If the reality of the Maasai people seems distant to you, you’re not alone. Most people outside of Africa are unaware of them, 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, they 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 Tradition
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.
The Maasai maintain a traditional pastoral lifestyle, depending on their livestock for nutrition and source of income. Milk, in fact, is their most important source of nutrition, as their staple diet consists of milk, meat, blood and maize. Land appropriation for public and private interests have limited the areas in which Maasai herders can move in search of pastures and water for their cattle, threatening their nomadic lifestyle. Most Maasai live in extreme poverty, with one meal a day, and children frequently suffer from malnutrition.
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.
The Life of a Maasai Girl
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, raising the children and cooking for the family. Girls are expected to follow in the footsteps on 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.
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.
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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