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Travelling in northern Tanzania, you are almost certain to meet some Maasai, one of the region’s most colorful tribes. The Maasai are pastoral nomads who have actively resisted change, and still follow the same lifestyle that they have for centuries. Their culture centers on their cattle, which provide many of their needs – milk, blood and meat for their diet, and hides and skins for clothing – although sheep and goats also play an important dietary role, especially during the dry season. The land, cattle and all elements related to cattle are considered sacred.
Maasai society is patriarchal and highly decentralized. Elders meet to decide on general issues but ultimately it is the well-being of the cattle that determines a course of action. Maasai boys pass through a number of transitions throughout life, the first of which is marked by the circumcision rite.
Successive stages include junior warriors, senior warriors, junior elders and senior elders; each level is distinguished by its own unique rights, responsibilities and dress. Junior elders, for example, are expected to marry and settle down – somewhere between the ages of 30 and 40. Senior elders assume the responsibility of making wise and moderate decisions for the community. The most important group is that of the newly initiated warriors, Moran, who are charged with defending the cattle herds.
Maasai women play a markedly subservient role and have no inheritance rights. Polygamy is widespread and marriages are arranged by the elders, without consulting the bride or her mother. Since most women are significantly younger than men at the time of marriage, they often become widows; remarriage is rare.
In an effort to cope with vastly increased tourist attention in recent years, specially designated cultural villages have been established where you can see Maasai dancing, photograph as much as you want and buy crafts, albeit for a steep up to $50 fee per vehicle; generally, of course, this is a rather disappointing and contrived experience. For more authentic encounters with the Maasai, visit Maasai areas within the framework of a Cultural Tourism Program (the Longido, Ol Doinyo Sambu and Ewang’anyi Maasai cultural village), take the chance for guided walks (many camps offer these), or arrange a longer stay or hike at Loliondo, West Kilimanjaro and other areas where partnerships with the Maasai have been established.