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The Maasai or Masai are an indigenous African tribe of semi-nomadic people located primarily in Kenya and northern Tanzania. The Maasai are probably one of the most familiar tribes of East Africa. Despite the growth of civilisation, the Maasai have largely managed to stay out of the mainstream and maintain their traditional ways, although this becomes more challenging each year.

The estimated total population of the Maasai people is about 900,000, with about 350,000-453,000 Maasai living in Kenya. The validity of these statistics is in question, however, due to the inefficiencies of government census in the region.

The Maasai are part of the Nilotic family of African tribal groups, and probably migrated from the Nile valley in Sudan to central and south-western Kenya and northern Tanzania sometime after 1500 AD, bringing their domesticated cattle with them. Although other African tribes organised themselves into civilisations and kingdoms, the Maasai never surrendered their semi-nomadic lifestyle. The ability to graze their cattle over large territories has diminished considerably in recent years, due to increased urbanisation and the declaration of the Maasai Mara and Serengeti game reserves, which was all formerly Maasai grazing land.

Despite their reputation as fierce warriors, Maasai culture revolves around their cattle. One of their spiritual beliefs is that their rain god Ngai gave all cattle to the Maasai people, and therefore anyone else who possesses cattle must have stolen them from the Maasai. This has led to some fatal altercations with other tribes of the regions over the centuries when the Maasai attempt to reclaim their "property". The huts of the Maasai are built from dried cattle dung, and certain sacred rituals involve the drinking of cow blood.

There are numerous traditions and ceremonies performed by Maasai men. Perhaps best known is the warrior "jumping" dance, where young Maasai morani (warrior-youth) leap into the air from a standing position, in order to demonstrate their strength and agility. Until recent times, in order to earn the right to have a wife, a Maasai moran was required to have killed a lion. Officially this practice has stopped, although there is evidence that it continues in the more remote regions of Kenya. Also in earlier times a group of young boys were required to build a new village and live in it for a lengthy period (often years) as part of the passage to manhood. This practice is dying out due to lack of land.

Unlike many tribal cultures, Maasai women have a strong voice in their culture. Maasai women are easily identified by their shaved heads, bright clothing and beads, and the removal of one of the bottom teeth (for both sexes). Circumcision is performed on both sexes, with the elder men circumcising the teenage boys (who are not permitted to make a noise during the ceremony), and the elder women circumcising the teenage girls (for whom crying is permitted). Attempts by the Kenyan government to stamp out this practice have failed, primarily due to the fact that it is the Maasai women who defend the practice, not the men.

The Maasai share their language, Maa , with the Samburu tribe (indicating a common origin at some stage), but most Maasai also speak Swahili, the lingua franca of East Africa.

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Masai is also the name of a town near Johor Bahru, which is in the southern state of Johore, Malaysia.


According to Fr. Frans Mol, author "Maasai: Language & Culture Dictionary (Diocese of Meru, Kolbe Press Kenya) the spelling for the Maa (The language of the Maasai) word for warrior in the singular would be "ol - murrani" and in the plural would be "il - murran". The "ol" and "il" are Maa prefixes corresponding to the articles "a" or " the". Moron seems to be a phonetic spelling of the plural, and an unfortunate one. The common spelling is "moran" as it appears in writing in Kenya. Mol admits in his preface that the spelling of the language has not been officially determined.

Last updated: 05-16-2005 14:04:07