Although they are only a minority community in East Africa, the Maasai have for decades attracted the interest of hundreds of scholars and thousands of tourists who seek to experience and understand the traditions and way of life of this pastoralist community. The Maasai (or Masai) are said to have arrived in Kenya back in the 15th century A. D. to occupy the stretch from Kenya’s North Rift to the Indian Ocean (FitzGerald, 2008). The Maasai lost most of their land to the colonialists and now inhabit the southern parts of Kenya and the northern parts of the neighboring Tanzania (Kabukuru, 2004).
In fact, the boundaries drawn by the colonialists to separate the two countries split the Maasai people. The Maasai in Kenya lost more land to agriculturalist communities, mainly the Kikuyu, during the presidency of independent Kenya’s first president, the late Jomo Kenyatta (UNHCR, 2010) According to FitzGerald (2008), Tanzania is home to twice as many Maasai people as Kenya. The Tanzanian Maasai are also more marginalized and traditional compared to their Kenyan counterparts. One of the most distinctive features which have defined the Maasai people for decades has been their reluctance to embrace west-inspired civilization.
Many years after their fellow communities in East Africa embraced westernization and set on a path of replacing their lifestyles, values and traditions with western ones, the Maasai people have held on and protected their traditions with a great level of success. Most Maasai people are still nomadic pastoralists herding indigenous breeds of cattle, goats and sheep. Education is still not as important as among other communities while many of the traditional leadership and conflict resolution mechanisms are still alive and strong.
However, tides of change have been sweeping over the Maasai land and people, and some have ditched pastoralism for crop agriculture, business and urban labor. More and more Maasai people have appreciated the value of education and have taken their children to school. While the Maasai remain a largely traditional people, there is sufficient evidence to show that the society is changing gradually, and the traditional order is slowly giving way to new order (Marks, 1999). This paper discusses the Maasai’s social organization. Social organization
For this essay, social organization refers to how members of a community interact, how they share tasks and resources, their systems of kinship, and the ranking systems (if any) members of that community use to rank their members. The age-set Anthropologists and historians agree that to understand the Maasai and their culture, one must appreciate the centrality of their age-set system (Berntsen, 1979). The age-set is one of the most important institutions among the Maasai people. The Maasai people are born, brought up, participate in events, and live their lives not much as individuals but as members of their age-sets.
According to Berntsen (1979), “[f]amous speakers, brave warriors, and influential rich men died and usually were forgotten, only the name of the age-set remained. ” Young boys, save for those who now go to school, spend most of their time playing and tending calves and sheep. Because they spend most of their childhood socializing with fellow boys, Maasai boys tend to develop very strong bonds among themselves. These bonds give them their identity as members of their respective groups. Girls of the same age spend their time with their mothers, helping them with household chores as they learn from the mothers.
Maasai boys are assigned age-sets as they go through a long and elaborate circumcision ritual which counts as one of the most important rituals in the life of a Maasai. Female circumcision is still common among the Maasai but it prepares the teenage girls not for warriorship but for marriage to the older men as warriors are barred from getting married. Once circumcised, the Maasai boys become morans (warriors), junior elders, senior elders, and finally retired elders. Each of the stage lasts about 15 years, to be replaced by the younger age-set.
The morans are fighters and they are assigned the role of guarding the bomas (communal homesteads) against attacks by livestock rustlers and wild animals which attack the livestock. Due to their important role in the Maasai society, the warriors are revered and no even senior elders can direct them to do what they do not want to do (Marks, 2004). A generation of warriors is replaced when another is initiated, giving the outgoing generation the opportunity to become junior elders. The morans go through another rite of passage which marks their transition from warriors to junior elders.
Junior elders can own livestock, marry and bear children. In their new status, their roles changes from that of defending the community against aggression to that of participating in decision-making and speaking on behalf of their communities and families. It is important to note that that even marriage among the Maasai is an age-set affair, with the women marrying not just their husbands but the age-set. A member of one age-set having sex with another man’s wife is acceptable, as long as both men belong to the same age-set.
When a man dies leaving behind his family, the responsibility of taking care of the family falls on the dead man’s age-set mates. They are also required to come to the aid of their mates who lose all their livestock to drought, disease, or cattle rustlers. In all, a Maasai man remains a member of a particular age-set for life. Not surprisingly, women are excluded from the age-set system and are therefore not members of any age-set. Family and clan Although it is changing, each Maasai homestead or boma was inhabited by several families at a time.
Granted that most middle aged and old Maasai men have several wives and many children, each boma consisted of tens of traditional huts. In the modern Maasai society, each homestead is inhabited by one family. Like most of the other African communities, the Maasai are a patrilineal people in which a child automatically belongs to his father’s clan from birth to death. Male children are viewed as the potential leaders and therefore enjoy more privileges than girls. As the Maasai’s grip on traditions eases gradually to make space for modernization, more and more Maasai people are taking their children to school.
