By Sarah Corbett

The Maasai people live nomadically in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania, also known as the great lakes region.

The origins of the Maasai people has been traced back to the 15th century in the lower Nile valley.

The Maasai worship a single deity called Enkai or Engai; Enkai has two personas, Enkai Narok ( Black god) is benevolent, whereas Enkoi Nanyokic ( Red god) is vengeful. The Laibon is the person in Maasai society who fulfills a shamanic role. Rituals around those who have died are minimal, corpses are generally smeared with ox fat and blood and left to be consumed by scavengers. Burial is generally reserved for great chiefs, as it is not considered to be good for the soil to bury the dead.

Maasai wealth is measured in cattle and children, plenty of one without the other is considered to be poverty. A Maasai man must become an Elder before marriage, so weddings are usually between older men and younger women.

Social organising of a Maasai community has long tradition, the boys take care of livestock from an early age and will endure ritual beatings to test their courage. The young girls will learn milking and cookery from their mothers. Male warriors ( Il Murran) are initiated every 15 years. To become a warrior a boy must be circumcised, without anaesthetic and without any expression of pain. Following the circumcision ( ‘Emorata’) ritual a boy wears black clothes for at least 4 months. Circumcised young men live in a village which is built by their mothers for the purpose. A series of rites of passage will take place until the young warriors become junior Eldars and eventually Eldars. Male warriors spend their time engaged in cattle trading.

Young women also endure circumcision as a part of an elaborate ritual to mark the rite of passage. The ritual is followed by an arranged marriage. There have been legal changes which outlaw the practice , so some rituals now involve ‘cutting with words’ which is a vocal and performance based version of the act of physical cutting. However women who have not been circumcised are considered immature by some.

Maasai are polygamous, and a woman marries not only her husband, but all of the men within his age group. Sexual relations can take place between various partners and resulting children are considered to belong to the husband. When pregnant, women are not permitted to undertake milking, gathering wood or sexual relations.

The Massai wear elaborate beaded jewellery and also practice body modifications in the form of piercing and stretching the earlobes. Since the 1960’s the Maasai have replaced their traditional animal skin clothing with commercially woven cloth, stripes and checked designs are especially popular. These lengths of cloth can be worn draped over each shoulder diagonally, with the addition of a cape like length of fabric these are called ‘Maa’. In coastal regions a sarong style is preferred which is called ‘Kikoi’.

The beaded jewellery is intricate and filled with significance. Early examples were created from natural materials such as sticks, shells, seeds and dried grasses. Later , during the 18oo’s the arrival of glass beads from European traders led to a switch to the new colourful vibrant beads. Great insignificance is attached to the bead colours and the design within a piece of jewellery.

The designs represent strength, beauty, warrior hood, age, sect, marital and social status, and the depth of love and devotion which the Maasai have for their cattle.

Upon her engagement a girl will wear a necklace of beaded strings. The strings of the engagement necklace are intertwined, this plaited style represents the union between the couple.

A mother creates a special wedding collar for her daughter, The large flat necklace is constructed on a leather disc and is around 12” across the piece is covered with brightly covered beads. The circle represents to whole village. A Maasai village is always constructed in a circle, with an outer wall, the shapes within the necklace design represent dwellings, When a woman wears the wedding necklace she symbolically carries the whole village on her shoulders. The wedding necklace has a number of beaded strands which represent the livestock which is given to the bride as dowry. Knots are tied into these strings during the presentation of dowry items. At the end of each strand is a cowrie shell which represents peace. This special collar is work for the wedding day, other collars are worn on a daily basis as a sign of wealth and beauty. The colour of the beads used within a jewellery design also carry significance:


Red – represents bravery strength and unity.

Blue – represents energy and sustenance and signifies the sky.

Green – represents nourishment and production and signifies the land

Orange – represents friendship and hospitality and signifies a gourd which is used to contain and share milk.

Yellow – represents fertility and growth and signifies the sun.

White – represents purity and health and signifies milk.

Black – represents Unity and harmony and signifies the people with in the community.

The bead work creations are the art and the work of the Maasai women, who spend evenings designing and threading beads, to adorn, and also to communicate their traditions and history.

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