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Chapter 39

NOTES ON THE MASAI.

It is in no way my intention to attempt a comprehensive description of this unique people. My personal observation is, of course, inadequate to that task, and the numerous careful works on the subject are available to the interested reader.

The southern branch of the race, among whom we were now travelling, are very fine physically. Men close to seven feet in height are not at all uncommon, and the average is well above six. They are strongly and lithely made. Their skins are a red-brown or bronze, generally brought to a high state of polish by liberal anointing. In feature they resemble more the Egyptian or Abyssinian than the negro cast of countenance. The women are tall and well formed, with proud, quaintly quizzical faces. Their expressions and demeanour seem to indicate more independence and initiative than is usual with most savage women, but whether this is actually so or not I cannot say.

On this imposing and pleasing physical foundation your true Masai is content to build a very slight superstructure of ornament. His ear-lobes are always stretched to hang down in long loops, in which small medals, ornaments, decorated blocks of wood, or the like, are inserted. Long, heavy ovals of ivory, grooved to accommodate the flesh loop, very finely etched in decorative designs, are occasionally worn as "stretchers." Around the neck is a slender iron collar, and on the arms are one or two glittering bracelets. The sword belt is of leather heavily beaded, with a short dangling fringe of steel beads. Through this the short blade is thrust. When in full dress the warrior further sports a hollow iron knee bell, connected with the belt by a string of cowrie shells or beads. Often is added a curious triangular strip of skin fitting over the chest, and reaching about to the waist. A robe or short cloak of short-haired sheepskin is sometimes carried for warmth, but not at all for modesty. The weapons are a long, narrow-bladed heavy spear, the buffalo hide shield, the short sword, and the war club or rungs. The women are always shaven-headed, wear voluminous robes of soft leather, and carry a great weight of heavy wire wound into anklets and stockings, and brought to a high state of polish. So extensive are these decorations that they really form a sort of armour, with breaks only for the elbow and the knee joints. The married women wear also a great outstanding collar.

The Masai are pastoral, and keep immense herds and flocks. Therefore they inhabit the grazing countries, and are nomadic. Their villages are invariably arranged in a wide circle, the low huts of mud and wattles facing inwards. The spaces between the huts are filled in with thick dense thorn brush, thus enclosing a strong corral, or boma. These villages are called manyattas. They are built by the women in an incredibly brief space of time. Indeed, an overchief stopping two days at one place has been known to cause the construction of a complete village, to serve only for that period. He then moved on, and the manyatta was never used again! Nevertheless these low rounded huts, in shape like a loaf of bread, give a fictitious impression of great strength and permanency. The smooth and hardened mud resembles masonry or concrete work. As a matter of fact it is the thinnest sort of a shell over plaited withies. The single entrance to this compound may be closed by thorn bush, so that at night, when the lions are abroad, the Masai and all his herds dwell quite peaceably and safely inside the boma. Twelve to twenty huts constitute a village.

When the grass is fed down, the village moves to a new location. There is some regulation about this, determined by the overchiefs, so that one village does not interfere with another. Beside the few articles of value or of domestic use, the only things carried away from an old village are the strongly-woven shield-shaped doors. These are strapped along the flanks of the donkeys, while the other goods rest between. A donkey pack, Masai fashion, is a marvellous affair that would not stay on ten minutes for a white man.

The Masai perform no agriculture whatever, nor will they eat game meat. They have no desire whatever for any of the white man's provisions except sugar. In fact; their sole habitual diet is mixed cow's blood and milk--no fruits, no vegetables, no grains, rarely flesh; a striking commentary on extreme vegetarian claims. The blood they obtain by shooting a very sharp-pointed arrow into the neck vein of the cow. After the requisite amount has been drained, the wound is closed and the animal turned into the herd to recuperate. The blood and milk are then shaken together in long gourds. Certainly the race seems to thrive on this strange diet. Only rarely, on ceremonial occasions or when transportation is difficult, do they eat mutton or goat flesh, but never beef.

Of labour, then, about a Masai village, it follows that there is practically none. The women build the manyattas; there is no cooking, no tilling of the soil, no searching for wild fruits. The herd have to be watched by day, and driven in at the fall of night; that is the task of the boys and the youths who have not gone through with the quadriennial circumcision ceremonies and become El-morani, or warriors. Therefore the grown men are absolutely and completely gentlemen of leisure. In civilization, the less men do the more important they are inclined to think themselves. It is so here. Socially the Masai consider themselves several cuts above anybody else in the country. As social superiority lies mostly in thinking so hard enough--so that the inner belief expresses itself in the outward attitude and manner--the Masai carry it off. Their haughtiness is magnificent. Also they can look as unsmiling and bored as anybody anywhere. Consequently they are either greatly admired, or greatly hated and feared, as the case happens to be, by all the other tribes. The Kikuyu young men frankly ape the customs and ornaments of their powerful neighbours. Even the British Government treats them very gingerly indeed, and allows these economically useless savages a latitude the more agricultural tribes do not enjoy. Yet I submit that any people whose property is in immense herds can more easily be brought to terms than those who have nothing so valuable to lose.

As a matter of fact the white man and the Masai have never had it out. When the English, a few years since, were engaged in opening the country they carried on quite a stoutly contested little war with the Wakamba. These people put up so good a fight that the English anticipated a most bitter struggle with the Masai, whose territory lay next beyond. To their surprise the Masai made peace.

"We have watched the war with the Wakamba," they said, in effect, "and we have seen the Wakamba kill a great many of your men. But more of your men came in always, and there were no more Wakamba to come in and take the places of those who were killed. We are not afraid. If we should war with you, we would undoubtedly kill a great many of you, and you would undoubtedly kill a great many of us. But there can be no use in that. We want the ranges for our cattle; you want a road. Let us then agree."

The result is that to-day the Masai look upon themselves as an unconquered people, and bear themselves--towards the other tribes--accordingly. The shrewd common sense and observation evidenced above must have convinced them that war now would be hopeless.

This acute intelligence is not at all incompatible with the rather bigoted and narrow outlook on life inevitable to a people whose ideals are made up of fancied superiorities over the rest of mankind. Witness, the feudal aristocracies of the Middle Ages.

With this type the underlying theory of masculine activity is the military. Some outlet for energy was needed, and in war it was found. Even the ordinary necessities of primitive agriculture and of the chase were lacking. The Masai ate neither vegetable, grain, nor wild game. His whole young manhood, then, could be spent in no better occupation than the pursuit of warlike glory--and cows.

On this rested the peculiar social structure of the people. In perusing the following fragmentary account the reader must first of all divest his mind of what he would, according to white man's standards, consider moral or immoral. Such things must be viewed from the standpoint of the people believing in them. The Masai are moral in the sense that they very rigorously live up to their own customs and creeds. Their women are strictly chaste in the sense that they conduct no affairs outside those permitted within the tribe. No doubt, from the Masai point of view, we are ourselves immoral.

The small boy, as soon as he is big enough to be responsible--and that is very early in life--is given, in company with others, charge of a flock of sheep. Thence he graduates to the precious herds of cows. He wears little or nothing; is armed with a throwing club (a long stick), or perhaps later a broad-bladed, short-headed spear of a pattern peculiar to boys and young men. His life is thus over the free open hills and veld until, somewhere between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one, the year of the circumcision comes. Then he enters on the long ceremonies that initiate him into the warrior class. My knowledge of the details of this subject is limited; for while I had the luck to be in Masailand on the fourth year, such things are not exhibited freely. The curious reader can find more on the subject in other books; but as this is confined to personal experiences I will tell only what I have myself elicited.