However, the patrilineal nature of the Maasai is evident in the preference of boys over girls (FitzGerald, 2008). More boys are enrolled in school while the girls remain unschooled, either due to lack of money for school fees or because parents do not find it necessary to take girls to school. Girls are also more likely to drop out of school than boys. Within the family, brothers have responsibility of taking care of their sisters. Although this responsibility may seem to weaken when the sister gets married and relocates to live with her husband, it does not end as long as the brothers live.
The girl belongs to the family and in case of irreconcilable trouble in her new home, the girl can return to her brother’s home and be accepted fully. A brother is not only responsible for his sister but also for her children, particularly the sons. Maasai men therefore retain good relationships with their sisters and their sisters’ children (Grandin, n. d). Marital disputes are resolved through established dispute resolution mechanisms which are mainly spearheaded by the elders. Religious beliefs and prophetic leadership Maasai people are monotheistic.
They refer to their two-faced deity as Enkai or Engai. It is in this deity that they believe, and make sacrifices in times of droughts and calamities. A more important feature of the Maasai religious system is the place of prophetic leaders. In the traditional Maasai society, the prophet or the ol oibon was revered deeply as he was involved in divination, prophecy, and shamanistic healing. Prophets received prophetic dreams from Enkai and used their enkidong (a guard containing small stones) for divination. Divination was an acquired skill (Berntsen, 1979).
In times of war, drought or other calamities, the prophets led the people in making sacrifices. It is noted above that members of the Maasai community are known and remembered mostly as members of their respective age-sets and not as individuals. However, prophets are remembered as individuals so that “the Maasai recall a long list of age-set names and an equally long, supposedly genealogical, list of names of famous prophets” (Berntsen, 1979). Among the Maasai, one became a prophet by virtue of being born in a family of prophets as aging prophets were expected to pass the mantle to the younger members of their families.
This ensured that the Maasai socio-political unit had solid prophetic leadership at any given time. So important was the place of prophets among the Maasai that a Maasai social-political unit could not survive the loss of the prophetic family, which occasionally happened due to conflicts. The surviving members of the unit either fled and sought refuge other people, or joined the groups which vanquished theirs. This fate befell such groups as the iloikipiak, ilogolala, and the ilosekelai (Berntsen, 1979). Influence of modernism on the social organization of the Maasai
Despite decades of resistance to westernization and its influence on their rich culture with impressive levels of success, the Maasai people have been gradually, though reluctantly, making adjustments to their lifestyles to catch up with their co-patriots. Harsh, unpredictable and erratic weather conditions have occasioned poverty and heavy losses on the Maasai people. Droughts, cattle rustling and depletion of livestock by drought and disease have driven some to turn to crop agriculture while thousands of others have left the Maasai ancestral lands for the cities where they seek wage labor.
According to May (2003), the last decade has seen the migration to cities of rural Maasai pastoralists in “previously unseen numbers. ” Most of those relocating to the urban centers are young people who should ideally take the role of morans back home. The influence of community elders, many of whom have been impoverished by drought and depletion of livestock, has waned significantly so that they are not well-equipped to advise their young ones or to interest them in the traditions of the Maasai people (May, 2003). The result has been the gradual disintegration of the Maasai social organization structures.
Conclusion The Maasai people are among the few communities whose fight to protect their culture and traditions from foreign influence have lasted the longest. The age-set system, the family and clan structure, and religion and prophetic leadership have been most important features of the Maasai and have kept the Maasai people united for centuries. In other words, their social organization has been the foundation on which the identity of the Maasai as a people has been built in pre-colonial, colonial and independent East Africa.
The social organization structures are in the process of change. As FitzGerald (2008) argues, this change will redefine the Maasai identity but will not result in the disappearance of this identity. References Berntsen, J. (1979). Maasai Age-sets and Prophetic Leadership: 1850-1910. Africa, 49(2): pp 134-146. FitzGerald, J. (2008). The Last of the Maasai in Northern Tanzania? Redefining Cultural Identity. Oxford Brookes University: Unpublished Thesis. Grandin, B. (n. d). The Maasai: Socio-Historical Context and Group Ranches. Retrieved May 28, 2010, from http://agtr. ilri.
cgiar. org/library/docs/x5552e/x5552e05. htm Kabukuru, W. (2004). The Maasai vs. The Crown. New African, October 2004: pp 48-50. Marks, G. (1999). The Winds of Change. Geographical, October 1999. May, A. (2003). Maasai Migrations: Implications for HIV/AIDS and Social Change in Tanzania. Institute of Behavioral Science, Working Paper PAC2003-0001. Boulder: Population Aging Center. United Nations High Commission for Refugees (2010). Assessment for Maasai in Kenya. Retrieved May 28, 2010, from http://www. unhcr. org/refworld/topic,463af2212,469f2e502,469f3aa666,0. html