The Masai

African Tribes-Masai

The Masai (or Maasai) are a tribe of semi-Nomadic people who inhabit the southern portions of Kenya as well as northern Tanzania. They are among the most widely known of the African tribes due to the close proximity of their homes to the many game parks and wildlife reserves of Southeast Africa as well as for their customs and very distinctive style of dress.

The Masai have a highly patriarchal society and most of the major decisions for each group are made by the elder males of the community, sometimes with the help of retired elders. Most behavioral issues are covered under the vast body of oral laws held by the Masai and formal execution is unheard of. For most disputes, a certain number of cattle are paid to the injured party as compensation. There is also “amitu”, an out of court practice meaning “to make peace”, or “arop”, which is a formal apology.

Mara-Young-Men-Jumping-2012CC BY-SA 3.0 License Bjørn Christian Tørrissen - Own work by uploader,

Masai Mara-Young-Men-Jumping-2012CC BY-SA 3.0 License
Bjørn Christian Tørrissen – Own work by uploader,

The Masai worship a single deity known as Engai or Enkai and their deity is dual in nature. Engai Narok, meaning Black God, is the benevolent side and Engai Nanyokie has a vengeful nature. The human figure that is central to the Masai system of religion is the laibon. The role of the laibon includes prophecy, divination, and shamanistic healing as well as ensuring that there is enough rain and that they are successful in warfare.

Central to the lifestyle of the Masai are their cattle, which make up their primary food source. A man’s wealth can be measured by the number of cattle he owns and the number of children he has. A respectable herd of cattle would number around 50 and the more children a man sires, the better. If a man has an abundance of one, but few of the other, he is considered to be poor.

Traditionally the Masai are polygynous and it is thought that this was begun to compensate for the high warrior and infant mortality rates. Polyandry is also practiced among the Masai. Rather than marrying just her husband, a woman marries an entire age group of men. When a guest of the appropriate age group visits, a man is expected to give up his bed, but the woman makes the decision whether or not to go to that man. Kitala is a type of divorce or refuge that is possible in the dwelling of the wife’s father. It usually occurs when a wife is being severely mistreated and the return of the bride price, as well as custody of the children and other belongings are agreed upon mutually.


Maasai man, Eastern Serengeti, October 2006  Public Domain

Because of the many influences from the outside world, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the Masai to maintain their traditional pastoral lifestyle.

There have been many projects over the years that have created opportunities for Masai people to become educated while still preserving their colorful and very distinctive culture. These programs preserve traditional Masai ways while balancing the need to educate the children in the ways of the modern world