Are you planning a visit to the Maasai Tribe? Visiting a tribe while travelling throughout Africa might be high on your bucket list. But is it really all it’s made out to be?
Read on to find out about the Maasai tribe, and the truth about your trip to see them in the flesh…
Who are the Maasai tribe?
The Maasai tribe live in northern, southern and central Kenya as well as northern Tanzania. Known for their distinctive customs and eye-catching dress, they are well known worldwide. The Maasai tribe speak the Maa language, which is a language closely related to the Dinka, Nuer and Kalenjin languages. Many of them now speak Swahili and English too.
According to the 2009 census in Kenya, there are almost three million people making up the population of the Maasai tribe. Governments in Tanzania and Kenya have tried to encourage them to move away from their traditions. However, some of the Maasai tribe are keen to continue their age-old traditions. They are extremely patriarchal: elders (and retired elders) make most of the major decisions for each Maasai group within the tribe as a whole.
What are the Maasai people like?
The Maasai tribe are monotheistic and worship a single deity known as Engai, who has a dual nature. Engai Narok, the Black God, is benevolent while Engai Na-nyokie, the Red God, is vengeful. Within Maasai society there are also two pillars: Oodo Mongi, the Red Cow, and Orok Kiteng, the Black Cow.
Cattle is an incredibly important part of the Maasai culture; they take pride in herding their cows. The Maasai live a semi-nomadic lifestyle moving around as the seasons pass so that they’re always in the best possible place for their cattle to graze. One of the religious beliefs of the Maasai tribe is that God gave them all the cattle on earth – and wealth is measured in terms of how many cows are in your herd.
There are so many interesting things about the Maasai tribe . For example, babies are not properly recognised until they reach three months old. This is due to a previous high mortality rate in newborns. Boys are circumcised without anaesthetic when they reach puberty. The Maasai people drink the blood and milk of their cows, as well as the meat when the time comes.
Music is also a huge part of life for the Maasai tribe: a song leader known as the olaranyani will sing a melody while a chorus harmonise with them. Lullabies, humming songs, monophonic melodies and more are chanted by mothers to their sons, praising them. The Maasai tribe are also well known for their body modifications. This includes the piercing and stretching of the earlobes using thorns, stones, elephant tusks and bundles of twigs, as well as the removal of deciduous canine tooth buds in babies. This is believed to prevent diarrhoea and vomiting.
A common highlight for people visiting Kenya and Tanzania is to take a trip to see the Maasai tribe. You can go to a homestead, meet tribe members and learn all about their way of life. Whether you are curious about the cultural differences between yourself and the Maasai tribe, or you are just keen to see the traditional dress up close, it is common to want to take a trip to see the Maasai people.
But is it all real? Much of what is described above in relation to the Maasai tribe isn’t strictly true these days – while it may be what you see on a tour, it isn’t how a lot of the Maasai live. Some traditions are still followed, of course: they are still a deeply patriarchal society, and the Maa language is still widely spoken. Some of the villages you can visit aren’t even real villages. They have been purpose-built to provide a tourist spectacle, to satisfy the itch of those eager to learn about a culture so different to their own.
And that’s not to say it isn’t interesting. The incongruity you may spot in a man dressed in traditional scarlet robes with beads adorning his ears, mobile phone in hand, is fascinating in itself for many of us. The Maasai tribe now embrace modern life – driving, engaging with tourists and adopting technology.
Are you really visiting the Maasai tribe?
The Maasai people are open to visitors – because it provides them with another source of income. And not only that, but many of the Maasai tribe members you meet on a typical tourist visit are not, in fact, actual members of the Maasai.
‘Ethnic tourism’ is popular in this part of the world. It attracts the tourist gaze, allowing holidaymakers and travellers to see “the others”, to see what they perceive as an underdeveloped lifestyle.
It is no wonder that both the Maasai themselves (and other tribes in the area) have chosen to capitalise on this. For example, the Samburu tribe in northern Kenya are quite similar in nature to the Maasai and they often engage in what is known as performance tourism. This is where they will put on a show for visitors . Mostly this involves singing and dancing by women and younger males as well as jewellery making and other activities.
While these activities are fun, and they do give back to a local community, it is easy to be blinded by the fact that you think you are seeing a traditional tribe in action. In reality, the majority of the Maasai tribe have moved forward just like the rest of the world. They will chant in greeting, show you a traditional dance and guide you on a tour around the mud huts within the village. BUT they will also happily try and get you to spend the equivalent of £75 GBP on a bracelet that, by all accounts, will fall apart within days. It is up to you as an individual tourist what you spend your money on of course. But be warned that what you see on a Maasai tribe tour isn’t always a reflection of reality…