The tall Maasai warrior in his trademark red and blue robe, standing on one foot, watchfully tending his herd, is one of the most iconic images of Africa. Traveling on Vantage’s The Heart of Africa: On Safari in Kenya & Tanzania, you’re sure to come upon one of these striking warriors (called moran), though he is more likely to be holding a cell phone than a war spear. It’s one of the modern tools that have helped these famous tribespeople maintain their nomadic way of life – and which assists in their primary occupation, herding cattle. For them, herding is not simply an economic imperative, but a social and religious one.
There are about a million Maasai living across Kenya and Tanzania, where their existence is profoundly connected to the cattle they have tended for thousands of years. They believe that their god, Ngai, blessed their tribe above all others by bestowing upon them the gift of cattle, which was delivered via a magical chord that linked heaven and earth. When that chord was severed, the tribe had a sacred obligation to guard all the cattle remaining on earth. Today, cattle are still the basis for determining a person’s wealth and social status, and they are a dietary staple. Every portion of the cow is used, including the bones and horns (for utensils.)
The Maasai live in communal groups in kraals or manyattas, which are compounds of round huts encircled by wooden fences, with corrals for livestock. While the men tend cattle, women build the dwellings, fetch water and firewood, and do the cooking and household chores. Maasai men traditionally marry several wives, a practice that encourages the other primary source of wealth: children. In fact, men (who are obliged to share their wives with visiting male guests) will accept any resulting child as their own. The value of children is practical as opposed to sentimental: young males can manage small flocks of goat or sheep by the age of four; girls help with childrearing and domestic chores, and bring in wealth when they marry and receive dowries of cattle. A native prayer underscores the importance of children thusly: “May Creator give us cattle and children. Cattle and children are the most important aspect of the Maasai people.”
Nowadays, Maasai territories have been drastically reduced, and restrictions on grazing in national parks has dwindled the pasture land available to them. Many supplement their incomes by selling beads, cell phones, and crafts. Some have also turned to small crop farming – a practice that would have been unheard of even 50 years ago. Over the centuries, the tribe has always met adversity with a strong sense of community, and with the skills for sustainability that were developed over a long history of animal stewardship. As modernity encroaches there is no doubt that their way of life will change. But for now, it is a fascinating privilege to see how these proud people celebrate their ancient and still vital culture.