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Masai woman with traditional earrings
A Maasai warrior, a moran

The Maasai , also Masai, Maassai or Maasai , are an East African ethnic group that is native to the vast plains of southern Kenya and northern Tanzania . Despite their comparatively small proportion of the population, the Maasai are probably the best-known ethnic group in East Africa because of their largely retained semi-nomadic way of life, their striking clothing and their residential area near the national parks.


Around half a million to a million Maasai live in East Africa. Their actual number is very uncertain. In censuses in Kenya, many Maasai do not indicate their ethnic origin because they fear discrimination; in Tanzania, ethnic origin is not taken into account in censuses. The majority of the Maasai live in southern Kenya.

Maasai society is divided into 16 subgroups, called Iloshon. Four of these subgroups live mainly in Tanzania, the greater part in Kenya. The people are mainly native to the Serengeti in Tanzania, as well as the Masai Mara and Amboseli National Park in Kenya.

Language and origin

The Maasai language belongs to the Nilo-Saharan language family and, like the Samburu , to the group of Nilotic languages . The Samburu are "related to the Maasai". Both groups call their language Maa themselves . Many Maasai also speak Swahili and English . In Swahili, the Maasai are called Mmaasai (singular) or Wamaasai (plural).

From the language affiliation one can also draw conclusions about the origin of the ancestors of the Maasai. The pastoral peoples probably came to Kenya and Tanzania from southern Sudan and the Nile Valley .


Lenana, the Maasai chief and medicine man, around 1890

According to their own traditions, the Maasai migrated south around the 15th century and settled the region between central Tanzania and central Kenya between the 17th and 18th centuries. Presumably they displaced other resident peoples or mixed with them. In the middle of the 19th century, the territory dominated by the Maasai reached its greatest extent, reaching from the Rift Valley and Mount Marsabit in what is now Kenya to the region around what is now the city of Dodoma .

Maasai warriors in German East Africa 1906

Raids on caravans right up to the coast made the Maasai a widely feared group, and in numerous wars the Maasai defeated many other groups in their area of ​​influence. At the beginning of the 1850s they threatened even large coastal cities such as Tanga and Mombasa , and large stretches of land between the coast and Kilimanjaro were practically depopulated after their raids. The image of the “warlike” Maasai that still exists today comes from this period of expansion.

The Maasai power was broken by the great catastrophes that struck East Africa in the last decade of the 19th century. The rinderpest decimated the herds of the Masai, the smallpox and a devastating famine killed large parts of the population. Edicts were issued in 1904 and 1911 that expropriated 60 percent of the previous Maasai area and awarded it to the British colonial administration, which sold the land to settlers. The Maasai were displaced to the area south of the Uganda Railway .

Ethnic identity and relationship with neighboring peoples

It is uncertain when the distinct ethnic identity of the Maasai, as they are known today, developed. Early European travel reports from the end of the 19th century tell that the Maasai had close ties with the Kikuyu , Okiek and Kamba , but that at the same time there were bloody hostilities. The robbery and exchange of women was particularly widespread during times of need, which is why there were numerous family ties between the groups in Central Kenya.

Maasai men in their village in Kenya

The Bantu-speaking Kikuyu in particular had a culture very similar to the Maasai, especially when it came to warfare and war equipment. They worshiped the same god, had a similar social structure based on age groups, and maintained a similar warrior culture. The warriors carried the same weapons, dressed similarly, had very similar forms of body decoration, and the cult dances were similar. Nevertheless, emphasis was placed on a clear separation between Maasai and Kikuyu. Rituals that could turn a Kikuyu into a Maasai and vice versa illustrate the separation between the groups on the one hand and the possibility of conversion on the other.

The Tanzanian and Kenyan governments have tried in different ways in development programs to work towards a transition of the Maasai to a sedentary way of life, but with modest success. The background to this was the plan to convert the former Maasai land into national parks. Today an umbrella organization represents the Maasai as a common ethnic group to the state authorities in their countries. It is primarily about land issues. Since the nature reserves are increasingly closed to the Maasai and their herds of cattle, the organization tries to represent the land claims of the Maasai.


Engai , the creator god of the Maasai, is associated with heaven and rain. He is enthroned on the summit of Ol Doinyo Lengai in Tanzania and has given the Maasai all cattle of this earth, from which they conclude that all other cattle owners must be cattle thieves. From this, the Maasai derive the right to forcibly take away cattle from other peoples. This was often the trigger for armed conflicts with other peoples.


The individual clans largely retained their nomadic life and were never organized in the form of kingdoms or states. In 1870 the Kenyan Maasai organized themselves under the political and military leadership of a Laibon and an Orkoiyoi , who were previously religious leaders. Their settlement and grazing area was incorporated into British East Africa in 1888 and the leadership abolished in 1918.

Culture and way of life

Maasai huts near Amboseli

The Maasai hut ( enkaji ) consists of dried cow dung, several huts of a family form an enkang . They are often incorrectly referred to as manyatta , but this means the huts of the warriors and not the kraal-like , honeycomb-shaped mud-dung houses without a grass roof.

Maasai jumping dance

There are many ceremonies. The jumping dancing of men is very well known. The young Maasai, Morani , jump as high as possible on the spot and thus prove their strength. Killing a lion used to be a prerequisite for having a wife. There are signs that this is still celebrated in remote areas today. Likewise, the young men often had to live for years in a village they had built themselves. There is no more room for that today.

Animal husbandry and hunting

Bovine blood is obtained from the cattle's jugular vein. The blood is drunk on ceremonial occasions, but also added to everyday food.

The Maasai are famous as warriors (moran) and cattle herders. Due to the increasing urban sprawl in Kenya, the nomadic way of life of the Maasai is increasingly hindered. The nature reserves Massai Mara , Tsavo , Serengeti and Amboseli also restrict this freedom of movement.

