Cultural Overview

The Maasai (about 350,000 people) are Nilotic-speaking pastoralists, of the eastern Nilotic branch (cf. Vossen, 1982). Their language maa is also spoken by a few other ethnic groups in the region, such as the Samburu and Chamus in Kenya, and the Parakuyu and Arusha in Tanzania (Gulliver, 1963; Little, 1992; Spencer, 1965). The Nilotic-speaking pastoralists constitute a cultural minority within the Kenyan and Tanzanian nation states.

Until recently the Maasai lived a seminomadic way of life, migrating with their livestock herds according to seasonal fluctuations. Today they are less nomadic, but livestock, in particular cattle, are still central to their economy and culture. In Kenya the traditional grazing land of the Maasai has been divided into group and individual ranches, and many group ranches have been subdivided into individual holdings (Talle, 1988). In Tanzania, however, the privatization of pasture land is less advanced than in Kenya. The land adjudication process has contributed to make the pastoral Maasai increasingly sedentary in both countries. Agriculture is of little importance except in the wetter parts of their area, but maize, and to a lesser extent other agricultural products, constitutes a major part of their diet. Earlier, Maasai bartered pastoral products such as livestock, milk, meat, and skins for grain and honey (for ceremonial beer brewing) with their agricultural neighbors. Presently they purchase agricultural foodstuffs in the shops. The traditional habitat of the Maasai has shrunk dramatically during the last half century or so, mainly due to adjudication of common land, land encroachment by other ethnic groups, and expropriation of grazing land into game reserves e.g., Waller, 1993. The contemporary position of the Maasai within the state is one of increasing poverty, economic and political marginalization, and a general insecurity of the pastoral pursuit (Arhem, 1985; Hodgson, 2001; Talle, 1988).

Major structural principles in Maasai culture and society are the patrilineal clan organization (pl. ilgilat, olgilat) and the male age-set system (pl. ilajijik, olaji). The population are divided into several major descent groups or clans, namely the ilaiser, ilukuma, ilataiyiok, ilmolelian, ilmakesan, iltarro sero, and ilmamasita (Jacobs, 1965). These groups are again subdivided into smaller segments of agnatic subclans and lineages, which in principle are exogamous units. The descent groups are contained in two larger segmentary categories or moieties (pl. intaloishin, entaloishi), "those of red oxen" (odo mongi) and "those of the black ox" (orok kiteng). The two groups represent a dual symbolism in Maasai cosmology (a right-hand and a left-hand side), which is reflected at many levels of Maasai social organization—in lineage and family structure as well as in the age-set system (Fosbrooke, 1948).

The Maasai live in large dispersed settlements (pl. inkangitie, enkang) consisting of several families, which together often count 50-60 people. A thick thorn-bush fence encloses the settlement and protects the people and animals inside against nightly predators and livestock thieves. Each family builds its own "gate" (enkishomi) in the fence, where they pass to and from the homestead. The people residing together in one settlement are usually related by kinship ties on the male side and/or age-set bonds between male adults (Arhem, 1991).

Maasai men of some means (i.e., cattle) conventionally marry several wives, polygyny being the preferred marriage form. The right-left dichotomy noted above is an important structural principle in the organization of the polygynous family and is established by the order of the women's marriages. Successive wives build their houses alternately on either side of the gate coming into the settlement; the first wife builds her house on the right side, the second on the left, the third on the right, and so on. The people on the right- and the left-hand side, respectively, form a subdivision of the agnatic family into two matrifilial groups. This division is of importance for inheritance of the family's livestock, social identity, and ties of sentiments.

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