Tanzania is an iconic African safari destination and home to the Maasai tribe. The Maasai are well known for their unique culture and tribal dress.

The Maasai Tribe

The Maasai are an indigenous ethnic group in Africa of semi-nomadic people settled in in Tanzania and partly in Kenya. Due to their distinct traditions, customs and dress and their residence near the many national game parks of East Africa, the Maasai are among the foremost African ethnic groups and are known internationally because of their links to the national parks and reserves.

Although the  Tanzanian and Kenyan governments have established programs to encourage the Maasai to leave behind their traditional semi-nomadic lifestyle, the Maasai people have carried on their age-old customs. However this is changing, albeit slowly.

Maasai History

According to the tribe’s own oral history, the Maasai originated north of Lake Turkana  in the lower Nile Valley. They began migrating south in the 15th century and arrived in the long trunk of land stretching across central Tanzania and Northern Kenya during the 17th and 18 century. The Maasai territory reached its most dominant size in the 19 century when they covered most of the Great Rift Valley and adjacent lands from Dodoma and Mount Marsabit.

At this time the Maasai raided cattle far across the east at Tanga Coast in Tanzania. They used shields and spears, but were most feared for throwing orinka (clubs) which could be expertly thrown from up to 70 paces (approximately 100 meters).

The Maasai ‘Emutai’ of 1883-1902 came after the time of expanding. This period was scarred by epidemics of smallpox, contagious bovine pleuropneumonia and rinderpest. The estimated 90 per cent of cattle and half of wild species perished from rinderpest. This drastic period coincided with drought. Maasai in Tanzania were forced out from their fertile lands between Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru and most of their fertile mountainous regions near the Ngorongoro in the 1940s. More land was claimed to create national parks and wildlife reserves. Masai Mara, Ngorongoro, , the Serengeti, Lake Nakuru, Manyara and Tarangire.

Maasai Shelter

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

Their villages are enveloped in a circular Enkang (fence) built by the men and this protects their cattle at night from wild animals.

Maasai Culture

Maasai society is firmly patriarchal in nature, with elder Maasai men sometimes joined by retired elders, determining most major matters for the Maasai tribes. The Maasai people are monotheistic, and their God is named Engai or Enkai.

Maasai Music and Dance

Traditionally, the Maasai music comprises of rhythms rendered by a chorus of vocalists singing harmonies, all the while the olaranyani (song leader) sings the melody. The olaranyani is usually the person who can best sing that song. The olaranyani starts singing the namba of a song and the group responds with one unanimous call in acknowledgment. Women recite lullabies, hum songs and sing music that praises their sons.

One elision to the vocal creation of Maasai music is the function of the horn of the Greater Kudu to summon morans (initiates) for the Eunoto ceremony (a coming of age ceremony). The ceremony usually lasts ten or more days. [And the singing and dancing around the manyattas involve flirting. Young men will line and chant and the women stand in front of them and sing in counterpoint to them. Contemporary Hip Hop musicians from northern Tanzania are now incorporating traditional Maasai rhythms, chants and beats into their music.

Influence of the Modern World

Government policies focusing on the preservation of their national parks and reserves, with the exclusion of the culturally rich Maasai tribe, have now made the traditional Maasai way of life increasingly difficult to maintain and preserve for coming generations to experience and learn about.

During recent years, projects have been implemented to help Maasai tribal leaders find a way to preserve their traditions and way of life while also trying to balance the education needs of the Maasai children for the modern world.

Many Maasai people have stirred away from the nomadic life to positions in business commerce and government roles. Yet despite the modernized urban lifestyle they lead, many Maasai’ still happily head homewards clothed in designer brands, only to emerge from the traditional lands wearing their traditionally colourful shuka, cowhide sandals and with a wooden orinka in their hand- at ease with themselves and the world.

Maasai Clothing

Clothing varies by sex, age and place. Young men wear black for several months after their circumcision. Although, red is a favored color among the Maasai. Black, Blue, checkered and striped cloth are also worn, together with mulitcoloured African garments. In the 1960s the Maasai began to replace sheepshin, calf hides and animal skin for more commercial material. The cloth used to wrap around the body is the called Shúkà in the Maa language.

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