[email protected]   |    +27 21 852 6911

Written by: Juan Proll on 15 June 2022

What is the culture of the Maasai known for: 10 interesting facts about the Maasai


The Maasai live in Tanzania and Kenya. Even though they only make up a small proportion of the Tanzanian population, they are, for many travellers, the most recognisable ethnic tribe in this multi-ethnic nation. So, what is the culture of the Maasai known for? Here are 10 interesting things to know about the culture of the Maasai.

Maasai herder savanna

Tanzania does not take ethnicity into account in its censuses, which is why the exact number of Maasai is unknown. They live mainly in the north of Tanzania, around the Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. That’s why they stand out to tourists. The following selection of interesting facts about the Maasai will give you a first insight into what the culture of the Maasai is known for:

1. Masai or Maasai – the right spelling

The Maasai language is called “Maa”. It is a nilitary language from the surroundings of the Nile Valley. Derived from Maa, Maa-sai are the people who speak Maa. That’s why Maasai organisations, such as the Maasai Association, prefer “Maasai” to “Masai” or “Massai”.

2. Indigenous or immigrants?

Like many other nomadic groups in Africa, the Maasai were nomadic as well. The first herding families of the various Maasai groups probably migrated from Sudan to Tanzania around the 15th century. Together with their cattle, they searched for fertile pastures. The first significant settlements in central Tanzania occurred between the 17th and 18th centuries. It is believed that the Maasai displaced or mixed with other local ethnic groups.

3. Belief and myth

Although many Maasai now follow Christianity or Islam, they once worshipped Engai or Enkai as their creator god. But he doesn’t live in the sky, he is enthroned in the heights of the Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano. When the mountain smokes and spews lava, it’s because Engai is angry. Tradition has it that Enkai gave the first Maasai couple 100 cows, goats, and sheep. For the Maasai, animals are both a way of life and a source of income. Cattle in particular are their currency.

You want to learn more about traveling to Tanzania?

Get in contact with us!

4. Warriors and herders

In addition to being semi nomadic cattle breeders, the Maasai are best known as warriors (Moran). Their traditional weapons are the sword (Ol Alem) and the spear. In the past, when they were expanding, they were usually superior to the local population. Today they are mainly herders. But even today, as in the past, they have to protect their livestock and their families from predators, especially lions.

As part of their culture, young men on their way to adulthood would hunt lions, alone or in a group. It showed courage and strength. Although this tradition is still practised in some areas today, it is officially banned. Lions are protected as a species and are primarily a tourist attraction, providing income for the country and its people.

However, as the Maasai’s main source of livelihood is livestock (milk, meat, warm furs, etc.), losses from lion attacks can easily become a family tragedy. To prevent vigilantism, the government pays compensation to the family. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always work smoothly.

Sheep herding

5. Survival on subsistence farming

Half nomadic, the Maasai traditionally move to where they can find food for their animals. The rains are followed by grass growth. Shortly after the arrival of the herds, green grass turns into empty pastures, which remain that way until the next rain. It is a sustainable form of animal husbandry that takes place naturally. But a nomadic lifestyle is difficult in the modern world. Movement is increasingly restricted.

And yet, when there is a prolonged drought, existing boundaries with neighbours or protected areas are ignored. The welfare of the animals takes priority, and unused pastures must be used to survive until the next rainy season. The Maasai philosophy is that no one should be denied access to natural resources such as water and land.

Their cattle, goats and sheep are their main source of income and currency. They are exchanged for other livestock, livestock products such as milk or money. Within Maasai communities, individuals, families, and clans build relationships by giving or exchanging livestock.

6. Household and role allocation

Maasai girls and women are traditionally responsible for fetching water, collecting firewood, milking the cows, cooking for the family and building houses. The houses (the inkajijik) are reminiscent of a loaf of bread. Except that the main ingredient is not wheat, but branches, grass, mud, cow dung and cow urine.

The families’ huts are usually arranged around a large square in the centre. In the centre is a corral to protect the cattle from predators at night. It is called a boma and is usually an area fenced in by thorn bushes.

The men, who have matured into warriors, are responsible for security. The boys have to look after the cattle. In extreme dry seasons, they are assisted by the warriors.

The oldest of the group guard everything. As leaders, they announce the schedule for everything before the daily activities begin. Status, duties, and social life depend on the age of the Maasai.

Maasai boma house

7. Colourful clothes & elongated ears

The Maasai not only stand out for their average height. Their colourful clothing is also striking. In our western society, clothing is increasingly blurred according to gender, age, and region. But this is not the case for the Maasai. Red, black, and blue are the favourite colours of the Maasai. The cloth, or shuka, that they wrap around their bodies is often chequered and striped in these colours. After their circumcision ceremony, young Maasai wear black for many months. Both men and women wear their colourful beaded jewellery with pride. The woven cloth has only been available to the Maasai since the 1960s. Before that, they wore clothes made from sheepskin and calf leather.

