Timeless Cultural Traditions: The Maasai


In this series, Andrew Harper-recommended destination specialists and tour operators share their insight into what they consider to be some of the most fascinating and culturally diverse populations across the globe.

The Maasai


The Maasai, who have lived in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania for thousands of years, are as integral to the culture of East Africa as are the arid land and unrivaled wildlife.

"Although the Maasai are very aware of the outside world—and today even use mobile phones to do their banking—most still prefer the simplicity of their traditional lifestyle."

In Kenya, the majority of Maasai live in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, named for the Maasai people as well as the Mara River that runs through the reserve. Known as tall and fierce warriors, the Maasai are a proud people working to preserve their traditional pastoral lifestyle despite influences from the outside world and impacts from natural disasters, such as droughts.

“Although the Maasai are very aware of the outside world—and today even use mobile phones to do their banking—most still prefer the simplicity of their traditional lifestyle,” says Geoffrey Kent, Abercrombie & Kent founder, chairman and CEO.

This traditional lifestyle is evident in a Maasai village, also called a boma or kraal. The boma is encircled by a fence made of acacia thorns, designed to prevent lions from attacking the Maasai’s wealth: their cattle, sheep and goats. This livestock is the source of most of their food, such as milk, meat and animal blood. Kent notes that asking the Maasai, who live under a communal land-management system, how many cows they have is considered impolite, much like asking an American how much money they make. Indeed, the Maasai consider cattle—along with children—as the most important aspect of their culture, as evidenced by a Maasai prayer (translated to English): “May the Creator give us cattle and children.”

A typical village has only four to eight related families, with an average of seven children each. Individual huts, which the women build of sticks, mud, grass and cow dung, reflect the Maasai’s semi-nomadic lifestyle, as the structures are quickly built and require little maintenance. Maasai women also create colorful, intricate beadwork items, which along with paint they use to ornament their body. (Increasingly, the beadwork also serves as a source of income for the Maasai.)

Journeys to a local village allow visitors to witness the day-to-day activities of the Maasai and learn about their history and traditions directly from Maasai elders. The young men live separately from the rest of the community, and visitors can observe their warrior training, which includes building a fire, throwing a spear and carving the wooden staff they carry. Historically, Maasai men have hunted and killed lions as a traditional rite of passage to manhood. However, as the population of lions has dramatically declined, this practice has increasingly been called into question.

Perhaps the most visible sign of the Maasai are their shukas, red blankets or sheets they wear wrapped around their body. Traditionally made from animal skin, today shukas are primarily made from cotton. They can be worn in a number of ways, such as tied over each shoulder with a third draped over the top.

“The red-cloaked, spear-carrying Samburu and Maasai are a handsome and dignified presence in the Kenyan highlands,” adds Mr. Harper, “and their way of life remains a vital connection to an immemorial Africa.”

Global travel company Abercrombie & Kent, which was established in East Africa in 1962, has arranged journeys, safaris and adventure tours in Kenya for more than 50 years. The company established the Masai Mara Environmental Learning Centre as a place for the local community to deepen their commitment to conservation and developing sustainable ways to use their natural resources.

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This article is an excerpt from the October, November, December edition of the Traveler magazine. Click here to access the full issue.

By Hideaway Report Staff

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