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Tanzania – Symbolism among the Maasai

Leeyo, the first Maasai had two wives. Each wife had her own house. The cattle of the first wife were all red and her house was known as the house of the red cattle, or simply as the ‘red house’. The cattle of the second wife were all black and her house was known as the house of the black cattle, or simply as the ‘black house’. The two colours are very basic in the Maasai culture and they symbolically denote the two major moods of God. God is either red or black, angry or benevolent. Black, or dark-blue, is symbolic of sacredness among the Maasai as is red or brown.

Black would seem to be the more prominent of the two and is often employed to symbolize the sacredness of a person or an object. First of all God himself is invoked as: Papa lai orok, my black Father, and he is beseeched to cover us with his black robe: Intoipo iyiook to lkila lino orok.
Black or dark-blue clothes and items denote the holy state of persons at various stages of their lives. Such persons acquire a status of untouchability and one cannot greet them by hand or touch, but only by word. The darkness given to their appearance in black clothes is enhanced by the fact that they let their hair grow. This lends them an even darker presentation of themselves. Such people include new-born babies before they are approximately six months old, boys and girls for a period after circumcision and young mothers. All these are more of God than of society and must be revered and approached with respect.

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The presiding elders at any major festivity of the Maasai, which is always of a religious nature with many prayers and blessings, are dressed in dark blue. The sprinkling of a mixture of honey-beer and milk or its gentle spray of spittle are symbolic of God’s own spittle, his life-giving rain so badly needed at times.
Objects associated with holy persons or activities in Maasai life are preferably black or dark-blue. Sacrificial animals must be of one colour, usually black. This
is valid for small animals like a lamb at a circumcision ceremony, or bigger animals like bulls at eunoto, an upgrading ceremony for the warriors, or ol-orika, the last major event in a man’s life, settling him into contented old age.

Olkuma orok, the black club, sometimes of iron, is a sign of great authority among the Maasai. It has the same significance culturally and emotionally and symbolically as a scepter may have in other societies.

Maasai elders wear emurt narok, the neck-decoration that is black, also referred to as isaen naaro, the black beads. This item consists of a long string of dark-blue beads only, hung usually twice around the neck and hanging down criss-cross on the chest. They are known as prayers beads but are not fingered as the Muslim prayer beads, or the Catholic rosary. Every Maasai elder will also value his esiare narok, a black stick carried around by him. The colour black is obtained by burying the stick for a while in the mud of a river.
However, at the same time the color black denotes ‘emptiness’. Just a thin line apparently divides holiness and emptiness, loftiness and poverty. This is reflected in a such every-day statements as enkurma narok: flour with nothing in it like oil or sugar; enkaji narok: an empty house, or enkare narok: water without anything added to it, pure and simple (plain) water, which is not drunk by elders.

Oldoinyo le Nkai

Whereas the dark color (black or dark-blue) is more associated with the elders and wisdom, the red colour is more symbolic of youth, energy, and at the same time impatience, even anger. When God gets angry his own mountain spews forth red hot flames and lava. But after each outburst, Oldoinyo le Nka, the mountain of God, the only active volcano in Tanzania Maasailand, calms down in a somber mantle of grey ash, slowly turning black with new vegetation and life, denoting God’s renewed and everlasting benevolence towards His own elusive people of Maa. Red blazes forth in the dress, the hairstyle and the red-ochre bodies of warriors, in the impetuosity of youth and life.

Every enkipaata ceremony before the circumcision of boys, and later during their eunoto ceremony knows two days of dancing: one of the red dance, enkipaata nanyokie, and one of the white dance, enkpaata naibor. The colour white is obtained by scraping the sides of the riverbeds where white diatomite or chalk is found.

Another significant colour of symbolic value is green. Grass and trees and bushes have both symbolic and real meaning for the life of the individual. Grass is a symbolic sign of peace; somebody carrying grass in his hands cannot carry a weapon. Trees and their leaves, roots, bark, fruits and wood form the ingredients of all of the traditional medicines of the Maasai. In fact the word olcani tree, is the normal and common word in Maasai for medicine.

( M. F.)

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