The Maasai Culture
The Maasai are possibly one of Kenya's most famous ethnic groups, made easily recognizable by their bright red robes and colorful beadwork. 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 noble, warm, and welcoming, and curious about the world abroad.
Once a warrior tribe, they were respected and feared by all other tribes in Kenya. In the late 1800's, however, tragedy befell the Maasai: smallpox wiped out a large part of the Maasai population, a pest killed off much of their cattle, and severe droughts aggravated all of these losses. British colonizers arrived in the area around this time and forced the weakened Maasai tribe to relinquish their land, moving them to smaller reserves in semi-arid regions.
Land accessible to them has since been further restricted by the formation of the Maasai Mara and the Serengeti Game Reserves, which are both located on former Maasai grazing land. This geographical confinement has placed great strain on the traditional Maasai way of life. As nomadic pastoralists, the Maasai would follow rainfall over large stretches of land in search of food and water for their cattle. Largely dependent on their livestock for nutrition and income, and no longer able to graze their cattle over areas large enough to find adequate food and water supplies, many Maasai are having to give up their traditional nomadic lifestyle and turn to agriculture instead. Most Maasai live in extreme poverty, with one meal a day, and children frequently suffer from malnutrition.
Despite the challenges that grow greater every year, the Maasai fight to maintain their rich heritage and culture.
Strongly patriarchal in nature, Maasai 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. Maasai 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.
The Role of Men
The Maasai social and political structure for men is based on age sets. Boys and men of the same age set are initiated into stages at the same time, and this becomes their permanent peer group. A Maasai man's stage will determine his social interactions, household duties, political power and rituals.
As boys, they are responsible for herding cattle. Much pressure is placed on Maasai boys, to ensure that they grow up to be brave and noble warriors. They are expected to herd and protect cattle, stay awake for long nights to ensure cattle doesn't fall prey to night-time predators, deal with physical injuries, and overcome pain and hunger.
Once circumcised, boys enter the stage of warriors, and their role is to protect the village and to serve as messengers for their elders. They remain warriors until the next age set of boys becomes warriors, at which point they themselves enter the stage of junior elders. They can now settle down, start a family and acquire cattle. Their role is to protect their animals from human and animal predators and to provide security for their families. As a polygamous society, Maasai men can take on multiple wives.
After the stage of junior elders, comes the stage of elders and the stage of senior elders. A man's responsibility for managing the village and any political decisions increases with age until they reach the stage of venerable elders, at which point they relinquish these responsibilities.
The Role of Women
For women, the Maasai social structure is based on whether they are married. There are therefore two groups: the unmarried, and the married.
Maasai women are responsible for building and maintaining the house, waking up early to milk the cattle, fetching water from rivers or water holes miles away from home, collecting heavy loads of firewood to bring back home and cooking for the family.
Maasai women are also responsible for the care of the children, the sick and the elderly. With poor access to childcare facilities and health services, this care-taking can take up a lot of time.
They cannot divorce their husbands, other than in the harshest cases of abuse, and once married, they can never marry again.
Girls are expected to follow in the footsteps of their mothers, accepting her parents’ decisions regarding her education and marriage, and are largely condemned to living a life of extreme poverty and hard work.
The Life of a Maasai Girl
Less than half of Maasai girls enroll in elementary school, and less than 10% go on to secondary school. Only a handful of exceptionally determined, brave and lucky girls make it to college and embark on a career. Those who do, spend up to 90% of their earnings on their families and help support their parents over time. Educated Maasai men, on the other hand, spend about 35% of their income on their families.
Typically, Maasai girls celebrate their rite of passage to womanhood between the ages of 11 and 14, and soon afterwards are married. Husbands are chosen by their fathers and traditionally are from an older age group. Once married, the girls must leave school and dedicate themselves to household duties. They become one of several wives, to husbands who often use force to assert their authority, and with no option for divorce except in the event of extreme abuse. Even then, divorce is seen as dishonorable for the girl’s parents, who are typically forced to return the dowry given to them at the time of marriage. As a wife, Maasai girls will bear three to five children, of which half pass away before they reach the age of five.
The Maasai Rite of Passage for Girls
The Maasai rite of passage ceremony for girls is traditionally a joyful event in which the entire community comes together to celebrate their passage from childhood to adulthood. It is a cultural practice, not a religious practice. There is revelry and feasting, dancing and singing. There is also, however, the circumcision rite, also known as female genital mutilation (FGM).
The Maasai believe that until a girl goes through FGM, she remains a child and is therefore unfit to marry. As most Maasai families believe it is in their daughters’ best economic interests to marry, they go to great lengths to have FGM performed at young ages on their daughters. There is also a firmly held belief that FGM preserves a girl’s virtue by reducing a girl’s desire for sex, making it less likely for her to engage in premarital sex or adultery.
Maasai girls typically celebrate their rite of passage to womanhood between the ages of 11 and 14. Most girls dread the pain of FGM, but look forward to ‘becoming a woman’. There is a real fear of the social repercussions and dishonor that is brought about by remaining uncircumcised.
After undergoing FGM, girls go into a period of seclusion to recover from the procedure and to be educated on their rights and duties as a Maasai woman. They are taught how to prepare food, how to take care of the home, how to raise children and how to look after their future husbands. The end of this period of seclusion is marked by celebrations welcoming the girls into womanhood. The girls, now women, are then eligible for marriage.
Because female genital mutilation is illegal in Kenya, many families are now circumcising girls are very young ages, before authorities start checking on them. Some families even have FGM done before the rite of passage ceremony, so that when authorities arrive to enforce the law, girls are already circumcised and nothing can be done.
Signs of Social Change
There are 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.
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