Blood Rituals and Warriors: The Maasai People of East Africa's Great Rift Valley

  • Searching for the jugular

    Half a dozen Maasai warriors wrestle with the struggling cow. Another waits with his bow drawn, arrow at the ready. Finally, they have the straining animal in position. The warrior with the weapon shoots straight for the bovine’s jugular. Warm blood gushes into a waiting bucket, pumped out by the animal’s still-beating heart.

    The blood keeps flowing, almost filling the container, before the cow is released – its punctured neck sealed with a dab of cow dung. It will live to see another day. Its blood-donating job is done, at least for another month. The Maasai men who perform this blood-draining ritual do not intend to kill, or even harm, the animal. They merely want some of its nourishing crimson fluid to drink.

  • A jar of yummy blood

    The Maasai (or Masai) people of Kenya and northern Tanzania are among the most recognizable African tribes to those outside of their continent. Most people know them for the red sheets they wrap around their bodies, the long, thin braids of their warriors, the blood-drinking ritual just described, and the unusual jumping dance they sometimes perform. Yet there is a lot more to this proud and ancient people, whose nomadic herding lifestyle dates back centuries.

  • Boys are expected to help with the cattle as soon as they’re young enough to walk.

    “This series documents one family and its extremely remote village located south east of Tarangire National Park in Tanzania,” says photographer April Maciborka. “I came across the country to document this family’s day-to-day routine, staying with them for three days,” she elaborates. Enough time, it seems, to take some incredible photos of the family and their herd of cattle.

  • A Maasai hut, which is built by the women using branches and sticks, and sealed with cow dung and urine mixed with mud, grass and ash

    The Maasai are a Nilotic ethnic group, meaning they live in the Nile valley area, which stretches all the way from central Africa to the Mediterranean in the north. According to their own history, the Maasai moved southward from Lake Turkana around 600 years ago, displacing other tribes as they went, except for people like those of the Cushitic groups, whom they assimilated. The Maasai were a strong and dignified people who opposed slavery, of themselves and others, and slavers knew better than to tangle with them.

  • Being a Maasai baby is hard work!

    During the 19th century, the Maasai dominated almost the entire Great Rift Valley. Known as fierce warriors, they were also aggressive cattle raiders who used spears and throwing clubs to overcome any opposition. However, this rustling was not regarded as stealing by them since, in Maasai mythology, the rain god Engai put all cattle under the protection of the Maasai. So, by taking them away from others, they are merely restoring the cattle to their rightful caretakers.

  • A boy holds his jar of blood while his father carries a calf.

    There is a Maasai prayer which goes “May Creator give us cattle and children,” and indeed it is through the accumulation of these that a Maasai man is judged. In order to be considered wealthy among the tribe, it is necessary for a man to have both in abundance: new lives and a way to sustain them.

    Traditionally, the meat, milk and blood of the herd supply a Maasai family’s diet, while the skins of the animals are used for leather.

  • A Maasai woman carries her baby on her back as she goes about her work.

    Valuable as they may be, Maasai children are certainly not over-indulged while growing up. Male youngsters are sent out with the herd as soon as they are able to walk by themselves. Throughout their childhood, their bravery and endurance are also regularly tested by ritual beatings. Girls get off relatively lightly, only having to learn to cook and milk the cows, although they also do this from a young age and get less in the way of playtime than their brothers.

  • The Maasai wear their hair cropped short, unless they are warriors.

    Matters get more painful when the children reach their early teens. This is when both sexes submit to the ritual of circumcision. For the boys, aged around 15, the slicing off of the foreskin is done by an elder with a knife and leather bandages. The operation is done without any form of pain relief. As you can imagine, it’s pretty excruciating.

    However, the boys are not allowed to flinch or make any sign that they’re in agony. “If you kick the knife, we will kill you! If you run away from the knife, your society will disown you” are the kind of words said to the young boys on their way to the ceremony.

  • Herding cattle is traditionally done by young boys.

    Girls also undergo a circumcision procedure that activists claim is much more damaging. Described by critics as “female genital mutilation,” female circumcision is still an important part of life in eastern Africa, not just for the Maasai, but for many other communities as well. And although it’s officially outlawed, female circumcision is still practiced today. Stamping out the practice seems to be difficult, mostly because so many women themselves still appear to support it.

