A Reflection on the Maasai Tribe After My Visit
By Luke Meinhardt
In the hills of eastern Africa, near the birthplace of civilization, live the Maasai people; a tribe characterized by their adherence to traditional culture and a nomadic lifestyle. The Maasai have managed to preserve these traditional ways, which has turned them into a symbol of cultural resilience in Eastern Africa. With the arrival of the British and Germans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many of the tribes that inhabited the region were forced into submission or quasi-slavery. Despite this, the Maasai people were able to use both their nomadic lifestyles and geographic position to evade complete decimation; this geographic advantage came as they were on the border between the stricter Germans to the south and generally more lenient British to the North, allowing them to move between governance as necessary.
Apart from their storied resilience, one of their other most defining characteristics is the continuity of their unique culture. The Maasai people developed hundreds of years ago as nomads, following the great herds of wildebeest and other mammals that grazed the Serengeti. Following the introduction of domesticated livestock that came with European colonization, they gradually moved to cattle herders. This is a tradition that they continue today, which I was able to witness, and base nearly the entirety of their livelihood off of.
The Maasai’s economy is centered completely around cattle; making it one of the few remaining large cultural groups that continue using livestock on such a large scale. Cows, goats, sheep, chicken, and other livestock represent the large majority of what is bartered and traded with: with cattle being vastly superior to the rest. According to a 2023 article published by National Geographic, these cattle have become closely intertwined with what it means to be Maasai. It has become the custom for the number of cattle a male possesses to determine his wealth and social status, which allows him to “purchase” multiple wives, with numbers ranging up to 10 on the high side.
While colonial powers have been what threatened the Maasai in the past, a new threat has emerged in recent years: the modernization and privatization of land. In the past, the Maasai peoples have used the vast swaths of largely unclaimed land to graze their cattle on; now though, this is being largely impeded by the vast emergence of privative land for agriculture and otherwise. This has forced the Maasai into traveling sometimes hundreds of miles to find grass to feed their cattle and posed a significant challenge in maintaining healthy herds.
Although tending to the cattle is solely a man’s job in Maasai culture, this added challenge has had deep effects on the entirety of the tribes. The young women who stay back are now being forced into taking more commanding roles in the villages due to the male absence. This isn’t to say that it isn’t the women haven’t always been in charge of all around the village, because they have; what’s changed is that now there is even more added stress from the prolonged absence of the men.
Maasai women tend and care for the vast majority of the village-related matters. While they take care of the rest of the livestock, children, cooking, and most other daily chores, the most unique aspect from a Western perspective is probably their construction of the homes. As the majority of married Maasai men have more than one wife, there is not just one home that he and his family share, rather, each wife constructs their own home for themselves and their children. The exact construction of these homes varies from village to village but the base comes from a mix of cow manure, mud, clay, and sticks from the Acacia trees that populate the landscape.
While the specifics of the homes vary from place to place, the overall interior makeup is very similar. Most homes consist of a small room centered around a fireplace as seen above on the right, usually no more than 10x10 ft. Around these fireplaces are typically the beds, typically sticks with cloth over them which between 2-3 sleep sometimes upwards of 10 children. Another interesting feature is that many of their homes have a separate living space inside the walls of the house for the baby cattle so that they are not preyed on by the predators that live in the savannah at night.
As a result of this resilience to modernization and change from the bartering system so common among tribes, the large majority of the Maasai live in what we would consider fairly extreme poverty. They live without any source of running water, often having to hike miles to find any source of drinking water. Additionally, the majority have absolutely none of the comforts that have become so common in our everyday lives (cell phones, internet, electronics, etc.). None of this is to say though that they lead sad or unhappy lives as nothing could be further from the truth. During my month spent in this region among people of the tribe, they were some of the happiest people I have ever encountered, especially the children. In my life, I don’t think I’ve seen so much unbridled happiness as when we would arrive at a village and the children would come out to greet us, or when we would drive through a town waving at everyone only to be met with some of the warmest, most genuine smiles.
All in all, the Maasai people live modest, but content life. This life is being threatened though, both by modernization and climate change: which is affecting rain patterns. However, if history is any indicator of what is to come, it is a safe bet that this unique tribe of people will continue to persevere against all odds.