The youth's shaved head is allowed to grow its hair. He hangs around his brow a dangling string of bright-coloured bird skins stuffed out in the shape of little cylinders, so that at a short distance they look like curls. For something like a month of probation he wears these, then undergoes the rite. For ten days thereafter he and his companions, their heads daubed with clay and ashes, clad in long black robes, live out in the brush. They have no provision, but are privileged to steal what they need. At the end of the ten days they return to the manyattas. A three-day n'goma, or dance, now completes their transformation to the El-morani class. It finishes by an obscene night dance, in the course of which the new warriors select their partners.

For ten or twelve years these young men are El-morani. They dwell in a separate manyatta. With them dwell promiscuously all the young unmarried women of the tribe. There is no permanent pairing off, no individual property, no marriage. Nor does this constitute flagrant immorality, difficult as it may be for us to see that fact. The institution, like all national institutions, must have had its origin in a very real need and a very practical expediency. The fighting strength of the tribe must be kept up, and by the young and vigorous stock. On the other hand, every man of military age must be foot free to serve in the constant wars and forays. This institution is the means. And, mind you, unchastity in the form of illicit intercourse outside the manyatta of the El-morani, whether with her own or another tribe, subjects the women to instant death.

The El-morani in full fighting rig are imposing. They are, as I have explained, tall and of fine physique. The cherished and prized weapon is the long, narrow-bladed spear. This is five and six feet long, with a blade over three feet by as many inches, and with a long iron shoe. In fact, only a bare hand-hold of wood is provided. It is of formidable weight, but so well balanced that a flip cast with the wrist will drive it clear through an enemy. A short sword and a heavy-headed war club complete the offensive weapons. The shield is of buffalo hide, oval in shape, and decorated with a genuine heraldry, based on genealogy. A circlet of black ostrich feathers in some branches surrounds the face and stands high above the head. In the southern districts the warriors wear two single black ostrich plumes tied one either side the head, and slanting a little backwards. They walk with a mincing step, so that the two feathers bob gently up and down like the waving of the circus equestrienne's filmy skirts.

Naturally the Masai with the Zulu were the most dreaded of all the tribes of Africa. They were constantly raiding in all directions as far as their sphere of operations could reach, capturing cattle and women as the prizes of war. Now that the white man has put a stop to the ferocious intertribal wars, the El-morani are out of a job. The military organization is still carried on as before. What will happen to the morals of the people it would be difficult to say. The twelve years of imposed peace have not been long enough seriously to deteriorate the people; but, inevitably, complete idleness will tell. Either the people must change their ideals and become industrious--which is extremely unlikely--or they will degenerate.

As a passing thought, it is a curious and formidable fact that the prohibition of intertribal wars and forays all through East Central Africa had already permitted the population to increase to a point of discomfort. Many of the districts are becoming so crowded as to overflow. What will happen in the long run only time can tell--famines are weakening things, while war at least hardens a nation's fibre. This is not necessarily an argument for war. Only everywhere in the world the white man seems, with the best of intentions, to be upsetting natural balances without substituting anything for them. We are better at preventing things than causing them.

At the age of thirty, or thereabout, the El-morani becomes an Elder. He may now drink and smoke, vices that in the Spartan days of his military service were rigorously denied him. He may also take a wife or wives, according to his means, and keep herds of cattle. His wives he purchases from their parents, the usual medium of payment being cows or sheep. The young women who have been living in the El-morani village are considered quite as desirable as the young virgins. If there are children, these are taken over by the husband. They are considered rather a recommendation than a detriment, for they prove the girl is fruitful.

Relieved of all responsibility, the ex-warrior now has full leisure to be a gentleman. He drinks a fermented liquor made from milk; he takes snuff or smokes the rank native tobacco; he conducts interminable diplomatic negotiations; he oversees minutely the forms of ceremonials; he helps to shape the policies of his manyatta, and he gives his attention to the accumulation of cows.