As if their colourful clothing wasn’t striking enough, they also have strikingly elongated ears. This is not a remnant of their cheeky childhood, but an expression of their culture. Men and women use thorns to pierce the earlobes, twigs, bundles of twigs, stones, the cross-section of elephant tusks and empty film cans to stretch the pierced holes. They wear metal hoops on their pierced ears, and women wear additional jewellery and smaller piercings on their upper ears.

8. Circumcision ceremony

The Maasai have many ceremonies. But the circumcision ceremony (Emuratta) is the most important rite of passage from adolescence to adulthood. It is performed during puberty.

The boy’s foreskin is cut off, traditionally without anaesthetic. Showing pain is seen as weakness and is therefore suppressed. The wound is traditionally disinfected with ashes. The healing process takes about 3–4 months. But they have to wear their black ceremonial clothes and white paint for 4–8 months. It is during this time that they finally grow into men and are given the status of a warrior (Moran).

Traditionally, Maasai girls are also cut and grow into women during the healing process. After the ceremony, they can marry. Families prefer an older man because the young warriors often can’t pay the “bride price” of 25 or more cattle. But more and more girls are becoming women without circumcision. International condemnation of FGM and massive awareness campaigns about the health, physical and psychological damage it causes are leading to a growing change in attitudes.

9. Bloodlust

In Maasai culture, drinking raw cattle blood is an honourable tradition, usually reserved for special occasions. For example, after circumcision, blood is ritually drawn from the throat of a young bull, mixed with milk, and given to the circumcised boys to drink. Even the birth of a child is celebrated with a glass of blood. Blood is rich in protein and is believed to strengthen the immune system. The elderly also drink blood to combat, or at least soothe, a hangover after a night of drinking.

10. Change and challenges

Like many traditionally minded ethnic groups, the Maasai can’t escape social and climatic change:

In Tanzania, important protected areas such as Tarangire, the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area are part of the Maasai’s ancestral land. These areas now serve nature and wildlife conservation. They are also used for game viewing and tourism. In the areas declared ‘national parks’, the Maasai are therefore denied access to water sources and grazing land. Only the status of ‘conservation area’ gives them more freedom.

In Tanzania, the population, the number of grazing animals and the use of grazing land are increasing. This leads to conflicts of interest between the government and the Maasai.

Societal developments are also changing the lives of the Maasai. For example, the introduction of formal education has changed the roles in Maasai families. With compulsory schooling, the responsibility for herding the cattle is left to the parents. At least during the week, since the weekends are free of school, boys can take over the traditional responsibility of herding.

As a result of this development, the Maasai economy has become increasingly dependent on the market economy. Livestock and livestock products are increasingly used to buy jewellery, clothing and grain. The Maasai also use the money to pay for their children’s school uniforms and fees.

At the same time, it is becoming more common in some areas for young Maasai men and women to sell cereals, charcoal, mobile phones, accessories, and other items in addition to their goats and cows. The men work as night watchmen and doormen, and increasingly as guides, waiters, or managers in the safari areas.

Attempts by the government to expand agriculture in the country have deprived the Maasai of vital grazing land. At the same time, global climate change appears to be increasing droughts in East Africa. Cattle herds are dwindling, and more and more people are relying on supplementary feeding. These conditions are forcing the Maasai to abandon their traditional way of life, to develop a sense of entrepreneurship and to develop alternative livelihoods.

Maasai man grilling meat

The consequences of the global opening up of all aspects of political, economic, and social life are disrupting the traditional system in every way. That’s why the Maasai tribal leadership, the council of elders, is losing more and more power. This leads to disorientation, loss of a sense of security and an increasing erosion of traditional values at a pace that doesn’t allow for a healthy adaptation to the new ways of life.

Despite or possibly because all of this, more and more Maasai families are open to tourists who are interested in their traditional way of life. As contradictory as it may sound, the opening of their village gate is on the one hand an invitation to “voyeurism”. On the other hand, it is a legitimisation of their traditional way of life. It is actually the solution to a problem, because it generates income.

Tanzania is full of highlights. Meeting the Maasai is a special experience for those who like to get to know foreign cultures. If you have any questions or need assistance in planning your trip to Tanzania, whether it is a small group safari or private safari. Here on site, we are always well informed about the current situation. Get in touch with us!

Author: Juan Proll

Traveling has always been Juan Proll's great passion: three years in Latin America, two years in Southeast Asia and Oceania as well as short trips of up to nine months in Europe, Central America, and North Africa. In 2010, he decided to quit his job in Germany as an adult education teacher and head of department for migration issues and to become a ranger in South Africa. Juan has been traveling across Africa since 2011, traveling to southern and eastern Africa and also climbing Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Beforehand, he completed his nature guide training in South Africa and worked in a Big Five game reserve. With further training and intensive self-study to become a cultural guide, Juan has since expanded his field of activity beyond the natural world to include the countries, cultures, and its people. In mid-2013 he joined Africa-Experience and has been guiding travelers through Africa as a safari guide ever since. Juan is a member of the Field Guides Association of Southern Africa.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *