The Maasai Tribe

The Maasai are a Nilotic speaking ethnic group inhabiting Kenya and northern Tanzania. They enjoy semi-nomadic lifestyle and continue their age-old customs and art. Famous for their fearsome reputations as warriors and cattle rustlers, they believe that God gave them all the cattle on the earth, leading to the belief that rustling cattle from other tribes is a matter of taking back what is rightfully theirs.

Through oral history we know that the Maasai originated from the lower Nile valley north of Lake Turkana and began migrating south around the 15th Century; arriving in what is now northern Kenya. Many ethnic groups that had already formed settlements were forcibly displaced by the incoming Maasai and eventually assimilated into Maasai society.

Maasai lands in Kenya were reduced by 60% when the British evicted them to make room for settler ranches – subsequently confining them to Samburu, Laikipia, Kajaido and Norak districts. Maasai are pastoralists and have resisted the urging of the Tanzanian and Kenyan governments to adopt a more sedentary lifestyle. They have demanded grazing rights in many of the national parks in both countries.

Many Maasai have moved away from the nomadic life to positions in commerce and government. Yet despite the sophisticated urban lifestyle they may lead, many will happily head homewards dressed in western designer clothes, only to emerge from the traditional family homestead wearing a shuka, (a colorful piece of cloth) cowhide sandals, and carrying a wooden club.

Clothing changes by age and location. However, red is a favored color. Blue, black striped and checkered cloth are also worn as are multicolored African designs.

The Maasai women regularly weave and bead jewelry. The bead work plays and essential part in the ornamentation of their body. Bead-working, done by women, articulate their identity and position in society through body ornaments and body painting.

Far right photograph taken from here.

Body painting is a form of body art where artwork is painted directly onto the human skin. Unlike tattoos, body painting is temporary, lasting several hours. Common at many rites of passage, representing a passage from one of life’s chapter to the next, both men and women will paint their artistic inspired decorations on themselves.

The art designs are linear lines, chevrons, simple pinwheels or what ever the artist feels is appropriate for the ceremony. The materials that are used include clay, chalk, ash and cattle dung. It is also believed to assist with the moderation of body heat and the use of striped patterns may reduce the incidence of biting insects.

You can learn more about the Maasai people here and here.