Their culture revolves around the beef. A “good” Maasai has no less than 50 cattle. Drinking bovine blood, sometimes mixed with milk, is part of life and ceremonies. The head of the cattle is held and the swollen jugular vein is scratched with an arrow - but not severed. After collecting up to two liters, the cattle are bandaged and live on. After adding the milk, the jar is shaken for a long time to prevent a "blood cake". It is drunk fresh - but also after a ripening phase of two days - and is the main food of the Maasai. It is called saroi .

A hedge of thorns is drawn around the huts, where small animals also sleep. At night the cattle, sheep and goats come into this protection area.

The Maasai hardly hunt at all. They mainly feed on the meat of their sheep and goats. Sometimes, however, Masai warriors hunt lions and elephants to show their strength.

The traditional weapons of the Moran are the sword ol alem and the spear .

Body jewelry

Maasai with traditional necklaces

Both men and women traditionally wear jewelry in their ears. These include helix piercings and incised and widened ear holes .

Family and sexuality

Maasai boys after circumcision in black robe

Circumcision is practiced in men . The boys are grouped together in one age group every 7 to 15 years and then circumcised together, which is celebrated with a big party. As a result, the age in an age group varies considerably. The mother first shaves her son's head for the circumcision ritual. Tribal members hang the ceremonial olaibatak , a black robe, on the young man . For months after the party, the circumcised boys dress in black. All night long the Morani dance and sing the circumcision song ( lebarta ) in honor of the new members. In the morning the circumciser comes who first pours milk over the boy's head and then cuts off the foreskin without anesthesia and with various tools and without any further hygienic measures . The boys are not allowed to show any signs of pain - otherwise the father would not give them the promised cattle and shame would be upon the family. The ash then applied is supposed to have a disinfectant effect - which in no way often prevents serious infections, but rather triggers them. After the circumcision, women praise the new warrior with song and dance. A few days later the young can go bird hunting again. As many stuffed birds as possible are attached to a head ring and increase the reputation of the young women.

Female genital mutilation is practiced in women . The girls, who are allowed to scream, are circumcised by older women.

At the wedding, the groom is expected to pay the bride's parents a bride price . The height is set at 25 cattle (23 cows and 2 bulls). The groom chooses the bride, with both parents having a say in the making of the wedding. The bride's consent is not required.

The Maasai are allowed to live polygamous . A man can have as many wives as the number of his cattle allows. However, 1–2 women are common, up to five women are not uncommon, although individual men can have up to 30 women.

A man's prestige is determined by the number of cattle and wives he has. Every woman lives in her own house with her children. Every evening the Maasai man decides which of his wives he wants to stay with. If a Maasai visits another who belongs to the same age group, he can ask him to stay with one of his wives. Refusing to do so would be considered unfriendly. The women have no say in this. This sexual behavior and the fact that condoms are also rejected makes the Maasai very susceptible to HIV infections.

At around 35 years of age, the Morani change over to the senior age group in a large ceremony. This council of elders regulates all the affairs of the tribe, there are no individual heads of the Maasai.

Threat to the Maasai

On the one hand, the freedom of movement of the Maasai people is restricted by the sale of land by the African governments to private individuals and they are driven out of their territories . On the other hand, however, agriculture is dependent on the genetic diversity of Maasai cattle, as most cattle in captivity can no longer survive without antibiotics and are increasingly suffering from genetic causes. The Maasai are also being driven out of their regions by the governments of Kenya and Tanzania expanding the road network in and around the savannah and thus further destroying the former seclusion of the Maasai.

Another threat to the Maasai is AIDS , as condoms are largely banned or simply unknown. The spread of the HI virus is favored by the polygamous way of life of the Maasai and the lack of basic medical care.

Since most Maasai can neither read nor write, they are often unable to represent their interests. There are too few schools or similar institutions to address this problem.

See also


  • George Adamson : Safari of my life , translated from English by Karl Berisch and Johannes Piron, Hamburg 1969 (Original: Bwana Game 1968), Hoffmann and Campe
  • Kai Århem: Maasai Food Symbolism. The Cultural Connotations of Milk, Meat, and Blood in the Pastoral Maasai Diet. In: Anthropos , Volume 84, Issue 1-3, 1989, pp. 1-23.
  • David Read , Pamela Brown: Waters of the Sanjan. A Historical Novel of the Masai . Self-published 1982, revised. 1989 edition, ISBN 9987-8920-1-9
  • Corinne Hofmann : The white Maasai . Munich 2000, ISBN 978-3-426-61496-9
  • Corinne Hofmann: See you in Barsaloi . Munich 2007, ISBN 978-3-426-77893-7

Web links

Commons : Maasai  - collection of images, videos and audio files
Wiktionary: Maasai  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. ^ The Maasai People. Maasai Association (accessed February 21, 2018)
  2. George Adamson, p. 152
  3. ^ Christian Jennings: They called themselves Iloikop. Rethinking Pastoralist History in Nineteenth-Century Africa. In: Toyin Falola , Christian Jennings (Eds.): Sources and Methods in African History: Spoken, Written, Unearthed. Boydell & Brewer , 2003, ISBN 1-58046-134-4 , pp. 173-194.
  4. a b Bekure: Maasai Herding: An Analysis of the Livestock Production System of Maasai Pastoralists in Eastern Kajiado District, Kenya. 1991
  5. Christopher Spring : African Arms and Armor. British Museum Press, 1993, ISBN 0-7141-2508-3 , pp. 111-114
  6. Article on
  7. Article in English about the role of HIV / AIDS among the Maasai  ( page no longer available , search in web archivesInfo: The link was automatically marked as defective. Please check the link according to the instructions and then remove this notice.@1@ 2Template: Dead Link /