The Maasai

5:04 PM

The Maasai peoples are pastoral nomads, living in the Serengeti Plains. Their wealth, livelihood, and religion all revolve around cattle. The Maasai have also cleverly adapted to increasing globalization. They charge a fee for any photographs taken of them, using Western curiosity about traditional African cultures to their advantage.

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Maasai people in their shukas.


The main garment worn by the Maasai is the shuka, which is a basic piece of fabric that can be worn in a variety of ways, depending on the personal style of the wearer. It was initially made out of animal skins, mostly cowhide but never elephant skin, but cotton is now the main material. The fabric is rubbed with color or dye to make it red, becoming a sort of camouflage with the red dirt of that part of Africa. In the dry grass plains the shuka can be white to camouflage with the grain.

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Maasai warriors.


Maasai life is predicated by age sets. For men there are three stages. Childhood, warriorhood, and elderhood. A boy reaches warriorhood around the age of 15, undergoing a series of rituals called almal lengipaata. The warriorhood is the most fabulous time of a mans life, and lasts for about fifteen to twenty years. A young man in warriorhood can be recognized by his appearance. The hair is grown out and braided in very intricate patterns, sometimes using as much as 16 strands at a time. They wear earrings and bracelets, as well as beaded necklaces that hang down the front and back of their bodies. They also wear symbols to show off their achievements. The errap is worn around the top part of the arm, made of leather with coils of metal wire in the front and the back, and shows that this man has fought and killed another man. The Olawaru is a lions mane headdress, meant to show that the man has killed a lion. The enkuwaru is a headdress made of ostrich plumes, meant to show that the man has fought a lion but the lion survived. The body is decorated with white limestone chalk in intricate non-symbolic patterns, and the hair is colored red with ochre and animal fat.

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Elaborately braided hair colored with ochre.


The transition from warriorhood to elderhood takes place during a ceremony called the eunoto, which can be extremely traumatic because all of the mans carefully tended hair is shaved off by his mother. The first man to have his head shaved wears a leather cape called an engilaa alamal. The head is then covered in ochre. The elders are expected to take a wife and have children and take on serious responsibilities within the tribe. He will carry a fly whisk made from an elephant tail as a symbol of authority.

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Maasai women.


There are only two stages of life for women, childhood and adulthood. A woman enters adulthood after she has undergone circumcision. Mothers of warriors wear surutia, coiled metal medallions. If her son is the first to get his head shaved during the eunoto ceremony, he wears his mothers surutia and it becomes loosurutia. Married women can also wear elongated leather earrings. But the main distinguishing feature for women is their elaborate beaded collars, which are higher in front and lower in back. The collars are made by the women themselves, and thus become more elaborate as women grow and acquire more skill. Heads are shaved to show off the beaded collars, which move around when the women dance.

Beads in particular have some meaning to the Maasai, with red beads having a connection to blood, blue beads having a connection to the heavens and the Gods, and green beads having a connection to prosperity, fertility of the land, and peace. All other colors are purely decorative.

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39 comments

  1. These beaded collars are so beautiful. It sounds as though the overall goal is towards red...and to seem as part of the earth. The first photo was interesting, because of the plaids!

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  2. I love the vibrant colours of their dress and makeup. And the beaded collars are gorgeous.

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    Replies
    1. same, i love dresses. they're so nice and pretty

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    2. hehe yeah i know rawr :3

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    3. awww, you stink

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    4. scuse me i enjoy dr3ss3s 2 and i <3 them

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    5. youre both stinkey

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    6. i eat fat peeps dresses m8 harambe ain't ded

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    7. i'm buttshark mun ha trolled m9

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    8. since when was this about our lord and saviour, i <3 dresses please stop

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  3. Hello were can I by similar collars in Europe?

    Thanks
    Tobbit

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  4. I found this site very useful! Thanks!

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  5. I loved learning about the Maasai way of life, it was fascinating! Can you believe that they're one of the happiest people on Earth! They also seem to LOVE red!!

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    Replies
    1. I know right, it's amazing how different other peoples lives are!

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    2. awesome site and very useful indeed! 10/10 !

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    3. This has helped me so much with my homework! Thanks a lot, learned some really cool facts about the Maassai people :)

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  6. Helped me loads, thank you

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  7. Why is it 'clever' that they have adapted to globalisation, instead of suggesting that they have 'used western curiosity to their advantage' wouldn't it be better to consider that they have been forced to do so since European colonisation has forced them to change their way of life?

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  8. Your first sentence is wrong. Yes, Maasai/Masai live in the Serengeti plains which are in Tanzania, but... May I correct it: Maasai (thanks to European partition of the African continent) are found in Northern Tanzania and Southern Kenya. Most didn't realize they were in two different countries until few years ago. There is no Maasai tribe in Uganda.

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  9. Can you provide some sources please? It's great information.

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    Replies
    1. The Worldwide History of Dress by Patricia Anawalt is an excellent resource. Africa Adorned by Angela Fisher is also great, although it's out of print so it's difficult to find.

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