  • A Maasai boy gets a better view.

    Coming-of-age rituals hold a central place in Maasai society, perhaps because roles in the community are largely determined by age-set. After circumcision, the boys no longer have to worry about cattle- and goat-herding duties. Instead, they become junior warriors. The main task of these warriors, or Morans, is to protect the Maasai community, and the post is one they will hold for about a decade. During this time, they grow their hair long, plait it, and stain it with ocher.

  • Milking the cows is women’s work among the Maasai.

    Women, on the other hand, have arranged marriages not long after they are circumcised. The groom’s family has to pay for the bride’s hand with livestock. Unlike the males, females are not considered part of their own age-set but rather part of their husband’s. Having more than one wife is allowed in Maasai culture, but, to be fair, so is having more than one husband. In fact, when a Maasai woman marries, she is considered wife not only to her husband, but to his whole age-set as well.

  • Female children help their mothers with chores.

    What this polyandry means, in practice, is that if a man from her husband’s age-set visits, it is permitted for a wife and guest to ‘share a bed,’ – but only if the woman wants to. And if the wife should later have a child that bears a striking resemblance to the visitor, it’s no problem: the husband accepts the child as his own.

  • Woman in a traditional silver headdress

    Music plays a large part in Maasai life. Women often sing and dance by themselves, but sometimes both sexes use singing and dancing as a form of stylized flirtation. The most famous Maasai dance is the ‘adumu,’ known to outsiders as ‘the jumping dance.’ The adumu is performed by warriors who have come of age. These young men form a circle, and the warriors enter one or two at a time, standing in the center of the circle and leaping up and down competitively without letting their heels touch the ground.

  • Maasai leg jewellery

    There are thought to be around half a million to a million Maasai living in Kenya and northern Tanzania today. A completely accurate number is not possible as the Maasai are said to purposely mislead census-takers, who they see as meddlers.

    In the mid-19th century, the Maasai controlled almost the entire Rift Valley and some nearby areas. Using spears, shields and throwing clubs, their warrior bands were feared cattle thieves, raiding cattle as far east as the Tanga Coast in what is now Tanzania. Then, in the late 19th century, they were devastated by a cattle disease, drought and smallpox. They never fully recovered their former strength.

  • Girls wearing some traditional neck and head decorations

    For many years, the Maasai have lived in harmony with the land, co-existing with the wildlife and subsisting on their herds. Oxfam has even recommended the Maasai way of life as a way to survive climate change, as they are experienced in farming harsh terrain like deserts and scrublands. Climate change has affected the Maasai, though, making it difficult for them to manage their livestock. This and other outside pressures threaten to end centuries of Maasai culture and force them to join mainstream Kenyan and Tanzanian society.

  • A young Maasai girl

    Much of the land where the Maasai once wandered has been converted into national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. The Maasai are losing their traditional lifestyle, which once bestowed “Olympic standard” fitness on their warriors, according to one study. Mothers complain that the loss of their former meat, milk and blood diet is making their children less healthy.

  • Maasai woman with a shawl over her head

    Yet, despite the pressures, some Maasai continue to live as their ancestors did. “I was interested in documenting how their nomadic life might be affected by the modern influences that encourage Maasai to abandon their traditions,” says April Maciborka. “This family, however, kept to their nomadic lifestyle, only encouraging their elder to work selling jewellery in a Maasai market on the other side of the country. She remains as the only source of income.”

  • No need for nappies out on the land

    According to Maasai belief, “It takes one day to destroy a house; to build a new house will take months and perhaps years. If we abandon our way of life to construct a new one, it will take thousands of years.” It is a common plight suffered by indigenous peoples all over the world: losing their ways of life through modernization, climate change and lack of land. The Maasai, however, have a strong identity and much pride in their community and ancient traditions. Perhaps this will help them keep the most important aspects of their culture alive for future generations.

    Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

Yohani Kamarudin
Yohani Kamarudin
Scribol Staff
Anthropology and History