Masai - Encyclopedia

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MASAI, an Eastern Equatorial African people of NegroHamitic stock, speaking a Nilotic language. The Hamitic element, which is not great, has probably been derived from the Galla. The Masai were probably isolated in the high mountains or plateaus which lie between the Nile and the Karamojo country. There they originally had their home, and there to-day the Latuka, who show affinities with them, still live. Famine or inter-tribal wars drove the Masai in the direction of Mount Elgon and Lake Rudolf. After a long settlement there they split into two groups, the Masai proper and the Wa-Kuafi or agricultural Masai, and this at no very remote date, as the two tribes speak practically the same language. The more powerful Masai were purely nomadic and pastoral, their wealth consisting in enormous herds. The Wa-Kuafi, losing their cattle to their stronger kinsmen, split up again into the Burkeneji, the ' Gwas Ngishu, and the Nyarusi (Enjamusi) and settled as agriculturists. Meantime the Masai became masters of the greater part of inner East Africa from Ugogo and the Unyamwezi countries on the south and west to Mount Kenya and Galla-land on the north, and eastward to the hundred-mile strip of more or less settled Bantu country on the coast of the Indian Ocean. The Masai physical type is slender, but among the finest in Africa. A tall, well-made people, the men are often well over six feet, with slim wiry figures, chocolate-coloured, with eyes often slightly oblique like the Mongolians, but the nose especially being often almost Caucasian in type, with well formed bridge and finely cut nostrils. Almost all the men and women knock out the two lower incisor teeth. For this custom they give the curious explanation that lockjaw was once very common in Masai-land, and that it was found to be easy to feed the sufferer through the gap thus made. All the hair on the body of both sexes is pulled out with iron tweezers; a Masai with a moustache or beard is unknown. The hair of the head is shaved in women and married men; but the hair of a youth at puberty is allowed to grow till it is long enough to have thin strips of leather plaited into it. In this way the hair, after a coating of red clay and mutton fat, is made into pigtails, the largest of which hangs down the back, another over the forehead, and one on each side. The warriors smear their whole bodies with the clay and fat, mixed in equal proportion.

No tattooing or scarring is performed on the men, but Sir Harry Johnston noticed women with parallel lines burnt into the skin round the eyes. In both sexes the lobes of the ears are distended into great loops, through holes in which large disks of wood are thrust. Bead necklaces, bead and wood armlets are worn by men, and before marriage the Masai girl has thick iron wire wound round her legs so tightly as to check the calf development. The women wear dressed hides or calico; the old men wear a skin or cloth cape. The warriors wind red calico round their waists, a circle of ostrich feathers round their face (or a cap of lion or colobus skin) and fringes of long white fur round the knee. Masai houses are of two kinds. The agricultural tribes build round huts with walls of reeds or sticks, and conical, grass-thatched roofs. The true Masai nomads, however, have houses unlike those of any other neighbouring negro tribe. Long, low (not more than 6 ft. high), flat-roofed, they are built on a framework of sticks with strong partitions dividing the structure into separate compartments, each a dwelling, with low, oblong door. Mud and cow-dung are plastered on to the brushwood used in the roofing. Beds are made of brushwood neatly stacked and covered with hides. The fireplace is a circle of stones. The only furniture, besides cooking-pots, consists of long gourds used a milkcans, halfgourds as cups, and small three-legged stools cut out of a single block of wood and used by the elder men to sit on. The Masai are not hunters of big game except lions, but they eat the eland and kudu. The domestic animals are cattle, sheep, goats, donkeys and dogs. Only women and the married men smoke. The dead are ordinarily not buried, but the bodies are carried a short distance from the village and left on the ground to be devoured by hyenas, jackals and vultures. Important chiefs are buried, however, and a year later the eldest son or successor recovers the skull, which is treasured as a charm. The medicine men of Masai are often the chiefs, and the supreme chief is almost always a medicine man.

The Masai believe in a nature-god as a supreme being - Ngai ("sky") - and his aid is invoked in cases of drought by a ceremonial chant of the children, standing in a circle after sunset, each with a bunch of grass in its hand. They have creation-myths involving four gods, the black, white, grey and red deities. They believe there is no future for women or common people, but that such distinction is reserved for chiefs. Pythons and a species of snake are revered as the reincarnated forms of their more celebrated ancestors. A kind of worship is paid to the hyena in some districts: the whole tribe going into mourning if the beast crosses their path. The Masai also have a vague tree-worship, and grass is a sacred symbol. When making peace a tuft is held in the right hand, and when the warriors start out on a raid their sweethearts throw grass after them or lay it in the forks of trees. But the oddest of their superstitious customs is the importance attached to spitting. To spit upon a person or thing is regarded as a sign of reverence and goodwill, as among other Nilotic tribes. Newly born children are spat on by every one who sees them. Johnston states that every Masai before extending his hand to him spat on it first. They spit when they meet and when they part, and bargains are sealed in this way. Joseph Thomson writes, "being regarded as a wizard of the first water, the Masai flocked to me. and the more copiously I spat on them the greater was their delight." The Masai has no love for work, and practises no industries. The women attend to his personal needs; and trades such as smelting and forging are left to enslaved tribes such as the Dorobo (Wandorobo). These manufacture spears with long blades and butts and the peculiar swords or sime's like long slender leaves, very narrow towards the hilt and broad at the point. Most of the Masai live in the British East Africa Protectorate.

See A. C. Hollis, The Masai, their Language and Folklore (1905); M. Merker, Die Nasai (1904); Sir H. H. Johnston, Kilimanjaro Expedition (1886) and Uganda Protectorate (1902); Joseph Thomson, Through Masai-land (1885); O. Baumann, Durch Massai-land zur Nilquelle (1894); F. Kallenberg, Auf dem Kriegspfad gegen die Massai (1892).

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