The cow is the one thing that arouses the Masai's full energies. He will undertake any journey, any task, any danger, provided the reward therefor is horned cattle. And a cow is the one thing he will on no account trade, sell, destroy. A very few of them he milks, and a very few of them he periodically bleeds; but the majority, to the numbers of thousands upon thousands, live uselessly until they die of old age. They are branded, generally on the flanks or ribs, with strange large brands, and are so constantly handled that they are tamer and more gentle than sheep. I have seen upwards of a thousand head in sole charge of two old women on foot. These ancient dames drove the beasts in a long file to water, then turned them quite easily and drove them back again. Opposite our camp they halted their charges and came to make us a long visit. The cattle stood in their tracks until the call was over; not one offered even to stray off the baked earth in search of grasses.

The Masai cattle king knows his property individually. Each beast has its name. Some of the wealthier are worth in cattle, at settler's prices, close to a hundred thousand dollars. They are men of importance in their own council huts, but they lack many things dear to the savage heart simply because they are unwilling to part with a single head of stock in order to procure them.

In the old days forays and raids tended more or less to keep the stock down. Since the White Man's Peace the herds are increasing. In the country between the Mau Escarpment and the Narossara Mountains we found the feed eaten down to the earth two months before the next rainy season. In the meantime the few settlers are hard put to it to buy cattle at any price wherewith to stock their new farms. The situation is an anomaly which probably cannot continue. Some check will have eventually to be devised, either limiting the cattle, or compelling an equitable sale of the surplus. Certainly the present situation represents a sad economic waste--of the energies of a fine race destined to rust away, and of the lives of tens of thousands of valuable beasts brought into existence only to die of old age. If these matchless herders and cattle breeders could be brought into relation with the world's markets everybody would be the better.

Besides his sacred cattle the Masai raises also lesser herds of the hairy sheep of the country. These he used for himself only on the rare occasions of solitary forced marches away from his herds, or at the times of ceremony. Their real use is as a trading medium--for more cattle! Certain white men and Somalis conduct regular trading expeditions into Masailand, bringing in small herds of cows bought with trade goods from the other tribes. These they barter with the Masai for sheep. In Masai estimation a cow is the most valuable thing on earth, while a sheep is only a medium of exchange. With such notions it is easy to see that the white man can make an advantageous exchange, in spite of the Masai's well-known shrewdness at a bargain. Each side is satisfied. There remains only to find a market for the sheep--an easy matter. A small herd of cows will, in the long run, bring quite a decent profit.

The Masai has very little use for white man's products. He will trade for squares of cloth, beads of certain kinds and in a limited quantity, brass and iron wire of heavy gauge, blankets and sugar. That, barring occasional personal idiosyncrasy, is about all. For these things he will pay also in sheep. Masai curios are particularly difficult to get hold of. I rather like them for their independence in that respect. I certainly should refuse to sell my tennis shoes from my feet merely because some casual Chinaman happened to admire them!

The women seem to occupy a position quite satisfactory to themselves. To be sure they do the work; but there is not much work! They appear to be well treated; at least they are always in good spirits, laughing and joking with each other, and always ready with quick repartee to remarks flung at them by the safari boys. They visited camp freely, and would sit down for a good lively afternoon of joking. Their expressions were quizzical, with a shy intelligent humour. In spite of the apparent unabashed freedom of their deportment they always behaved with the utmost circumspection; nor did our boys ever attempt any familiarity. The unobtrusive lounging presence in the background of two warriors with long spears may have had something to do with this.

The Masai government is centred in an overlord or king. His orders seemed to be implicitly obeyed. The present king I do not know, as the old king, Lenani, had just died at an advanced age. In former days the traveller on entering Masailand was met by a sub-chief. This man planted his long spear upright in the ground, and the intending traveller flung over it coils of the heavy wire. A very generous traveller who completely covered the spear then had no more trouble. One less lavish was likely to be held up for further impositions as he penetrated the country. This tax was called the honga.

The Masai language is one of the most difficult of all the native tongues. In fact, the white man is almost completely unable even to pronounce many of the words. V., who is a "Masai-man," who knows them intimately, and who possesses their confidence, does not pretend to talk with them in their own tongue, but employs the universal Swahili.


Stewart Edward White

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