Nomadic people in Kenya and Tanzania with a unique culture
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The Maasai were once the largest ethnic group in the Eastern part of Africa. They keep cattle, and still live a nomadic life in Kenya and Tanzania. Visiting the Maasai is an amazing experience, especially when you go far off the beaten track.
The Maasai (also spelled Masai) keep cattle, and live mostly off the meat of cows, sheep and goats. Sometimes, when water is scarce, they even drink the animals’ blood (diluted with milk) without killing them. They used the hides to decorate their homes and the bones for body adornments such as beads.
The Maasai traditional way of life is under a lot of pressure. On one hand urbanisation reduces the lands were they life their nomadic life, and on the other hand the tourists are keen to learn about their culture and travel to experience it. And the Maasai’s history is kind of tumultuous already. They were known to assume that all cattle belonged to them. Their cultural history taught them that their god Engai had given them all cattle as a gift.
The traditional clothing of the Maasai in their daily life is generally red in colour, as the colour represents life. Both men and women wear jewellery on their ears and necks, including weighed earrings that stretch the earlobes. They also wear a lot of beaded adornments around the arms, necks and ankles. Those aren’t just for decoration, but are often also symbolic and show the wearer’s status or life story.
The appropriation of cattle from other peoples lead to tribal wars. And when the white people came in the 19th century, diseases killed many people as well as their cattle. They lost a lot of land to old enemies. These days there are several projects in place to help preserve the Maasai culture. They try to keep their ancient traditions in place for future generations, not just to show the tourists.
It’s quite an experience to visit a Maasai village. Though they have welcomed tourists to their settlements for a long time, so some of the experiences seem to be for show rather than genuine cultural significance.
If you’d like to get a true authentic experience with the Maasai, the best thing to do is to go off the beaten track as much as possible. It’s really worth doing, and several lodges and hotels offer options to do so.
You can take a walking safari with Maasai people, who will guide you through areas with plenty of wild and dangerous animals. Those tend to stay away from a group of noisy tourists, though! The Maasai will teach you about the landscape, and how to read nature.
They will show you where you can find water, which are the best pastures for their cattle and they also share their extensive knowledge of medicinal plants. You will be amazed. You can only go on walking safaris in Kenya outside of the protected nature reserves.
A Maasai wedding is an amazing experience. It’s incredibly colourful (especially the clothing and body decorations), but the rituals involved are also very impressive. Ask about these rituals to learn more. For example, brides will have their entire heads shaved, which are then covered in lamb’s fat an adorned with beads. The ceremony, which involves lots of dancing and singing, takes two days. Ask around if you can witness it, or a few hours of it.
Along the main routes to the Maasai Mara there will be many offers to experience ‘traditional’ experiences with the Maasai people. These are generally very busy, touristy and not very authentic, yet can cost quite some money. You’re also likely to be sold overpriced souvenirs. If you’d like an authentic experience with the Maasai people, you have to leave the main road.