The Maasai moran has been a cornerstone for his society since the tribe found its way into East Africa, but modernisation has all but made the role redundant. What is the future of these proud warriors and how can Maasai traditions and values fit in to the present? By Kari Mutu

no place for warriors

In late 2011 over 4,000 young Maasai men were initiated as Il Moran, warriors, in the Amboseli-Tsavo region of southern Kenya. An Eunoto ceremony was held in April 2012 for retiring Maasai warriors in Narok-Mara area. Mid-October saw the senior warriors of the Irmataparto sub-clan receive blessings during the Enkanga oo Ng’udisin (Home of the Walking Stick) ceremony held in Bissil. Enkanga oo Ng’udisin blessings prepare warriors to become elders.

For all intents and purposes, Maasai traditional culture is thriving in the 21st century. But truth be told, we might never again witness these ancient rites of passage, and that’s not because they occur only once every 15 years. The reality is, the Maasai nation has arrived at a critical crossroad; an intersection between the well-trod path of dearly held traditions and the highway to modernisation and development.

Nicolas Moipei, a Nairobi-based music professor and a Maasai from Ilkeek Onyokie clan in Kajiado, sums up this contradiction. “Yes, it is possible to continue our old traditions but only if people reject irrelevant cultural practices. Otherwise they will remain backward, only able to work as watchmen and not getting professional positions.” A choice has to be made between conserving culture and welcoming change.

Origins

The Maasai are part of the Maa-speaking Nilotic people who migrated southwards from the upper Nile River into Kenya and Tanzania. Over centuries, these nomadic pastoralists stamped their grazing rights over vast swathes of East Africa’s savannahs. But the colonial treaties of 1904 and 1911 dislodged them from grazing lands in the central Rift Valley and reduced their hitherto regular interaction with neighbouring peoples.

elders with walking sticks

Undoubtedly, the continued isolation over the decades enabled the Maasai to retain their culture into modern times, coupled with a strong determination to preserve their society. The Maasai developed an age-set system whereby society was divided into age groups with clearly defined roles: young children, uncircumcised youth, married men and women, elders and the much admired moran.

Only youth who have been circumcised can become moran. “Sometimes boys will agitate their parents for the initiation ceremonies,” reveals Moipei, an avid enquirer of Maasai culture, “because they want [to] become the new warriors.” The elders approach the olaiboni (spiritual leader) requesting a new circumcision period be opened and only he determines the appropriate time for the Emuratta (initiation) period.

Initiation marks a major transition in Maasai life. For girls, they are now eligible for marriage and for boys it is the gateway to the exciting life of warrior-hood. All boys circumcised in the same period become part of a collective warrior age-set.

“The warrior age-group has a ‘right-hand’ and ‘left-hand’ circumcision consisting of an earlier and later set of initiates. Each lasts about seven years,” expounds Moipei. Every warrior generation is named afresh by the olaiboni and is remembered by this name long into elder-hood. Warrior life ends after 14 years with the Eunoto ceremony on a date and location determined by the olaiboni. “Eunoto might be delayed by a year or two if conditions were not favourable, for example during a drought,” explains Moipei.

In olden days, Eunoto was a single communal event conducted for all warriors throughout Maasailand. “Nowadays, because of the large population of Maasai, the different clans hold their own Eunoto ceremonies,” adds Moipei.

Eunoto is an emotional time signifying an end to the years of carefree living. The mothers shave the warriors’ heads to symbolize closure and it is not uncommon for a moran to shed tears as his ochre-coloured locks fall around his feet. “It was a painful time, almost like a curse,” tells Moipei. “The hair was never grown long again and the jewellery was removed and put away. On special occasions an elder might wear his old jewellery, but generally it was considered the dress style of the youth.”

Leruso* is a Samburu from Maralal, the northern Maa-speaking cousins of the Maasai with whom they share many traditions. “After warrior-hood, the moran get a new age-set name to signify the end of youth. And then a big party is organised to celebrate,” he adds. Athletic, arrogant and militarily adept, the Maasai warriors’ reputation of fearlessness was historically widespread among neighbouring communities and beyond. Arab traders on their hinterland forays stayed clear of Maasailand and early European explorers approached the Maasai with caution.

Life as a Warrior

For all its glamour and excitement, warrior-hood was the cornerstone of Maasai life. Warriors constituted the army, protecting both people and property. They spent many days scouting the bush and gathering intelligence, having relinquished cattle herding to their young, uncircumcised brothers.

moran jumping

Moran muscle-power was employed to build fences around homesteads and clear sand from wells. When wildlife attacked people or cattle, the warriors hunted them down. When nearby watering holes dried up the warriors led livestock on long sorties in search of water.

