The Towers of Power
On the distant plain, rippled by the relentless equatorial heat, a tall figure stands alone.
Draped in an earthen-red shuka, his long and lean body appears to be carved from pure muscle. His textbook anatomy, finely honed to defend his cattle from predators and his family from all evil, announces his life as a warrior. He is a Maasai, someone his god Ngai has entrusted to protect the earth and all his beloved cattle. And despite or perhaps because of the encroachment of a “civilized” world, this mighty Maasai stands a silent vigil. Only he can protect his tribe’s rich culture and magnificent customs from a fast changing world.
Who Are These Maasai?
The legend taught by Maasai parents in their native language Ol-Maa to the next generation says they are a tribal people who migrated from the North for, in that land, feed was scarce and rivers often dry. As their god’s chosen defenders of cattle, the Maasai fled with their herds to the South in search of greener pastureland.
Scientists concur with the legend and identify the Maasai as a Nilo-Hamitic people with typically tall body types and handsome facial features. Anthropologists believe their migration to this region happened around the 16th Century. Once the warriors reached the fertile plains between Mt. Kilimanjaro and Lake Victoria, they stopped their wandering. This area, to the Maasai, was considered to be close to their god Ngai for they viewed the snowcapped peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro to be the home of the gods.
Twenty distinct groups of Maasai live scattered over an 80,000-square-kilometer area of Kenya and Tanzania, and count a total population of approximately 125,000.
Cattle and Kraals
Maasai live a communal life in protected compounds known as kraals. As man is unfortunately on the African wildlife food chain, this compound must serve as a safe haven during the long and frightening nights. Mud and dung huts are assembled in a rather large circle that is then enclosed with a perimeter of sharp thorn bushes. The cattle and the Maasai enjoy the safety of this kraal when its only gate is tightly closed at nightfall.
Women tend to the compound and the children, who are a source of great joy for the Maasai. Men spend their days caring for the cattle herds, flocks of sheep, and rangy goats. No cultivation of the earth is permitted for the Maasai believe the earth is sacred and no man should be so bold as to scar the earth.
The Maasai feed entirely off their cattle… its blood (osage), milk (kule), and meat (inkiri). Cattle signify great wealth and are coveted for their prized horns, which can reach several feet across.
Becoming A Warrior
At approximately 14 years of age, a young Maasai boy takes part in an ancient ritual initiating him into manhood. Having reached the status of “Junior Warrior”, he then may proudly call himself a Moran. He joins other Moran in a separate living compound known as a Manyatta. While here, he and the others prepare for a life as “Senior Warriors” when they may own cattle and take a wife. Today, “Junior Warriors” are no longer required to demonstrate their courage by killing a lion armed with only their bare hands, an empere spear, and the elogo shield that has been painted with images of the warrior’s past brave deeds.
The Moran also practice their extraordinary dancing skills where they chant and leap to great heights while standing stick strait arms at their sides.
Beads and Body Decoration
Maasai men are adorned head to toe with ochre-and-sheep-fat body paint. When preparing for battle, their paint patterns are menacing and threatening. During times of peace, the designs are intended to attract a potential mate. The women, in turn, lavishly drape themselves in beaded necklaces, headgear, brass armbands, and bracelets. This jewelry is even more dramatic because the women’s heads are shaved while the men grow their hair long then braid their locks in a beautiful pattern. Weighted earrings elongate everyone’s earlobes and the women’s shoulders are draped in red, the Maasai’s favorite color.
Today, as civilization marches on to the beat of the Internet, the Maasai must decide whether to adapt and how. Though they now are well educated, many often return to their tribes after their schooling to continue this legacy granted them by their god Ngai. The Maasai believe that they alone have been entrusted to protect the earth and the life-giving cattle grazing upon it and take this task serious. Yet with each passing day their task grows more and more daunting.