Maasai Oral Histories Project The Explorers Club   Center for Teaching International Relations at DU



  the maasai people
The Maasai have a long tradition of pastoralism, though today some are adopting a settled life. They speak a language of the Eastern Nilotic Maa grouping, which also includes the languages of the Arusha and Baraguyu, or Kwafi, peoples of Tanzania.

Traditional Maasai society is governed by a series of age-based groupings, especially among the males. Males between the approximate ages of 15 and 30 are junior Ilmurran, or warriors, whose responsibility it is to protect the herds. During this period, the Ilmurran live in a separate area called Emanyata and are prohibited from marrying. After age 30 they become senior warriors for approximately 15 years. During this time they live among the rest of the Maasai and serve as a sort of home guard, and have the option of marrying. Following this stage, men become junior elders. After another interval of approximately 15 years, they become senior elders, who make decisions for the group.


Land is traditionally considered communal; wealth is determined by the number of cattle owned, and families brand their cattle to differentiate them. Traditional Maasai live in temporary camps called enkangitie (enkang in the singular), composed of huts, called kralls or bomas, made of wooden poles and plastered with dung. Kralls include a corral for the cattle.

After Kenyan independence in 1963, significant portions of the most fertile and well-watered areas of Maasailand were taken by the government and distributed to other ethnic groups. The Maasai today face problems of overgrazing and soil erosion as they find themselves more and more constrained. The governments of both Kenya and Tanzania have encouraged them to abandon their communal land ownership practices and nomadic existence in favor of private property, either for ranching or for farming.

Unwritten languages such as Maa, destabilize quicker than languages that are disseminated through the printed word. As the traditional Maasai lifestyle is under pressure to change, the language is also facing the probability of change. Culture is transmitted from one generation to the next via language, and the lexicon, or unique words of a given language, express concepts central to the culture. When languages are lost, the unique history of tribal origins, tales of epic battles and events, and the rationale behind daily rituals, from birth to death, are also lost.