Warriors lived in a special moran manyatta (village) where they trained in war tactics, cattle raiding and social customs. Apart from warriors, their girlfriends, their mothers and select elders, the manyatta was out-of-bounds to all others. “After Eunoto, the manyatta is dismantled and burned,” tells Moipei. “New initiates select a new manyatta site. They wouldn’t want to inherit an old manyatta for fear of bad luck.”

In the years spent together, warriors developed strong bonds of brotherhood that lasted long after warrior-hood. Moipei explains, “Most of their free time was spent grooming their hair with red ochre in special ‘salons’ in the hillsides.” Painting their bodies with wet chalk they traced off elaborate patterns with their fingertips. Headdresses were crafted from black ostrich feathers, a lion’s mane or beaded coronets. Jewellery from girlfriends and mothers adorned their bodies.

A rungu (short club), a painted buffalo-skin shield and the prized spear completed the regalia, worn both at war and peacetime. When not used for fighting, the spear was crowned with a ball of pure-black ostrich feathers.

Undeniably, a moran was a fine specimen to behold. Going from home to home on patrols, Moipei recalls how warriors were greatly celebrated. “They wore bells on their legs that could be heard from a long distance away. So the elders would call for a bull to be slaughtered,” says Moipei.

Women offered calabashes of milk, the girls dressed up in their finest and there was much dancing and singing of praise-filled songs. The warriors in turn joined in the merriment, throwing Sodom’s apples at each other, mock fighting or teasing their young girlfriends.

Leruso tells of warriors going on cattle raids, “But it’s only in retaliation for loss of our livestock. Cattle are our wealth. When they are stolen, we must recover them or get an equal number from the enemy’s flocks.”

It is a risky activity with potential for injury and death to man and beast. “Often the young men will organise a cattle raid without informing the elders,” discloses Leruso. “Because they know the elders may block the plan.”

“Among the warriors,” Moipei adds, “were some outrageous or daring ones who instigated cattle raids. So it was not every warrior that went after cattle.” However, the lot then fell on the elders afterwards to seek peaceful solutions with their neighbours. “At other times the moran held meat-roasting parties in the bush, followed by drinking of herbal soups. Or they went lion hunting,” continues Moipei. “But lion hunting was only to protect people and cattle, just like today. If a lion attacked, then warriors went after it. It was a very dangerous mission, but if well planned then a clean kill was achieved. Usually the warrior who struck the first blow kept the lion’s mane.”

“Sometimes a cheeky warrior might incite others to go after a lion for no reason. However, this was rare because the Maasai really love the wild animals and having them around.”

“Warrior-hood was an enjoyable and easy-going life,” surmises Moipei. Small wonder, then, that old men wax lyrical about their youth and many young Maasai still covet the old-time warrior-hood.

The Realities of Today

Samuel Kaanki is a community liaison officer from Amboseli in southern Kenya. Though he thoroughly enjoyed his warriorhood he is convinced that present circumstances have to change. “We have over 4,000 new moran in this area and no doubt many of them would like to hunt lion. And these boys have a lot of idle time.” With an estimated 40 percent of the warriors not in school it would spell disaster for the predator population of this key tourism area.

community of women

Moreover, the traditional warrior roles have been whittled down to almost nothing. Military service is obsolete, cattle-raiding and lion killing are prohibited, and security is now administered by regional authorities. “We have to review the value of being a moran today,” admits Kaanki.

Through the Moran Education Initiative (MEI), Kaanki and his colleagues have, over the last two years, been advocating changes to culture practices that are detrimental to communities and the environment.

“I say to them ‘Look at so-and-so, he killed many lions but now works as a watchman and hardly owns any livestock. This other person has never killed a lion and yet is a very successful man.’” Additionally, the warrior lifestyle of multiple relationships is extremely ill advised these days. “I try to make them understand the risks of casual relationships,” says Kaanki. “…risks such as adultery, teenage pregnancy and HIV-AIDS.” But changing centuries of tradition is no easy task.

Mutu Gethoi, professor of African History, maintains that we have to first understand the historical, philosophical or anthropological foundation of cultural practices before we can change them. “For example, why and where did the culture of lion killing originate?” asks Gethoi. “The intervention sought has to be different, pragmatic and sustainable.”

To Kill a Lion

Perhaps no other warrior pursuit is more significant than lion killing, in terms of bravery, celebrity status or leadership ranking. Conservationists estimate that the 1 million lions in Africa at the turn of the 20th century have been reduced to fewer than 25,000, with Kenya’s lion population assessed at less than 2,000.

