In the hills of Maparasha in Kajiado County, a rare kind of graduation takes place once every ten years. It is the Olng’esherr passage ceremony. Thousands of Maasai Morans clad in their signature warrior regalia – red and purple shawls – with their heads adorned in red ocher become elders.
This Wednesday marked one such event. Around 15,000 Kenyan and Tanzanian Morans congregated at the foothills of Maparasha for the Olng’esherr passage ceremony. In the shade of acacia trees, they roasted and feasted on an estimated 3,000 bulls and 30,000 goats and sheep.
During the ceremony, the women, also colourfully adorned, accompanied their husbands with song and dance as they praised their men for becoming tribal elders. Initially planned for March this year, the passage ceremony could not happen with the arrival of COVID-19.
Becoming a Maasai Elder
The journey to becoming a Maasai elder is a long one marked by three rites of passage. The first site is called Enkipaata. It is the induction of boys leading to initiation. The Eunoto, which is the shaving of the Morans, follows after and paves the way to adulthood. Olng’esherr, which happened this Wednesday, is the meat-eating ceremony. It marks the end of Moranism and the beginning of eldership. The rites serve to induct the men first to Moranhood, then as young elders, and finally, as senior elders.
The transition to warriorhood comes through circumcision. The boys must brave the circumciser’s knife in the absence of any anaesthetic. They remain, warriors until the initiation of a new generation of Morans takes place. The existing Morans then graduate to junior elders. As junior elders, they are now responsible for political decisions until they, in turn, become senior elders.
The three rites of passage are so culturally significant that they have found a place on UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding. Unfortunately the practice is dying away as modernisation creeps in. A three-year UNESCO-funded initiative (USD 144,430) which aimed to safeguard the three Maasai rites of passage ended in January 2020. So if you missed Wednesday’s Olng’esherr at Maparasha Hills, then you better add it to your ten-year-bucket list because the next one may happen in 2030!