[words and photographs © Mark Eveleigh]
Wrapped in his crimson-checked shuka and leaning on a long-bladed assegai, the statuesque Maasai warrior can rightly consider himself one of the African aristocrats. The Maasai are proud herdsman and, although quick to fight for grazing rights, are unwilling to accept the concept of land ownership and look down upon less “noble”’ agricultural and hunting tribes. Their cattle are sacred and are eaten only on rare ceremonial occasions, but a basic diet of milk – occasionally mixed with the blood of a living cow to make a sort of Maasai “milkshake” – maintains strong physiques, unusually healthy teeth and clear complexions. The Maa-sai (literally meaning “my people”) have managed to remain separate from mainstream development and even today many young Maasai refuse to speak the Swahili of their Kenyan compatriots.
Both sexes are circumcised at puberty (without anaesthetic) and the boys are expected to bear the operation without flinching. After circumcision, the morani (warriors) move away from the village to build their own manyatta where they will stay for up to eight years living a life that, while strict, is anything but monkish. Maasai society is sexually very tolerant and village girls – or even the young wives of tribal elders – may frequently be invited to sleep with one of the warriors. The intricate hairstyles, make-up and fantastic beadwork of the morani seems to be aimed as much at attracting the opposite sex as towards competing with his fellows.
While the warrior’s appearance is a statement of his individuality, a Maasai bridal costume is an affirmation of community spirit; women from all over the area contribute to the beadwork and the colour sequences are closely choreographed. Until Arab traders introduced wire and glass beads, the jewellery was made from sisal twine and plant seeds.
Most Maasai still follow their traditional religion and mysticism, including omens and tribal medicine, and society’s tolerance does not extend to those who have turned their backs on the old ways. Increasing pressure from overcrowding has led to conflict with the authorities and many Maasai have been forced to look for work in the outside world. For those who have done so, there can rarely be any return.
“The Maasai path is the only one for us,” explained tribal leader Paul ole Kaika. “If the young people are allowed to reject our way of life, our next step will be extinction.”
Many say that the proud Maasai warriors of yesteryear have already been “tamed” and that today they would rather beg photo-money from tourists than guard their herds. Along the tourist trails to the Maasai Mara or Ngorongoro, this would seem to be true but among the 16 clans there are still many who would scorn to ask for money but are happy to let you shoot their portraits… until the moment they get bored and a regal wave of the hand tells you “enough!”
While Maasai men no longer enter manhood through the ritual lion hunt they will not hesitate to attack leopard or even buffalo if their livestock is threatened. Their phenomenal fitness, as exhibited in their jumping displays, is well known and in former times it was not uncommon for Maasai raiding parties to run 60 miles in a day. Even today, it can be a daunting sight to see a group of morani in full costume trotting towards you, in skirmishing order, across the shimmering African savanna.