Saylor.org's Ancient Civilizations of the World/East African Societies
East African cultures
Ethnic groups in East Africa number in the hundreds, each generally having its own language (or dialect of a language) and culture.
The Maasai are a Nilotic group inhabiting the African Great Lakes region. Nilotes speak Nilo-Saharan language, and came to Eastern Africa by way of South Sudan. Most Nilotes in the area, including the Maasai, the Samburu and the Kalenjin, are pastoralists, and are famous for their fearsome reputations as warriors and cattle-rustlers. As with the Bantu, the Maasai and other Nilotes in Eastern Africa have adopted many customs and practices from the neighboring Cushitic groups, including the age set system of social organization, circumcision, and vocabulary terms.
Origin, migration and assimilation
According to their own oral history, the Maasai originated from the lower Nile valley north of Lake Turkana (Northwest Kenya) and began migrating south around the 15th century, arriving in a long trunk of land stretching from what is now northern Kenya to what is now central Tanzania between the 17th and late 18th century. Many ethnic groups that had already formed settlements in the region were forcibly displaced by the incoming Maasai,while other, mainly southern Cushitic groups, were assimilated into Maasai society. The resulting mixture of Nilotic and Cushitic populations also produced the Kalenjin and Samburu.
Settlement in East Africa
The Maasai territory reached its largest size in the mid-19th century, and covered almost all of the Great Rift Valley and adjacent lands from Mount Marsabit in the north to Dodoma in the south. At this time the Maasai, as well as the larger Nilotic group they were part of, raided cattle as far east as the Tanga coast in Tanganyika (now mainland Tanzania). Raiders used spears and shields, but were most feared for throwing clubs (orinka) which could be accurately thrown from up to 70 paces (appx. 100 metres). In 1852, there was a report of a concentration of 800 Maasai warriors on the move in what is now Kenya. In 1857, after having depopulated the "Wakuafi wilderness" in what is now southeastern Kenya, Maasai warriors threatened Mombasa on the Kenyan coast. Maasai warriors in German East Africa, c. 1906-1918.
Because of this migration, the Maasai are the southernmost Nilotic speakers. The period of expansion was followed by the Maasai "Emutai" of 1883-1902. This period was marked by epidemics of contagious bovine pleuropneumonia, rinderpest and smallpox. The estimate first put forward by a German lieutenant in what was then northwest Tanganyika, was that 90 percent of cattle and half of wild animals perished from rinderpest. German doctors in the same area claimed that "every second" African had a pock-marked face as the result of smallpox. This period coincided with drought. Rains failed completely in 1897 and 1898.
The Austrian explorer Oscar Baumann travelled in Maasai lands in 1891-1893, and described the old Maasai settlement in the Ngorongoro Crater in the 1894 book Durch Massailand zur Nilquelle ("Through the lands of the Maasai to the source of the Nile"): "There were women wasted to skeletons from whose eyes the madness of starvation glared ... warriors scarcely able to crawl on all fours, and apathetic, languishing elders. Swarms of vultures followed them from high, awaiting their certain victims." By one estimate two-thirds of the Maasai died during this period.
Starting with a 1904 treaty, and followed by another in 1911, Maasai lands in Kenya were reduced by 60 percent when the British evicted them to make room for settler ranches, subsequently confining them to present-day Kajiado and Narok districts. Maasai in Tanganyika (now mainland Tanzania) were displaced from the fertile lands between Mount Meru and Mount Kilimanjaro, and most of the fertile highlands near Ngorongoro in the 1940s. More land was taken to create wildlife reserves and national parks: Amboseli, Nairobi National Park, Masai Mara, Samburu, Lake Nakuru and Tsavo in Kenya; and Manyara, Ngorongoro, Tarangire and Serengeti in what is now Tanzania.
Maasai are pastoralist and have resisted the urging of the Tanzanian and Kenyan governments to adopt a more sedentary lifestyle. They have demanded grazing rights to many of the national parks in both countries.
The Maasai people stood against slavery and lived alongside most wild animals with an aversion to eating game and birds. Maasai land now has East Africa's finest game areas. Maasai society never condoned traffic of human beings, and outsiders looking for people to enslave avoided the Maasai.
Though the Maasai people stood against slavery and the traffic of humans beings, they were able to conquer such large areas of land by displacing the people who had previously lived in the area.
Essentially there are twelve geographic sectors of the tribe, each one having its own customs, appearance, leadership and dialects. These subdivisions are known as the Keekonyokie, Damat, Purko, Wuasinkishu, Siria, Laitayiok, Loitai, Kisonko, Matapato, Dalalekutuk, Loodokolani and Kaputiei.
Maasi Culture Maasai society is strongly patriarchal in nature, with elder men, sometimes joined by retired elders, deciding most major matters for each Maasai group. A full body of oral law covers many aspects of behaviour. Formal execution is unknown, and normally payment in cattle will settle matters. An out-of-court process is also practiced called 'amitu', 'to make peace', or 'arop', which involves a substantial apology. The Maasai are monotheistic, worshipping a single deity called Enkai or Engai. Engai has a dual nature: Engai Narok (Black God) is benevolent, and Engai Nanyokie (Red God) is vengeful. The "Mountain of God", Ol Doinyo Lengai, is located in northernmost Tanzania. The central human figure in the Maasai religious system is the laibon who may be involved in: shamanistic healing, divination and prophecy, and ensuring success in war or adequate rainfall. Whatever power an individual laibon had was a function of personality rather than position. Many Maasai have become Christian, and to a lesser extent, Muslim. The Maasai are known for their intricate jewelry.
A high infant mortality rate among the Maasai has led to babies not truly being recognised until they reach an age of 3 moons, ilapaitin. For Maasai living a traditional life, the end of life is virtually without ceremony, and the dead are left out for scavengers. A corpse rejected by scavengers (mainly spotted hyenas, which are known as Ondilili or Oln'gojine in the Maasai language) is seen as having something wrong with it, and liable to cause social disgrace; therefore, it is not uncommon for bodies to be covered in fat and blood from a slaughtered ox. Burial has in the past been reserved for great chiefs, since it is believed to be harmful to the soil.
Traditional Maasai lifestyle centres around their cattle which constitute their primary source of food. The measure of a man's wealth is in terms of cattle and children. A herd of 50 cattle is respectable, and the more children the better. A man who has plenty of one but not the other is considered to be poor. A Maasai religious belief relates that God gave them all the cattle on earth, leading to the belief that rustling cattle from other tribes is a matter of taking back what is rightfully theirs, a practice that has become much less common.
"The Maasai People" (Wikipedia) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maasai_people