Lion hunting is no longer sustainable. But despite the 1977 hunting ban, incidences continue – albeit surreptitiously and aided by the remoteness of many Maasai communities. Kaanki and the elders in the Amboseli-Tsavo region have taken on a bold mission: to eliminate lion killing from the warrior culture. The alternative proposed to this 500-year tradition is sports; organized competitions between teams of warriors in events of high stakes and attractive awards.

Traditionally, warriors engaged in leisure pursuits such as spearthrowing, rungu tossing, racing and high-jumping. “We came up with the idea to create a sports event consisting of the traditional games, with attractive prizes given to the winners,” says Kaanki.

But is sport enough to change entrenched traditional practices? “Most important of all is the education,” emphasises Kaanki. “We educate the warriors on the importance of completing school, on the value of acquiring skills so that you can find other ways to earn a living.”

Voice of an Elder

In the remote, stunning wilderness south of Mt. Kilimanjaro is the boma of an elderly spiritual leader named Kimani. He lives with his eight wives, dozens of children and hundreds of livestock. Clans from as far as the Chyulu Hills in Kenya and Arusha in Tanzania, come to seek his guidance.

One would expect him to preach nothing but tradition. But he has watched the changing times; increasingly erratic rainfall patterns, lush grasslands shorn to bare earth, more people, more livestock, less water, less prosperity.

Seated under the shaded eaves of his dungwall house, a staff and wildebeest-tail fly whisk in hand, Kimani observes, “We live in a new time and we have to follow conservation as a way of life.” He points an index finger to drive home the point. “If we destroy our environment and finish our wildlife, our future will be destroyed. It is best for our warriors to go to school and to maintain traditions.”

Today’s Values

Inevitably, modern schooling will take precedence over traditional moran instruction. “There should be a continuity of the good life and prosperity of warrior-hood into adulthood and old age,” remarks Moipei. “If you ask many of the old men, the former warriors, most will say they wish they went to school.” Education, it seems, is the new Emuratta that will deliver fresh value to warrior-hood. Kitesho* grew up in the Chyulu Hills area and is currently seeking opportunities for college education. He knows the challenge of completing school. “You find sometimes that a boy goes to school, then after a few years his father declares, ‘You have done enough schooling, now go and look after my cows,’” discloses Kitesho. “What can you do when your father commands this? You have to obey.

Previously, education was perceived as going against culture and that you will be cursed. My father was the only one of his brothers to go to school. So I also went to school.” Moipei echoes similar sentiments. “Previously the old men didn’t want young boys to be indoctrinated. So often it was the lazy boys or sons of neglected wives that were sent to school. For me, it was because my mother forced us to go, even though she was uneducated.” Moipei remembers being teased by his uneducated relatives and peers. “But now the tables are turned. Now they see us as superior; now the illiterate see the value of school.”

Gradually, the older people are accepting education. Lengai, a father and grandfather, is a security guard at an Amboseli tourist lodge. Smartly dressed in green bush fatigues he bears elongated earlobes and circular cheek scars characteristic of his generation. He never went to school but that’s not the case with his offspring. “They go to school over there,” he says, pointing at a nondescript location across the plains, “…even my daughters. I want them to get good jobs.”

So perhaps the trick is to adapt cultural practices to a modernizing world. “The truth is our people like their traditions but also covet modern lifestyles,” reveals Moipei. “But we should retain practices that kept family and community together, like respect of elders, responsibility in the home and self-restraint in behaviour.”

In recent years, Eunoto has been conducted on youth who have never been warriors. Symbolic ceremonies are held during school holidays to keep students in touch with their roots, if only in a superficial manner.

It seems that retaining culture is important but not at the expense of development, careers and jobs. As Gethoi underscores: “Culture is not static but most facets of culture and practices can and do change. New ideas and modernisation will replace, and even kill, outmoded ideas.” “Without livestock you’re not considered wealthy, you have no respect in the community,” admits Kitesho. “But we must also send people to school. After all, culture should not restrict schooling.” Kaanki recalls that, “In the old days after a lion-hunt, the manyatta would mount the lion hide on a tall stick like a flag for all to see. Maybe we can do the same with education; mount flags for warriors who graduate from university.”

That the Maasai have retained much of their culture four decades after Independence is probably a testament to the resilience of this people. However, they are now in the midst of some deep soul-searching.

It’s an unenviable position for leaders like Kaanki, knowing that their advice to warriors will permanently put to rest many strongly held traditions. Yet in so doing a warrior will not so much be rebelling against his culture but embracing a modern way of being a moran.