The Maasai live in rangelands in Kenya and Tanzania. Accurate census data are not available, but estimates of population numbers range between 500,000 and 1,000,000. The Maasai speak a Nilotic language, and their social system is structured by sections (which control areas of space), clans (which run across the whole land), and age-sets (bands of men of similar ages).
The Maasai are probably one of the most famous groups in Africa, and certainly in East Africa, due to their persistent preference for bright beads and blue and red clothes over modern dress and their prediliction for cattle. They are popularly believed to value cattle as wealth regardless of the utility of cattle, and they subsist on a diet of milk and blood. They are also famous due to the concentrations of wildlife with which they have shared their land and the beautiful landscapes (e.g., at Ngorongoro, near Kilimanjaro) with which they share them.
The large herds of the Maasai reflect the logic of subsistence milk production and herd survival in arid environments as well as concerns for prestige. But despite the prominence of livestock, Maasai and Maa speakers have long adopted a variety of livelihoods, including agriculture and hunting. Maa speakers have farmed and hunted when raids, drought, or disease reduced cattle numbers. Even during times of plenty, trade of livestock products for grains has been the norm. A purely pastoral diet was a luxury enjoyed by herders in remote cattle camps during the wet season. It may even have been an unusual, and brief, historical development in the long history of pastoralism.
One of the clearest current trends in Maasai society is the decline in livestock per capita. Cattle numbers are fluctuating around a set number, whereas human populations are increasing. As a result, fewer and fewer Maasai are able to live off their herds, and diversification into agriculture, tourism, and diverse businesses is the norm.
Nevertheless, despite the commonplaceness of diversity, the ideological ground of pure pastoralism has remained strong. Who precisely is really Maasai is a question that has dominated the Maasai and their governments for many years. The Maasai are contemptuous of “non-Maasai” (Il-Mek, i.e., “bumpkins”) and believe that they have a right to repossess their cattle, which God gave to the Maasai. Colonial governments in particular, because they sought to make ethnic boundaries and territory rigid, also had tremendous difficulties in deciding who was and was not really Maasai. The reality is that ethnic identity, like livelihoods, is fluid and dynamic. Belonging and identity could and can shift. It was because of this dynamism that debates about identity were so intense.
Maasai recent history has been dominated by land. In the Maasai moves of 1904 and 1911, the British government evicted the Maasai from their lands in the middle of Kenya and concentrated them in a single Southern Reserve, breaking a promise that had allocated them land in the north. Since then, herders have also been moved from private farms and wildlife reserves, including the famous Amboseli and Serengeti national parks and the crater inside Ngorongoro.
Current burning issues in Kenya and Tanzania revolve around land titling and subdivision that threaten the free movement of herds. There is also continuing conflict with the wildlife lobby, which is seeking to preserve wildlife’s access to pasture and water through both cooperative and coercive measures. Recent scholarship has also emphasized the constructions of patriarchy and gender in Maasai society through encounters with patriarchal governments.
- Hodgson, D. (2001). Once intrepid warriors: Gender, ethnicity, and the cultural politics of Maasai development. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
- Spear, T., & Waller, R. (1993). Being Maasai: Ethnicity and identity in East Africa. Oxford, UK: James Currey.
- Spencer, P. (1988). The Maasai of Matapato: A study of rituals of rebellion. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.