Kenya. Maasai : ‘Hold onto your own life’

Every Maasai from an early age is part and parcel of many groups. Each of these with its own rules, customs and traditions, which regulate his or her social life.

When a Maasai child is born and its umbilical cord is cut through, either the mother or the assisting midwife will say: “Hold onto your own life and I will hold on to mine!” As if to say: from now on lead your own life and I will lead mine. This seems to imply that the child will have to continue on its own, fight for its own survival and lead its own life without further help and assistance. Nothing could be further from the truth within Maasai society.

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Maasai life is very much a life in community with apparently little time or need for personal privacy. The birth of the child takes place inside its mother’s house and is witnessed by a number of attending women. From that moment the child is never alone. As in any other society, and perhaps even in a more organized and structured manner within Maasai society, a person’s position is laid down, guaranteed and protected. The newly born, right from the moment of birth, belongs to a number of groups and social units which surround and protect it.

‘Right hand’ and ‘left hand’

One of the most ancient and basic divisions in Maasai society is the division between ‘right hand’ and ‘left hand’. The world itself has a right hand side and a left hand side. To the right belongs north and east, to the left hand side south and west.


The first Maasai Maasinta is the original legendary founding father of all Maasai. This Maasinta had two wives. The first wife lived on the right hand side of the entrance into the settlement and she therefore belonged to the right hand gatepost. Her cattle were all red of colour. That is why her house is called, enkaji nado ilasho, the-house-of which- the-calves-are-red’. The second wife lived on the left-hand gatepost. Among her cattle all the male calves were black. Her house is thus called enkaji narok ilasho, ‘the-house-of which- the-calves-are-black’. In anthropological terms these two major divisions in Maasai society are called ‘moieties’. Any Maasai belongs to one of these two houses, and it is the most basic and oldest division.

Division in clans

The second most important division is the one into clans. We return to the two wives of the first Maasai. The first wife gave birth to three sons. Some say that there was also a fourth son. The second wife brought forth two sons. These five or six boys are the founding fathers of the Maasai clans. Every Maasai belongs to one of the two moieties and to one of the clans.


The division into clans regulates rules of hospitality, marriage and inheritance. As the Maasai increased and their numbers began to swell, groups of them moved away from the main concentration area in search of a new habitat and fresh pastures for their cattle. As in turn such groups began to grow and expand they acquired new names for their group, each one developed its own peculiarities in various observances, due to less frequent contact between the groups.
The groups are referred to as ol-osho. The people themselves, constituting the group, acquired a distinctive name often of a descriptive nature. The meanings of some of the more original names like Ilpurko and Ilkisonko have been lost. However sections which apparently split off later have very recognizable names: Iloodokilani, the ones-of-the-red-robes; Ilkeekonyukie, the-trees-which-are-red; Ilwuasinkishu, the-ones-of-the patchy-cattle.

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All these sections have retained the original clans within their groups, although some have slightly different names. It is therefore clear that the clan system is older than the iloshon system, since it has survived amongst all of them.
However the iloshon continued to develop and spread so much that each section acquired its own territory, its own social system of elders, who govern them and ilmurran – warriors – who protect them. Each section celebrates its own ceremonies. Besides sharing the same culture and the same language there seems little else that binds them together.
The division into ‘right-hand’ and ‘left hand’ is especially marked in the age-set system, beginning with circumcision, when a group of young boys begin to press the elders to be circumcised. A circumcision period is opened. It consists of two circumcision phases. The first phase is the ‘right-hand’ circumcision, also called the first or senior circumcision. After this has been closed, a second circumcision period will be opened, the ‘left-hand’ or second or junior circumcision.

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Each circumcision group will receive its own distinctive name. At the end of their warriorhood, about 14 years after circumcision, the two circumcision groups will merge into one age set and acquire again a new name, now to cover the whole circumcision. It is these new names, these age-set names, which are the best remembered among the Maasai. They form the basis of some sort of chronology of Maasai history, however fragmentary. Maasai women belong to the age-set of their husbands.
Every Maasai from an early age is part and parcel of many groups. Each of these with its own rules, customs and traditions regulates his or her social life. However these are not stifling. The Maasai are masters at improving, adapting and making subtle changes. Maasai are a living people and so is their culture. Maasai culture changes with the times but remains genuinely Maasai.

Frans Mol


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