The Masai of Kenya and Tanzania are probably the most famous African tribe. Masai men are first and foremost warriors. Boys dream of the day they can become a warrior. Masai warriors are tall, often over 6 feet. They often look very impressive with their beaded long hair, fierce red clothing, and shield and spear.
Becoming a warrior is the big dream of each Masai boy. The task of the warriors is to protect their village and cattle against wild animals and other tribes. They also fortify the fences around the Masai settlements. The women are responsible for housekeeping and farming the cattle.
Masai men move through several stages during their life, and the warrior stage is one of them. The tribe decides when it’s time to move on to the next stage in life. The stages run from boys, junior warriors, senior warriors and junior elders to senior elders, who command the biggest respect within the tribe. Each stage is marked with specific initiation rites, which are often hard and dangerous. Tribe members of the same age group live together in small settlements, called bomas. When they move on to the next stage, they leave the bomas.
Boys can remain boys until, somewhere between the age of 15 and 25, they enter the junior warrior stage through a ritual which includes circumcision, shaving their heads and wearing a mask made of ostrich feathers.
Then they have to live with other junior warriors far apart from their families, herd cattle and learn survival techniques. In this phase, they color their skin red and bead their hairs. This may last for up to 10 years. One ritual that’s outlawed, but still practiced, says a Masai warrior must kill a lion using only a spear. This way he proves his manhood.
When they return, often in their thirties, they become senior warriors and are allowed to marry. Sexual rules are complicated and strictly observed. However, Masai men can have more women, and Masai women can sleep with several men provided they are in the same age category. Senior warriors live with their families in small settlements, called bomas.
A main task of the tribe elders is leading and organizing the ceremonies and celebrations. As members of one age group, they have their own bomas, but they will also visit the younger bomas to teach the young the Masai traditions and skills.
The ceremony to become an elder, centers around the elder’s chair – a sign of his authority and calmness. In the morning of the event, he will sit on his chair and be shaved by his wife (his oldest wife if he has more of them). He must keep his chair until it’s broken. If the elder dies before that, his son will take his chair. After this ceremony the elder is allowed to move away and form his own homestead. Although he is fully independent now, he will have to listen to his father’s advice as long as his father is alive.
The Masai don’t really recognize the official governments of Kenya and Tanzania, because the concept of nation states have been introduced by the European colonizers, and are alien to many African tribes. They demand the right to move across borders and in many national parks to graze their cattle. This brings them into conflict with the government.
Moreover, both the more socialist Tanzanian and capitalist Kenyan governments have launched campaigns to force the Masai to drop their ancient lifestyles. Former Tanzanian leader Julius Nyere even ordered penalties for wearing traditional clothes.
The Masai have fiercely rejected this and even the young show no sign of changing their ways. As one Masai saying goes, “It takes one day to destroy a house, but it will take months and years to build a new one. If we abandon our way of life to construct a new one, it will take thousands of years.”