Interested with African Tribes? Try the Maasai!

The Maasai people of East Africa are some of the best known local populations to Southern Kenya and Northern Tanzania due to their proximity to many of the game parks of the African Great Lakes. Their distinctive customs and clothing make them easy to spot. They reside along the Great Rift Valley on stretches of semi-arid and arid lands. The Maasai occupy a total land area of 160,000 square kilometers and boast a population of approximately half a million people. However, it should be noted that most Maasai doubt these numbers. Many of the Maasai people regard the national census as a form of meddling by the government, and they will quite often fudge their numbers to the census takers. Some people might be counting themselves ten times and others refuse to be counted at all. Also given the fact that Tanzania does not conduct their census based on people’s ethnicity, it makes it very difficult to estimate the population of Maasai living on that side of the border.

The entire Maasai society can be categorized into sixteen sections, which are known in Maasai as Iloshon:

  • Ildamat

    Maasai Society

    Maasai Society

  • Ilpurko
  • Ilkeekonyokie
  • Iloitai
  • Ilkaputiei
  • Ilkankere
  • Isiria
  • Ilmoitanik
  • Iloodokilani
  • Iloitokitoki
  • Ilarusa
  • Ilmatatapato
  • Ilwuasinkishu
  • Kore
  • Parakuyu
  • Ilkisonko – also known as Isikirari (Tanzania’s Maasai)


There also used to be an Iltorobo Iloshon (section) but that Iloshon was assimilated by the others. The majority of the Maasai people reside in Kenya. Iloshon such as Isikirari, Parakuyu, Kore and Ilarusa lives in Tanganyika.


Tourism Within the Maasai Region


There are many popular tourism destinations in East Africa with are located inside the Maasai Region. These holiday destinations include:

  • The Serengeti
  • Ngorongoro
  • Maasai Mara
  • Amboseli
    Tarangire game reserves


The reserves are considered now to be conservation areas, and are protected. These areas are used for conservation, wildlife treks and bird watching, and other forms of ecotourism.


Maasai and the Homes they Build


The Maasai people live in kraals – traditional African village huts –  arranged together in a circle. A fence around the kraals is erected using acacia thorns, which deter lions from attacking the tribe’s cattle. It is the male Maasai who has the responsibility of fencing the kraal, while it’s the women who construct these houses. Traditionally, kraals were shared by an entire extended family. However, since the implementation of a new land management system in the Maasai region, kraals tend to be occupied more and more by single families of Maasai.

The Maasai people’s inkajijik – the maasai word for a house – are made of mud, grass, sticks, cow dung and cow’s urine, and resemble big loaves of baked bread. As mentioned, women are responsible for making the houses. Women are also responsible for supplying the water, collecting the firewood, milking the cattle and cooking the food for the family. These duties are shared between mothers, aunts, sisters.  Security duty falls to the warriors, while herding livestock is a job for the boys. When it’s the drought season, warriors and boys alike take on the responsibility of herding the livestock. The elders have the responsibility of being directors and advisors for the Maasai day-to-day activities. Each morning before livestock are led to graze, an elder who is the head of the inkang takes his place and announces to his people the day’s schedule for everyone to follow.

The Maasai are a semi-nomadic people, and they have lived under a communal land management system – the rotation of their livestock is seasonal. The communal land management system employed allows everyone to utilize the land’s resources in a way that is sustainable. Each section of the Maasai manages and looks after its own territory. When conditions are normal, several pastures are allowed to grow and become fallow. These fallow fields are guarded by the Maasai warriors. Nevertheless, if the dry season turns out to be an especially difficult one, boundaries become ignored and the people will graze their herds as necessary throughout the land up until the rainy season comes again. According to the Maasai traditional land agreement, no one should be denied the access to natural resources – such as water and land. It is a matter of survival.


Maasai and Their Traditional Economy


The primary source of income for the Maasai are their cattle, sheep, and goat livestock. Livestock will be traded for

Maasai with his livestock

Maasai with his livestock

more livestock, bought for cash, or traded for livestock products such ow and goat milk. Bonds are established as these exchanges are made between individuals, families, and clans. These close ties established through the exchange of livestock carry through the Maasai generations. There is a Maasai prayer that goes “Meishoo iyiook enkai inkishu o-nkera”  which translates to “May Creator give us cattle and children.”

The Maasai population is prohibited from access to the water sources and pasture land in game reserves. With the start of formal schooling in the greater Maasai regions, the care and herding of the livestock is slowly becoming a parent’s responsibility. The young boys do resume their livestock herding responsibilities on weekends and whenever schools are out, but it is a dynamic shift in responsibilities.

East African droughts are taking a turn for the worse due to the results of global warming, and are becoming severe, leaving the Maasai people no choice but to look for alternative livelihoods. The Maasai’s herds are dwindling to smaller numbers than previous years, and most of the Maasai people have come to start relying on relief food.


