who arranged the field trip and when was it. I see you revisited in 2008 and how things have changed. When I grew up in Kenya,we percieved Masais as fierce warriors and kept our distance. We were told that a male had to kill a lion with a spear to acguire his first wife. I envy you that you learnt the culture and way of their life first hand at a young age. Great reading. Congrats.

  13. The article is eye opening for us. We take everything for granted and let the modern world ruin the rich heritage of tribes world wide. Let us protect these tribes.

    The article is fantastic and it has made me homesick for Kenya and Tanzania.

    Well done Karam.

  14. Jambo Karam and asante sana for taking me back to Masailand. I with a bunch of friends biked through that wonderful harsh land in Dec. 62. Apart from the graceful Masai, what sticks out in my mind was the heat and the flies. While huffing, puffing and pedaling the bike, the flies zeroed in for the mouth. Must have swallowed a pound of them.

    Once again ASANTE, looking forward to your next travelogue. Will it be Kerala ?

    Keep motoring and clicking …Jaggi

  15. Thanks for the description and information on the Masai tribe. The pics are interesting. This article will be useful to people going to the Masai Mara forest, to see the lions and giraffes. These are tribal people and their existence and continuity is useful for the culture of this place.

  16. Karam: Well written article..and a really very interesting read. I am surprised how cultures infuse themselves into each other. Duka is Indian Dukan…meaning shop and Kachumbri is Indian Kachumber which is mixed salad.

  17. Karam .. like your shadow, i followed you everywhere, and experienced all that you did in your childhood in the masai world .. it was enchanting !! didn’t want to come back with you to the present world and the harsh realities they are facing ..
    Very well written and informative .. a pity about the limitations on the photos that can be uploaded .. maybe you could do a followup with a ” photo story ” ?

  18. One does learn so much about various cultures from your first-hand accounts of your experiences around the world. This one too gives a lot of information about the Masaai. I did expect to read about some unexpected, risky, or probably close shave incidents, as you seem to have a knack for turning even an ordinary trip into an adventure! The humour is there though along with the usual asides…:)) I envy you meeting Joy Adamson. I must have been about ten when I read ‘Born Free,’ and admired this couple.
    A good read Karam. If I may make a suggestion, a bit of editing would enhance the article further. You do have so many stories to weave, what about a collection in one book?

  19. Hi,I was frankly shocked and thrilled to see my photo amongst the maasai people.Well,what else can i ask for than being with the “Simba” tribe of Kenya. Well done.

  20. Very interesting article. The woman carrying the child is so beautiful and her stance portrays the grace inherent in the Maasai tribe. Karam, may we see more such informative pieces in the future? Reading this makes one want to visit the place.

  21. Hello Karam
    It is an excellent article on the Maasai nation and how they are interacting with the living elements that surround them. Unfortunately civilization is creeping on them,destroying their traditional way of life. These proud warriors and brave hunters of the past are changing into frivolous dancers to amuse the tourists.
    The advent of the Developers with their plans of changing pastoral land into mini-towns and High-Rises,will ultimately destroys the traditional migratory routes of animals.

  22. I enjoyed this article. I wish Karam had said a little more on what looks like a land-grab going on – the farms and buildings. What is the nephew doing on his farm. An interesting tyop (sic) – maze meal for maize meal – added some mystery to the piece. How did the lion hunt end?

  23. Karam – I think writing is what you should be doing – kept me enthralled all the way through … The whole countryside is beautifully green, and the pasture lands are likened to a hairy caterpillar 🙂

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