Proudly living off the land, the Maasai are as skilled with the spear as they are at caring for their herds.
Between the 16th and 18th century, the land between the Great Lakes, the Great Rift and the Indian Ocean coastline welcomed a variety of complementary populations who then forged strong relationships amongst themselves. During this period, the Maasai prevailed as one of the main groups among the pastoral societies dominating these regions, and they herded their cattle over the vast expanses of the modern-day Kenyan and Tanzanian plains.Find out more:
The Maasai “those who speak Maa”, are a people whose language is related to the group of Nilo-Saharan languages. Their settlement on the grassy savannahs of East Africa during the 16th century makes them the southern-most representatives of this language family. In the middle of the 18th century, they were one of the dominant groups on these infertile soils, well-suited to rearing livestock. More mobile and more powerful in military terms, they controlled the best irrigated and grazed areas of these regions.
The Maasai were a largely agro-pastoral society whose day-to-day lives revolved around taking care of their herds. The cattle – which provided families with the bulk of their food and the raw materials needed to make clothes, weapons and tools – were both the symbol of their strength and the measure of their wealth. As such, they were a crucial factor in establishing and maintaining social relations. The movement of cattle through the practice of loans or the creation of dowries enabled the Maasai clans to extend the reach of their family alliances and to reduce the risk of loss.
Solely practicing cattle rearing, the Maasai were part of a trading network with groups of hunters and farmers who supplied them with manufactured goods (iron) and scarce commodities (salt, skins) in exchange for animals, meat, milk and leather.
This cooperation between the populations also centered around medical know-how. The cattle breeders, used to treating their herds, were thought to be good surgeons, whilst the farmers were considered skillful as a result of their in-depth knowledge of medicinal plants.