The Maasai are the southernmost of the Nilotic-speaking peoples. They linguistically and physically relate to the Samburu, Turkana and Kalenjin, among others. Their distant history is unknown beyond a wealth of unsubstantiated conjecture and dreams proposed by often romantically-minded Western scholars.
Some say that they are one of the lost tribes of Israel. Others that they came from North Africa. Still, others believe that they are the living remnants of Egyptian civilisation. These last idea, it seems, stems from their warriors’ braided hairstyles.
If any truth existed in these theories, the story would be told the other way around. The likelihood that the ancient Egyptian and Israeli cultures drew inspiration from the ancestors of the Maasai sounds more reasonable.
What is known is that the Maasai came from the north, probably from the region of the Nile Valley in Sudan, northwest of Lake Turkana. It is thought that they left this area sometime between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, migrating southwards towards the Great Rift Valley.
The Maasai themselves say in their oral histories that they came from a crater or deep valley somewhere to the north, at a place called Endikir-e-Kerio (the scarp of Kerio).
Although many scholars have referred to this place as the southeastern region of Lake Turkana, some oral sources suggest that it may have been somewhere even further north, along the Nile Valley or even in North Africa. Whatever the exact location of this mythical crater/valley, their migration southward is beyond doubt and occurred after a dry spell.
Some accounts speak of a bridge constructed to let the people and the animals through. After half of them had left the dusty depression, the bridge collapsed, throwing back the other half of the population. These people later managed to climb out of the valley, reaching the highland region as the present-day Somali, Borana and Rendille peoples.
The Maasai eventually entered Kenya to the west of Lake Turkana. They quickly spread south through the Rift Valley, whose fertile grasslands were ideal for their cattle.
They reached their present-day territories in Kenya and Tanzania around the 17th or 18th centuries. The Maasai believe in one God, whom they call Ngai (also spelt En-kai, Enkai, Engai, Eng-ai).
Ngai is neither male nor female but seems to have several different aspects. For instance, there is the saying Naamoni aiyai, which means “The She to whom I pray”.
There are two main manifestations of Ngai. In the first manifestation, Ngai Narok projects as a good, benevolent and black god. The second manifestation depicts Ngai, now called Ngai Na-nyokie, as angry and red, like the British. In her book, Oral Literature of the Maasai, Naomi Kipuri differentiates the two manifestations as separate gods.
Ngai is the creator of everything. In the beginning, Ngai was one with the earth and owned all the cattle that lived on it. But one day the earth and sky separated so that Ngai was no longer among men. Incidentally, Ngai also means sky.
The cattle, though, needed the material sustenance of grass from the earth, so to prevent them from dying, Ngai sent down the cattle to the Maasai by means of the aerial roots of the sacred wild fig tree and told them to look after them. This they do to this day, quite literally taking the story as an excuse to relieve neighbouring tribes of their own livestock.
Any pursuit other than a pastoral one insulted and demeaned Ngai. No Maasai was willing to break the ground. Even burials on the ground were a sacrilege! To the Maasai, grass to feed the cattle which belonged to God grew on the soil. Grass has acquired a semi-sacred aura. The Maasai hold it in the fist to signify peace. Similarly, they use it in blessing rituals. They shake a bundle of grass at the people or animals being blessed.
Unsurprisingly, cattle play an important role in ritual occasions. Initiation, marriage, and the passage of one age-set to the next cannot happen with cattle. Their sacrifice bridges the gap between man and God. Yet for all a cow’s deep significance, the Maasai will still call a stupid person a cow or a sheep!