Anthropology. Maasai Cultural Ecology


Ecology refers to the study of habitat or surroundings, and the way of life of all the living things in an environment. A people’s ‘Culture’ is their way of life, attitude, creed, ethics, and morals which is passed from one generation to the other. Cultural Ecology, therefore, refers to how human beings adapt and relate to their surroundings in their daily activities including other living things in the environment.

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In East Africa, several communities practice cattle herding. Among them, the most common pastoral community is the Maasai People who link the Southern Kenya boundary to the Northern Tanzania border. The Maasai are the last group of Nilotes southwards in the Eastern Africa region. They have relatives such as the Turkana who live around Lake Turkana and Kalenjin in the Rift Valley Province. They have grazing rights to several parks in the two countries and ignore international boundaries since they herd their livestock across the Savanna depending on the season. ( Elliot, 2003). The community is not so large and it constitutes a population of about 350,000 people. They fall under the wider group of Ol Maa who are Nilotes. They neighbor communities from Kenya such as the Samburu, Kikuyu, Kamba, and Meru, and also Tanzanian communities such as the Pare, Kaguru, Sukuma, Chaga, and the Gogo.

The environment influences society in the following ways: trade operation, farming, homes, food gathering, infrastructure, feeding habits, and linguistic development. The Maasai are widely known for their striking beadwork. Some of their beadwork they sell to tourists. (Elliot, 2003) It is a vital element in the beautification of the body. The patterns in the beadwork are of specific meaning depending on the age and rank of the wearer. The male youths usually paint their bodies in red ocher to improve their appearance. They also may spend long hours or even days preparing their distinct hairstyles. These are shaved by a religious elder as they graduate to their next age group.

The Maasai value very much their cattle and so they do not easily slaughter but instead they let the animals accumulate and either traded to settle debts or put them on the market and count it as wealth. The male youths are the ones who are given the responsibility to take care of the herds. They settle in camps and constantly move from one area to another as they look for pastures. ( Richards, 1960) The Maasai are feared by their neighboring communities because they are ruthless cattle rustlers. When the need arises, the youthful warriors, who are known as morans, move out in groups to acquire livestock forcefully from other communities. The warriors are also sent to urban centers to buy products and supplies and sell the cattle at regional markets.

They largely depend on animal products for their daily meals. They tap blood from the animals which they take and milk which they either take directly or ferment and store for later usage. The people can access small quantities of cereals such as maize, beans, or even rice which they get from trade. (Ole Saitoti, 1988)Their herds graze from the little plantation found in the region. They can access water from wells, waterholes, and a few rivers that cross their land. The Maasai land has several lakes but most of them cannot be good for domestic purposes since they have been polluted by soda ash. Whenever the water in the region is felt not to be enough, they migrate to the high terrain and settle there for the rest of the dry season and only return to the low terrain region-mostly below 2000 meters during the wet season. Here, they settle in small pieces of land and move from one piece to another as they wait for the grass in the other end to grow.

According to the Maasai, when a female reaches puberty, she is immediately married off to a man much older. This is a measure taken to reduce the risk of girls getting early pregnancies. But before this, she is allowed to stay and also engage in sexual activities with the younger boys. It is also clearly defined in the community that the child is the property of the man who is regarded as the woman’s husband even if the child is born out of the marriage. (Richards, 1960) The woman remains a member of her age group and is still free to interact with the boys both socially and sexually even after marriage. The men are not allowed to marry until when they have gathered enough livestock.

During important ceremonies such as wedding ceremonies, graduation from one age group to another, or even funeral gatherings, the cow is slaughtered as an offering. The young warriors outwardly show sadness as an indicator that they are going to miss their youthful explorations and active lifestyle. The ritual leaders, otherwise known as the ‘Laibon’, are regarded as foreseers and the link between the community and God. They lead all religious functions including sacrificing. They are regarded as professional herbalists or healers who treat physical diseases and ailments. The Laibon has been trusted by far other communities and is believed to be the most effective healers in the whole of Tanzania. They are visited by their neighboring communities whenever affected by serious ailments. ( Ole Saitoti, 1988)

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The Maasai language has also in a way accommodated their pastoral lives. They have twenty names defining different types of cattle depending on their production, age, color pattern, and size. They also have close to fifteen names for milk and milk products. They live in huts that they set up temporarily and can demolish easily whenever a need to move arises. The huts are made of dried cattle hides as the walls and dung as the floor. The walls are supported by firm sticks and the huts are round in shape. The huts are lightly made since their region is hot throughout the year. During the wet season, they cover the walls of their huts with mud to avoid freezing at night which is mostly very cold.

The Maasai live in the savanna region which is part of the National Parks and are commonly attacked by wild animals such as the lion and leopard. They, therefore, engage themselves in the making of spears and shields which they use for protection. ( Ole Saitoti, 1988) The courage and performance of the warriors are determined by the number of lions or leopards that one has killed, though not so many warriors can kill the animals. The few that manage are given higher ranks compared to the others of the same age group, this encourages them to go out and hunt for the beasts or even face them whenever they attack.


  1. African Arts Magazine. Review of the Art and Life in Africa:  1999,
  2. Audrey I. Richards. 1960. East African Chiefs. A Study of political development in some Uganda and Tanganyika Tribes. Frederick Praeger Publishers. New York
  3. Fratkin, Elliot. 2003. Arial Pastoralists of Kenya: Studying Pastoralism, Drought and Development in Africa’s Arid Lands. Prentice-Hall.
  4. Handbook for Working with Children and Youth: Pathways to Resilience Across Cultures and Contexts Telit Ole Saitoti. 1988. The Worlds of a Maasai Warrior: An Autobiography. University of California Press. California.
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