The Traditional Ways of Life for the Maasai and Samburu Tribes
The Maasai and Samburu live in a village known as an nkang or a manyatta, which consists of a circle of houses and animal pens, surrounded by an acacia thorn bush fence to protect from predators. In both cultures a man may have multiple wives and each wife will have her own house, which she builds out of sticks, mud and cow dung, with help from other women. In both societies, male elders are top dog and decide most major matters, including arranging marriages. The measure of a man’s wealth is in cattle and children – the more, the better! Young boys are sent out with the grazing livestock almost as soon as they can walk, while girls are responsible for chores learnt from their mothers, such as cooking and milking. Unmarried younger men are notoriously naughty, often cattle-rustling and fraternising with girlfriends – they are not thought to have reached maturity until they become ‘morans’ (warriors) between 12 and 25 years of age (the initiation only happens once every 15 years or so).
One rite of passage when a boy becomes a moran is the painful circumcision ceremony. The procedure takes place without anaesthetic and the boy must endure it in silence and without any expression of pain. Traditionally, another rite was the hunting and killing of a lion, although this is now changing due to conservation concerns and education. Lion killing is banned in south-east Africa and there are schemes to compensate herders when their livestock is killed or injured by a predator, to prevent revenge killings. Warriors wear their hair in long braids coated with animal fat and orange ochre and spend much of their time on walkabouts, trading cattle (as opposed to stealing them as they did when they were younger!). When warriors graduate to become junior elders (to make way for the next set of morans), their long hair is shaved off.
Both men and women wear pieces of fabric or sheets wrapped around them in a traditional fashion. The favoured colour is red, but other colours and patterned designs are worn and often have a specific meaning. They wear simple sandals, which were once made of cowhide but are now often made of tyre strips and referred to as 1000-milers (the distance they can take you before wearing out!). Bead working, done by women, creates ornaments and jewellery that also have particular meanings and denote identity and status. Both men and women wear the decorations – necklaces, collars, bracelets, headdresses, and even decorations for sticks and weapons! In former times, beads were made of local raw materials, such as clay, shells, ivory, seeds or bone, but nowadays glass beads in plain colours are preferred.