The pastoral Masai occupy the Narok and Kajiado districts of Kenya, and share the Olmaa language from which their name derives within Kenya with the Samburu and Ilchamus, and across the border in Tanzania with the Arusha and Baraguyu.
A fusion of Nilotic and Cushitic people, effected perhaps a millennium ago north-west of Lake Turkana, the Masai ascended the escarpment out of the Kerio Valley to spread in the ensuing centuries across the fertile grasslands of the Rift Valley.
A century ago, they had established a reputation as powerful and ferocious people; their warrior bands raided hundreds of miles into neighbouring territories to capture the cattle they coveted and to demand tribute from the trade caravans.
In the closing years of the 19th. Century, however, the Masai herds were decimated by rinderpest and drought, and the once united people devastated by smallpox and inter-section strife. Through treaties in 1904 and 1911, the European Government moved the Masai out of their northern grazing lands of Laikipia.
The basic economic and social unit is the enkang, a semi-permanent settlement of several families pasturing their stock together, perhaps ten to twenty huts surrounded by a thorn or leleshua fence into which the livestock are driven at night.
Fresh and curdled milk, carried and stored in long, decorated gourds,
is the basic item of the Masai diet. With it may be mixed blood tapped from the jugular vein of a bullock or cow. Sheep and goats are the principal source of meat; cattle are rarely slaughtered, and then usually for ceremonial purposes.
The Masai comprises five (some claim seven) clans; ilmakesen, il-laiser, il-molelian, il-taarrosero and il-ikumai. Each is divided into a number of divisions, distinguished by the characteristic cattle brands. These clans are spread throughout Masailand.
Authority derives from the age-group and the age-set. Prior to circumcision a natural leader or olaiguenani is selected; he leads his age-group through a series of rituals until old age, sharing responsibility with a select few, of whom the ritual expert (oloiboni) is the ultimate authority.
Masai youths are not circumcised until they are mature, and a new age-set is initiated together at regular intervals of twelve to fifteen years. The young warriors (ilmurran) remain initiates for some time, using blunt arrows to hunt small birds which are stuffed and tied to a frame to form a head-dress.
Eventually, in their turn, the warrior age-set gives way to its juniors and graduates in a special ceremony (eunoto) to senior status. A warrior of repute endowed with the qualities of leadership is selected to open the way for the others of his age-set to be initiated. Once the new age-group leader (olotuno) is approved by the oloiboni, a bullock is slaughtered and the leader is the first to drink the blood from the animalís neck.
The enclosure and ceremonial hut built specifically for the eunoto ceremony is known as
enkang o sinkira, and it is here that the four days of rites are staged. Sitting on the same cowhide on which he was circumcised, each warrior has his head shaved by his mother.
The freshly-shaved head is decorated with a mixture of ochre and fat. At the close of the ceremony the olotuno is invited to select any girl he chooses for a wife. - signalling the next phase for the newly graduated senior warriors, who are henceforth permitted to marry.
As for centuries past, the life of the Masai is conditioned by the constant quest for water and grazing. In the more arid areas of Masailand, livestock are moved seasonally, often several hundred miles, to take advantage of undergrazed areas or new growth generated by localised rain.
Masai remain reluctant to reduce their herds to the carrying capacity of the land. Is not cattle wealth given to them by Enkai (God)? Group ranching schemes and division of former communal land into private holdings with titles deeds is resulting in the permanent settlement of increasing numbers of Masai. In Narok, fertile wheatlands on the slopes of the Mau are now being exploited as inevitably, change, long resisted, is now reluctantly accepted.
A Brief History
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THE ILBARTAN COMMUNITY