Of all Kenya’s peoples, the Maasai have received the most attention. Often strikingly tall and slender, dressed in brilliant red cloth, with beads, metal jewellery and – for young men – long, ochred hairstyles, they have a reputation for ferocity fed by their somewhat arch superiority complex. Traditionally, they lived off milk and blood (extracted, by a close shot with a stumpy arrow, from the jugular veins of their live cattle), and they loved their herds more than anything else, rarely slaughtering a beast. They maintained rotating armies of spartan warriors – the morani – who killed lions as a test of manhood. And they opposed all interference and invasion with swift, implacable violence. The Maasai scorn of foreigners was absolute: they called the Europeans, who came swaddled in clothing, iloridaa enjekat or “those who confine their farts”. They also derided African peoples who cultivated by digging the earth – the Maasai even left their dead unburied – while those who kept cattle were given grudging respect so long as they conceded that all the world’s cattle were a gift from God to the Maasai, whose incessant cattle-raiding was thus righteous reclamation of stolen property. Cattle are still at the heart of Maasai society. There are dozens of names for different colours and patterns, and each animal among their three million is individually cherished.

Some of this noble savagery was undoubtedly exaggerated by Swahili and Arab slave and ivory traders, anxious to protect their routes from the Europeans. At the same time, something close to a cult of the Maasai has been around ever since Thomson walked Through Maasai Land in 1883. In the early years of the colony, Governor Delamere’s obsession with the people and all things Maasai spawned a new term, “Maasai-itis”, and with it a motley crop of romantic notions about their ancestors, alluding to ancient Egypt and Rome, and even to the lost tribes of Israel.

The Maasai have been assailed on all sides: by uplands farmers expanding from the north; by eviction from the tourist/conservation areas within the Maasai Mara boundaries; and by a climate of opposition to their traditional lifestyle from all around. Sporadically urged to grow crops, go to school, build permanent houses, and generally settle down and stop being a nuisance, the Maasai face an additional dilemma in squaring these edicts with the fickle demands of the tourist industry for traditional authenticity. Maasai dancing is the entertainment, while necklaces, gourds, spears, shields, rungus (clubs), busts (carved by Kamba carvers) and even life-sized wooden morani, to be shipped home in a packing case, are the stock-in-trade of the souvenir shops. For the Maasai themselves, the rewards are fairly scant. Few make much of a living selling souvenirs, but enterprising morani can do well by just posing for photos, and even better if they hawk themselves in Nairobi or down on the coast. For further information, see wmaasai-association.org.

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