Maasai Tribe of Kenya: History Of The Maasai People

Maasai Tribe of Kenya
Maasai Tribe of Kenya

Maasai Tribe is one of the nearly fifty indigenous tribes in Kenya, the Maasai is well-known representatives of African culture. The cultural diversity of Kenya, which includes people descended from Bantu, Nilotic, and Afro-Asian peoples, contributes to the country’s appeal.

The most popular Bantu tribe in Kenya is the Kikuyu, and the Kalenjin tribe is known for producing elite athletes. Swahili, Kenya’s official language, is derived from Afro-Asiatic groups, although it is the Nilotic tribes of Samburu, Turkana, and of course the Maasai that are most closely associated with East African safaris.

The Maasai Tribe of Kenya

The Maasai are people from East Africa who are ‘Maa’ language speakers. Their red robes are tall and stunning, standing out against the blond savannah grass of Africa. Images of the Maasai tribe are recognizable whether they are standing, dancing, herding cattle, or traversing an animal-filled landscape. The Maasai people were traditionally nomadic pastoralists, but history has compelled them to form an unexpected alliance with the African environment, tourism, and conservation.

Who are the Maasai people? 

Literally translated, the Maasai are people who speak the ‘Maa’ language. Spreading across northern, central, and southern Kenya and northern Tanzania, the Maasai were once the most dominant tribe in the region. Arriving in the 16th and 17th centuries from the Nilo-Sahara area, they bought with them their cattle and acumen for battle. They quickly gained dominance in the area and expanded to their peak around the 19th century when agrarian settlements and the arrival of Europeans ushered in a period of decline.  

Today there are about 22 sub-tribes within the Maasai people, each with its own dialect, appearance, and customs. These ‘iloshon’ or ‘nations’ are the Dalalekutuk, Keekonyokie, Ilchamus, Ildamat, Ilkaputiei, Ilkirasha, Ilkisonko, Ilooldokilani, Laikipiak, Laitayiok, Larusa, Loitai, Loitokitoki, Matapato, Moitanik, Parakuyo, Purko, Salei, Samburu, Siria, Sirinket, and Wuasinkishu. 

Because they were nomadic, the Maasai tribe inhabited vast tracts of land, moving from place to place in search of grazing land for their cattle. As East Africa became more populated, the Maasai were gradually pressured out of their best grazing land and into more arid territories. In the mid to late 20th century, much of their land was taken away and turned into protected wildlife areas.

Living on the outskirts of these wildlife sanctuaries and needing grazing for their cattle created conflict between national parks, the Maasai people, their cattle, and wildlife. In an unexpected turn of events, through the massive growth in safari tourism and the formation of conservancies, the Maasai have become custodians of the natural world. Today the Maasai tribe is an integral part of Kenya’s economy and stands at the forefront of conservation efforts to preserve Kenya’s wildlife.

Maasai Tribe

“A Maasai warrior is a fine sight. Those young men have, to the utmost extent, that particular form of intelligence that we call chic; daring and wildly fantastical as they seem, they are still unswervingly true to their own nature, and to an inherent ideal. Their style is not an assumed manner, nor an imitation of a foreign perfection; it has grown from the inside and is an expression of the race and its history, and their weapons and finery are as much a part of their being as are a stag’s antlers.” 

-Karen Blixen. Out of Africa

History of the Maasai Tribe

Originally from modern-day Sudan, the Maasai people migrated south in search of better grazing for their cattle. They arrived in East Africa around 1700, and continued past lake Turkana, and through Kenya’s highlands, before settling in the vast savannahs of Southern Kenya and Northern Tanzania. 

Semi-nomadic pastoralists, the Maasai believe that god created the Maasai first, and then lowered cattle to earth via a woven rope. After this, the rest of mankind was created. Therefore, for the Maasai tribe, to not own cattle is to be truly poor. This was both their strength and their downfall. When the land was abundant, the Maasai tribe thrived as their animal husbandry skills ensured their wealth. However, by the 19th century, the Maasai were in decline, victims of the battle between pastoralists and agriculturists. As settlements became more advanced, and organized agrarian societies became stronger, the Maasai people lost their ascendancy.  

In the late 19th and early 20th century, the Maasai were struck a triple blow. In 1897 and 1898 the rains failed to cause widespread drought, cattle-related diseases decimated the Maasai herds killing up to 90% of their cattle, and finally, a smallpox epidemic raged. During this period as many as two-thirds of the Maasai population died.

Maasai Tribe

The Maasai tribe did survive the colonial era by fleeing to more arid and less desirable pastures. From about 1940, the Maasai have lost land at Ngorongoro, Lake Nakuru, Amboseli, Mt Meru, and Kilimanjaro, Amboseli, Nairobi National Park, Samburu, Masai Mara, Tsavo, Lake Manyara, and the Serengeti. Kenya’s independence from Britain in 1963 did not lessen pressure on the Maasai. The new independent Kenyan and Tanzanian governments continued their attempts to ‘modernize’ the Maasai tribe into a sedentary people.  

The Maasai today remain a proud people with deep cultural roots and strong African traditions. Their animal husbandry skills and their knowledge of the land are seeing a revival as they become an integral part of East African conservation strategies.

Maasai or Masai: The Maasai are speakers of the Maa language. The Masai Mara is the National Park that plays host to the Wildebeest Great Migration. 


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