Though the woman is the homemaker, Maasai men spend a great deal of time with their children, displaying an unusual care and concern for even the tiniest of babies. If both parents are occupied, a child is usually looked after by an elder sister, but even in the absence of such a carer a Maasai child is never far from an adult and will be protected and cared for by the whole village.
Childhood is a period of freedom for the Maasai with little responsibility during the first years resulting in an abundance of play time. Young children are encouraged, when not playing, to learn the ways of adults and develop their language skills. Children of both sexes are treated with the greatest of tenderness and love by all the villages’ adults.
When a child reaches 4 or 5, their two lower incisors are removed by their mother. While this has an aesthetic purpose, its practical consequence is that it is easier to feed the child if they become unwell.
Young girls aged 5 and upwards begin to help their mothers with chores, while their male peers are taught to work with cattle; looking after older calves or accompanying their elders herding.
After fulfilling these roles for a couple of years, children have their upper ears and later the lobes pierced. These holes are gradually enlarged using wooden plugs or wads of leaves. Children’s chests, stomachs or thighs are also covered in decorative patterns through scarification by etching or burning.
Between nine and twelve years of age, girls have a growing range of activities in which to participate. They continue to help around the home in order to master the duties of womanhood. Part of this involves learning to make beautiful beaded jewelry, which is then worn when courting young warriors and selecting boyfriends. Uncircumcised girls are free to date and it is perfectly acceptable to return to a warrior’s boma with him.
As this group of children head to play, their dog is never far away. Maasai are always closely followed by their dogs and these animals inhabit a unique place on the crossover between pet and working animal. They are named and loved as well as being vital in helping to protect both warriors and cattle on the grazing lands from predators, but they sleep outside and are rarely petted.
For a Maasai boy to become a warrior he must undergo emorata, or circumcision. The operation is performed without anesthetic; being able to endure the pain unflinchingly is seen as evidence that the boy will be able to endure the many challenges of adult life.
Preparation begins two months in advance and culminates with the initiate having to find an olive sapling on his penultimate day as a boy, to be planted outside his house as a symbol of his entry to manhood.
Once he is healed enough to walk, the young man’s comrades decorate him with white chalk. These new initiates wear black robes and simple jewelry made by their mothers until they are fully healed.
Once their crown is replete with birds, the young men are shaved and have become young warriors.
As one generation of warriors graduates to elderhood, they are replaced by the next. From junior elderhood to senior and finally ancient, the Maasai man follows a clearly defined path through the stages of his life.
This passage through the age-sets unifies the Maasai and the initiation ceremonies which mark each transition - pre-circumcision, circumcision, graduation to junior elderhood and confirmation to full elderhood - bind the community and help to maintain stability.
Arranged marriage is common among the Maasai, with girls sometimes being promised into marriage from birth. Following his circumcision, a husband-to-be brings honey to his girl’s mother to declare his interest in marrying her. After her marriage, she will move to her husband’s boma where she will have little say in any major decisions. Her role is to give her husband as many children as possible and run an orderly and efficient household. Divorce is not an option for the Maasai.
Maasai men may take as many wives as they please and can afford and wives are permitted to take lovers. Should a wife become pregnant by another man, however, the child will belong to her husband.
The first wife is the senior with regard to the boma’s affairs, though the positions of first and favorite wife are not always held by the same woman. Jealousy is common but part of the husband’s role is to strive to ensure that the fundamental needs of each wife are met.
Maasai bomas are generally encircled by a fence constructed by the men from prickly bushes and long poles in order to protect the cattle, who stay in the centre enclosure. Small enclosures within the boma may be built to protect goats and sheep, whilst young calves are given extra protection by being kept in huts overnight.
The huts are built by the women from branches and covered with a thick layer of cow dung and placed in a hierarchical relationship with the husband’s. The first wife resides on the right of her husband, the second wife on the left, third wife to the right of the first and wife number four on the left of the second.
A Maasai man’s life progresses through a series of stages, the order of which is preordained and has remained unchanged for generations. The stages are determined by age; each entered through an initiation ceremony and characterized by its own duties and privileges. Boyhood, warriorhood and elderhood come with their own subdivisions but last a generation each, with a new cohort of warriors coming of age approximately every fifteen years.
Senior elders can be recognized by the warm blanket that the sedentary role often necessitates, the fly whisk made of hair from a wildebeest’s tail and the beaded bamboo container around the neck. The dignified and reflective position bestowed by age results in a shift of focus towards community affairs.
An elder’s role is broad and vital; they are family men, wise men, medicine men, spiritual advisers and judges. Guardians of Maasai society’s laws and spiritual mores, they take pride in being the community’s conscience and strive to live up to the responsibility their position carries. All decisions regarding Maasailand are made by these disciplined and hard working men.
Traditional gender roles are observed by the Maasai, with women taking responsibility for raising children, building homes and running the household. They supervise the home, ensuring a supply of firewood, water and milk, as well as preparing young girls for marriage by teaching them necessary skills such as sewing, beading, cooking and childcare.
Women rarely participate in elders’ meetings but get together amongst themselves to sing and dance. They wear beautiful, hand-made beaded jewelry and offer songs to God to thank him for his blessings.
The Maasai believe in one god, Engai, who dwells both on earth and in heaven, resulting in a desire to live in harmony with nature which reflects this reverence for a transcendental and immanent deity. Engai is the supreme god and no one else can be called by that name; he is the master of both life and death.
Mount Oldonyo L’Engai (the Mountain of God) in the background is an active volcano on the edge of the Ngorongoro Crater and is considered sacred by the Maasai. They go to the mountain to pray and occasionally offer sacrifices to the god of the mountain.