African Tribes Series-Masaai of Kenya

Zambian eye MasaiBy Musamba Chama Mumba

The Masaai tribe, one of deep culture and strict tradition, is the most famous tribe of Kenya. Other than their incredible warriors their are known for their intricate hairstyles. These styles, like the above picture, are only worn by the Masai warrior; which, from all the pictures I’ve seen thus far, are only men.

They spend hours braiding each others hair, and as you can see the result are micro braids equally sized.

The reddish color of their hair comes from clay and red ochre. Red ochre is a natural earth pigment found around volcanic regions. The Masaai mix the ochre with animal fat to get a grease paint consistency and then apply it to their hair. This grease paint dries quickly and covers surfaces thoroughly.
What is important to note, about the Masaai warriors, are not their hairstyle, but what comes with it. They paint their hair without using toxic dyes like us natural hair wearers in America. They also have very elaborate headdresses.


Life for the Masaai is a series of conquests and tests involving the endurance of pain. For men, there is a progression from childhood to warrior hood to elder hood  At the age of four, a child’s lower incisors are taken out with a knife. Young boys test their will by their arms and legs with hot coals. As they grow older, they submit to tattooing on the stomach and the arms, enduring hundreds of small cuts into the skin.

Ear piercing for both boys and girls comes next. The cartilage of the upper ear is pierced with hot iron. When this heals, a hole is cut in the ear lobe and gradually enlarged by inserting rolls of leaves or balls made of wood or mud. Nowadays plastic film canisters may serve this purpose. The bigger the hole, the better. Those earlobes that dangle to the shoulders are considered perfect.

Circumcision (for boys) and excision (for girls) is the next stage, and the most important event in a young Masaai’s life.

It is a father’s ultimate duty to ensure that his children undergo this rite. The family invites relatives and friends to witness the ceremonies, which may be held in special villages called imanyat . The imanyat dedicated to circumcision of boys are called nkang oo ntaritik (villages of little birds).

Circumcision itself involves great physical pain and tests a youth’s courage. If they flinch during the act, boys bring shame and dishonor to themselves and their family. At a minimum, the members of their age group ridicule them and they pay a fine of one head of cattle. However, if a boy shows great bravery, he receives gifts of cattle and sheep.

Girls must endure an even longer and more painful ritual, which is considered preparation for childbearing. (Girls who become pregnant before excision are banished from the village and stigmatized throughout their lives.) After passing this test of courage, women say they are afraid of nothing.

Guests celebrate the successful completion of these rites by drinking great quantities of mead (a fermented beverage containing honey) and dancing. Boys are then ready to become warriors, and girls are then ready to bear a new generation of warriors. In a few months, the young woman’s future husband will come to pick her up and take her to live with his family.

After passing the tests of childhood and circumcision, boys must fulfill a civic requirement similar to military service. They live for up to several months in the bush, where they learn to overcome pride, egotism, and selfishness. They share their most prized possessions, their cattle, with other members of the community.

However, they must also spend time in the village, where they sacrifice their cattle for ceremonies and offer gifts of cattle to new households. This stage of development matures a warrior and teaches him nkaniet (respect for others), and he learns how to contribute to the welfare of his community.

The stage of “young warrior hood” ends with the eunoto rite, when a man ends his periodic trips into the bush and returns to his village, putting his acquired wisdom to use for the good of the community.

Masaai mythology:There are several different versions of the story of how Enkai came to be. They all have common details and ideas. The belief is that Enkai was once a human who owned all the cattle in the world. When the sky and earth split, he sent all the cattle down from the sky along a long bark rope. The Masaai people received all these cattle.

When a jealous group of hunters did not receive any cattle they cut the bark from the sky. This created a gap between the heavens and earth, which stopped the flow of the cattle to the Masai  This leaves the Masaai with the belief that cattle are a direct link to Enkai and that he intended that all cattle were for the Masaai.