The Maasai Mara is a Nilotic ethnic group of semi-nomadic people that live in Kenya and North Tanzania. They are one of the most well known local nomadic populations thanks to their distinctive customs and bright, striking dress.
They also reside near a number of game parks in the Southeast African region, making them more accessible to travellers than other nomadic tribes in Africa. The Maasai Mara gladly welcomes visitors, allowing outsiders to get a rare insight into their everyday existence.
The Maasai have continued their semi-nomadic way of life despite calls from the Tanzanian and Kenyan government for them to abandon it. Recently, Oxfam declared that the Maasai’s semi-nomadic pastoral culture is one to be embraced - suggesting their ability to farm in deserts and scrubland will become an increasingly valuable asset as the impact of climate change takes hold.
Food and farming
Cattle are the Maasai’s life source. Their milk constitutes a major part of the Maasai’s diet, along with their blood and meat. Cattle are also used for trade and are representative of wealth. The climatic extremes that are already starting to impact the Maasai’s habitat, along with decreasing rangelands and the proliferation of disease, have greatly impacted and depleted the Maasai’s cattle stock.
The cattle are often too dehydrated to provide milk or blood, which has forced the Maasai to rely upon other food sources like grain-based maize porridges for survival. This has not only impacted their health but also unintentionally thrust the Maasai into Tanzania and Kenya’s monetary economy.
The price of the staple goods they require to survive has started to increase due to drought and ever-expanding fuel prices; these prices are further exacerbated by the isolation of the Maasai villages. This has considerably changed the Maasai way of life. They have been forced to start selling their medicines, cattle and handcrafted wares to pay for food and have thus become an impoverished people.
Customs and culture
Despite these fiscal changes, the Maasai continue to live authentically. They still reside in Kraals that are laid out in a circular fashion surrounded by a fence of acacia thorns. The women still build the houses with mud, sticks, grass, cow dung and cow’s urine, and the men are still responsible for building the fence.
Maasai women are also responsible for supplying water, collecting firewood, milking cattle and cooking, while the men are charged with maintaining security, and the boys with herding livestock. The culture still revolves largely around their cattle and their children (one who has many of both is considered wealthy), and it is still a largely patriarchal community.
Their religion in monotheistic – the people worship a single deity called Enkai or Engai, although Christianity is becoming more widespread. They still dress in a traditional sense and partake in ancient rituals. Considering the overwhelming modernity around them and the significant tourism influx to the area, the Maasai have managed to maintain their rich culture to great effect.
The Maasai’s distinctive dress attracts a lot of attention. Their mostly red robes are adorned with illustrious beading and jewellery, which represents everything from marital status, warriorhood and age, to strength, beauty and social standing. The bright colours of the beads themselves are each symbolic of different elements relating to Maasai culture:
- Red represents strength, bravery and unity.
- Green signifies nourishment –a representation of the land that provides the people and their livestock with food. It is also connected to the protection of the territory that the people inhabit.
- Blue, the colour of the sky and water, symbolises sustenance and energy.
- Yellow represents growth and fertility, it honours the sun, which helps the grass grow and in turn feeds the lifestock and the people.
- Orange is the colour of friendship, generosity and warmth.
- Black represents harmony and solidarity.
- White, the colour of cow’s milk, symbolises health and purity.
All photography courtesy of Dylan Walters, Flickr