The Maasai are vastly talented in artworks: from decorative beaded jewelry to clay carvings to wooden figures, the Masaai gift the world with some of the most powerful art in Africa. They excel especially in wood carvings, providing very detailed work with a skillful hand in woods that are known to be very hard to work with.
The Masaai are known for their color brightly colored reds, blues and purples of their Shúka--sheets worn wrapped around the body, one over each shoulder, then a third over the top of them. They stand out vividly against the landscape, whether in small mud-thatched villages, more modern towns or the vast open spaces on which they continue to graze their cattle, as they have for more than 500 years.
By the mid-19th century, the Masaai people had become as well known for their strength as warriors, using spears, shields and clubs that could be thrown accurately from up to 70 paces, as they were for their cattle-herding.
The Maasai culture is known for its music and dance, in which a leader, known as the olaranyani, sings the melody while others sing polyphonic harmony on call-and-response vocals and make guttural throat-singing sounds to provide rhythmic syncopation. The warriors’ coming of age ceremony, known as eunoto, can involve 10+ days of singing, dancing and ritual, including the competitive jumping for which the Maasai are perhaps best known.
Problems between the Maasai tribe and the government date back more than 100 years, to treaties with the British reduced Maasai land in Kenya by 60% to make room for ranches for colonial settlers. In the 1940s, Tanzanian pastoralists were displaced from the fertile lands around Mount Meru, Mount Kilimanjaro and the Ngorongoro Crater. Much of the land taken from the Maasai was used to create many of the world’s most famous wildlife reserves and national parks, including Kenya’s Amboseli, Masai Mara, Samburu and Tsavo and Tanzania’s Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro, Tarangire and Serengeti.
The Maasai people are monotheistic, and their God is named Engai or Enkai. For Maasai people living a traditional way of life, the end of life is virtually without a formal funeral ceremony, and the dead are left out in the fields for scavengers. Burial has in the past been reserved for great chiefs only, since it is believed by the Maasai that burial is harmful to the soil.
A man who has plenty of cattle but not many children is considered to be poor. A Maasai myth says that God afforded them all the cattle on earth, resulting in the belief that rustling from other tribes is a matter of claiming what is rightfully theirs, a practice that has now become much less common.