Maasai and the Economy and Politics with Outsiders


Recently, the Maasai economy has become progressively dependent on the market economy. The products from their livestock are bought by other groups in Kenya, for clothing, beads, and grains. Animals such as goats and cows are also sold for children’s uniforms for school and also for the school fees for their children. It is a common sight now common to see young Maasai men and women in the streets of major towns and cities of Kenya. They will be selling goats and cows, yes, but also cell phones, jewelry, beads, charcoal, and grain, and a whole host of other items.  It wasn’t until the Group Ranch project in the early 80s that the Maasai people became so much more involved in a market economy and, subsequently more  impoverished generally speaking. The Maasai tribal leadership consisting of the council of elders, is beginning to lose its power year after year, due to increasing western forms of leadership and governance on the lands.


Maasai diet – Traditional and Modern


In more traditional times, and even very recently, the Maasai population relied on the meat, milk and blood from their cattle for their protein and caloric needs. Maasai people drink the cow’s blood on special occasions. It’s something that’s given to a woman who has given birth (entomononi) a circumcised person (olesipolioi), or to Maasai people who are sick (oltamueyiai). Also, it is said that elders, ilamerak, use the cow’s blood regularly to alleviate intoxication and hangovers. Cow’s blood is a very rich source of protein and is believed to be good for the immune system. Nevertheless, its use in medicinal practices and the traditional diet is becoming less popular due to the greatly reducing numbers of cattle in the herds.

More recently, the modern Maasai have changed their diet. The people have grown more dependent on the foods harvested in other areas such as rice, cabbage (which are called “goat leaves”), maize meal (unga wa mahindi), potatoes, etc. The Maasai populations who live in close proximity to crop farmers have also engaged in cultivation as their primary source of subsistence. In these agricultural areas, the plot sizes are typically not big enough to accommodate the needs of a herd of grazing animals, and the Maasai people use the land to farm instead. It’s something they do out of necessity, as it is traditionally frowned upon. The Maasai believe that using the land to raise crops is a crime against nature, that once the land is cultivated it can no longer be used for grazing. The change needed to be made in order for the Maasai to survive.


Private Ownership a New Concept


To the Maasai, the entire idea owning private property used to be a foreign concept until very recently. But in the 1960s and 1980s, a livestock and land commercialization program was introduced and essentially forced upon the Maasai by the British, and then later by the Kenyan Government. Ever since the implementation of the program, the land has been subdivided into group and individual ranches. In some of these parts, people subdivided their individual ranches into smaller plots, and sold these plots to private developers.

The individual ranches of this new land management system has ended up polarizing the Maasai people: Some have grown wealthy at the expense of others. National Parks and Reserves have been the recipient of the majority of the land the Maasai has called home, and the people are heavily restricted from using any of the resources. This subdivision of the Maasailand has reduced area needed for cattle herding,  which in turn has reduced the number of cattle per household, subsequently reducing each household’s food production. As a result, the Maasai people are now facing many new social-economic and political troubles when they once were such a proud and self-sufficient people.


Maasai Cultural Heritage Centre – One of a Kind

Entrance to the Maasai Cultural Heritage Centre

Entrance to the Maasai Cultural Heritage Centre

You can visit the Maasai Cultural Heritage Center, which is situated along the Emali-Loitokitok Highway along the way towards Amboseli National Park. The Maasai center is located 23 kilometers from Emali town, and 50 kilometers from Amboseli National Park at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro. The area the Maasai Cultural Heritage Centre is located in is also home to Maasai pastoralists. This Maasai center is the first of its kind. If you are ever planning a visit to Amboseli National Park, make a point of checking out the Maasai Cultural Heritage Center.


Safari with the Maasai


The Maasai Association conducts walking safaris with Maasai warriors.


The safari includes:


  • A visit to the Maasai village to see the homes and people
  • A walking safari conducted by the Maasai warriors
  • A visit to village health centre and the local schools where the Maasai children attend
  • Taking part in beading with the Maasai Women Cooperative
  • Meet and engage with Maasai village elders
    A traditionally conducted safari to Kenya’s renowned wildlife conservation parks including Amboseli National Park, Masai Mara Game Reserve, Tsavo West National Park, Nakuru National Park or any of the other wildlife parks


Wake to the sound of birds, and walk with the Maasai warriors. They’ll be able to help track which animal has been through by footprints, droppings, and other markings along the land. There will be zebras, lions, and giraffes all nearby.

You’ll regroup to return back to the Maasai village and have Maasai chai with your group and guides. The best is yet to come – the day will end with the most beautiful sunset you have ever seen across the African landscape.

Visit the African destinations category to learn more about other tourism opportunities available in Africa!