The Maasai (Masai)

Most of the Maasai (or Masai) pictured here are from a small village on the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater in northern Tanzania. They have very much maintained their traditional ways as cattle herders.

The Maasai believe that all cattle in the world belong to them, even though some may have temporarily found themselves in the possession of others. Thus, the Maasai are always justified in raiding their non-Maasai neighbors in order to "return" the cattle to the rightful owners.

The Maasai (and the Samburu) have very elaborate "coming of age" traditions. Boys are circumcised in their early teens in a ceremony attended by the entire village. The boy who flinches during this procedure brands himself as a coward and disgraces his family. Once circumcised, the young man becomes a member of the warrior class – a moran – and must live apart from the village with the other warriors. Eventually, at some point in his late teens or early twenties, a moran is chosen to become a junior elder, earns the right to marry and returns to live in the village. There were no moran nearby on the day we visited the Maasai village near Ngorongoro, but I did see some in the Samburu region, where the customs are very similar. For photographs, go to the Samburu People page.

For centuries the Maasai have hunted the lions on the Mara, both as a test of manhood and to protect their cattle. The lions have learned to recognize the red robes (and spears, no doubt) and instinctively keep their distance. While we were on the Mara, we noticed several lions suddenly become agitated and hunker down in the grass when they saw a Maasai far off in the distance. The lions didn't care one iota about all the vehicles full of people that were much closer. They do not associate the vehicles – or the people in them – with danger. But one red-robed Maasai far in the distance was enough to seize their attention.

A Note About Spelling: The preferred spelling for the people is "Maasai", although various other spellings are seen. As explained by the Maasai Association, "The title 'Maasai' derives from the word 'Maa'. 'Maa-sai' means 'my people'." The language spoken by the Maasai is also known as "Maa". When referring to the National Reserve, however, the more commonly seen name is "Masai Mara National Reserve", even through the Reserve is named for the Maasai people who have traditional populated its area. "Masai Mara" is the spelling generally found in guidebooks and on the Internet. Accordingly, at the risk of inconsistency, I have followed the practice of referring to the people as "Maasai" and the Reserve as "Masai Mara".

Other indigenous peoples: Herero People of Namibia, Himba People of Namiba and Samburu People of Kenya.