NAIROBI, September 7 – The high-pitched song of a young Maasai boy resonated over the valley, carried far by the heavy, moisture-laden air of the dawn.
As the morning sun rose higher, the boy’s lilting voice rose in intensity, much like that of a songbird straining its voice in the first light of sunrise.
The rising sun revealed the Maasai herds boy standing among his father’s cattle. Draped in a long red cloth that partially covered his body, he stood stork-like on one leg, leaning upon the shaft of his spear and singing to his contented herd.
The Maasai, a colorful pastoral people, live in the vast open spaces of East Africa’s Great Rift Valley. Located in Kenya and Tanzania, the Maasai are survivors of a past era, living much the way their ancestors did centuries ago.
Unconcerned about the passage of time, their lives are governed by the rising and setting of the sun and the ever-changing seasons.
The skills of the Maasai include their ability to survive in the harsh environment and rugged landscape of the Rift Valley.
Walking with long loping strides, they travel great distances in search of green pastures and water sources for their cattle.
They tend their cattle among the herds of wildebeests, zebra, giraffes, and other plains animals that share their homeland.
The Maasai believe that all the cattle on the earth belong to them. This belief stems from the legend that in the beginning God had three sons and that to each he gave one gift.
The first son received an arrow for hunting, the second received a hoe for cultivating, and the third son received a stick for herding cattle. This last son, it is said, became the father of the Maasai nation. Even though other tribes possess cattle, the Maasai believe that these animals essentially belong to them.
In the Maasai community, the size of a man’s herd and the number of his children determine his status and importance.
Maasai family members bond emotionally with their cattle. Each animal has a distinctive voice and temperament that is well-known by the family. Cattle are often branded and marked with long curving lines and intricate patterns that are designed to enhance the animal’s beauty.
Songs are sung that describe the physical beauty of certain members of the herd and express affection for them. Bulls with large curved horns are especially prized, and tenderly cared for and fussed over as though they were a newborn child.
Maasai homes are traditionally built by the women and are constructed of branches woven together with grass and then plastered and sealed with cow dung.
Rounded and oblong in shape, the homes are built in a large circle that serves to protect an inner kraal, where the cattle bed down for the night. The entire perimeter is fenced with sharp, thorny branches that protect both the Maasai and their cattle from marauding hyenas, leopards, and lions.
The very survival of the Maasai depends upon the health and strength of their herds. The animal’s milk is consumed, and cow dung is used to cover and seal their homes. Rarely do the Maasai slaughter their cattle for food; a few sheep and goats are commonly kept for eating.
But when one of the cattle is killed, every part of the animal is utilized. Horns are used for containers; hooves and bones are fashioned into ornaments; and hides are cured for shoes, clothing, bed coverings, and ropes.
Tall and slender with fine physical features, the Maasai are a handsome people. Their dress is wonderfully colorful. Cloth dyed in vivid shades of red and blue is wrapped loosely over their lithe bodies. Women commonly adorn themselves with great circular plate like beaded collars and headbands of many colors.
Arms and ankles may be wound tightly with thick strands of copper coils. Both men and women often elongate their ear lobes by fashioning them with heavy earrings and beaded ornaments. Ochre, a red mineral ground to a fine powder, is frequently mixed with cow fat and artfully applied to the body.
When the setting sun begins to loosen its grip on the land, the herdsmen start to return with their cattle.
Slowly the herd plods homeward, their hooves raising a cloud of red dust that is illuminated by the horizontal shafts of the sun’s waning amber light. When the women see the dust cloud from afar, they immediately leave their work to prepare for the approaching herd.
Once the cattle are inside the safety of the kraal, the men walk among their animals, stroking the horns of the bulls and admiring their beauty.
A small boy squirts a thin stream of warm milk into his mouth from a cow’s udder and is instantly scolded by his mother. Young girls, who move in and out of the crowded maze of horns and hooves, deftly milk the cows, filling their long gourd containers to overflowing.
In the evening an older man sits and tells stories of Maasai history and of the past heroic deeds of Maasai warriors. As they grow older, youths learn the customs and ceremonies that will mark their passage from childhood to adulthood.
Among the rituals learned are those that deal with sickness, bad fortune, marriage, and death. The Maasai believe that failing to follow these ceremonies will result in their being cursed.
Maasai parents may arrange a daughter’s marriage while she is still an infant. The girl is promised to a man who possesses enough cattle to pay the bride-price demanded by her father. Often, she will be married to a man much older than herself and will take her place among the other wives in his household.
As young boys in the Maasai community grow older, they associate closely with other male youths of their own generation. The special relationship that they enjoy with these age-mates may last a lifetime. Together they will pass from being inexperienced boys to being warriors.
As warriors they will accept the responsibilities of protecting the homestead, maintaining water sources for the community, and protecting the livestock from wild animals and theft. Known for their bravery and courage, typically the Maasai are never seen without their sharply honed spears.
When the warriors are 30 or so years of age, they enter into the final step in their passage to maturity. With great excitement and ceremony, they are initiated into elder hood; they will now be permitted to marry.
With this respected status, they will concentrate on taking a bride and increasing their herd of cattle, and they will be expected to give advice and mediate disputes.
Today the unique customs and culture of the Maasai are quickly disappearing. In some areas Maasai can no longer roam freely with their cattle to search for new pastures.
Vast tracts of land that made up their traditional homeland are being developed for wildlife reserves or for housing and agriculture to accommodate growing populations.
Drought and economic hardship are forcing many Maasai to sell their beloved cattle in order to survive. As they move to large cities, they encounter the same problems that plague the rest of the modern world surrounding them.