If the reality of the Maasai people seems distant to you, you’re not alone. Most people outside of Africa are unaware of the Maasai, their customs and traditions, and the challenges they face. The chances of your having met a Maasai are rather slim as well, unless of course you’ve travelled to Kenya or northern Tanzania, areas to which they are indigenous.
However distant, the Maasai share many characteristics with us. They are resilient and hard working, they have strong beliefs, values and traditions, and they have a long history with periods of prosperity and others of accentuated hardship. They are warm, and welcoming, and curious about the world abroad.
The Maasai culture is steeped in tradition, dating back for many centuries. Strongly patriarchal in nature, the men are responsible for the safety of the village, developing and improving the community’s cattle stock through trades and bartering, and making all relevant political decisions. Women are responsible for all matters regarding the home, including building and maintaining the house, fetching water, collecting firewood, milking the cattle, raising the children and cooking for the family. To read more about the roles of men and women in Maasai culture, please click here for our latest articles.
Some elements of their tradition have been widely criticized and outlawed in recent years, namely the common practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and early marriage. In Maasai culture, FGM is a rite of passage that girls must undergo to become women and be eligible for marriage. These ‘women’, sometimes as young as 12 years old, are then usually forced to marry a much older man. They then bear three to five children, of which half pass away before they reach the age of five.
In 2014, Kenya passed a marriage law that forbids girls being married before the age of 18. FGM has also been made illegal. Despite the fact that these laws now exist, many male Maasai government chiefs have refused to stop these practices and have not given the women and girls the news about the new laws. Tradition, extreme poverty and perceived gender roles are all significant factors driving the continued use of these practices, making it a challenge to introduce and accomplish social change.
There are, however, some strong proponents of change amongst the Maasai, paving the way for some much needed evolution in social practices. Chief Mary Kahingo, for instance, is the first female Maasai Chief in all of Kenya, and has been working tirelessly with Coins for Change to inform Maasai women and girls of their rights, to protect them against those who would infringe upon those rights, and to drive the social acceptance on new non-FGM rites of passage for girls.