The term Maasai is derived from the language spoken by these people, Maa. The Maasai, natives of the Nile Valley, migrated to Kenya in the 16th century. They initially occupied what is now the Turkana District, but then moved further south, settling mainly in the modern-day Laikipia District. They are unquestionably among the populations that have fascinated Westerners the most. Considered the “aristocrats” of Africa, they are famous for the bravery, pride and handsomeness of their warriors, the “morans”, their attachment to traditions, and the rites of passage to social roles that represent fundamental stages in the life of each Maasai.
Their social structure, based on age groups, is an excellent example of a gerontocracy, in which the tribal elder is respected, obeyed and considered a bearer of wisdom. Like the Samburu, the Kikuyu and the Kamba, the Maasai worship the god Enkai. The Maasai culture has maintained numerous traditions and ceremonies. One of the best known is the “adumu” dance of the young warriors who, holding themselves perfectly erect, jump to demonstrate their strength and agility. During the moran period – in other words, when the men are warriors – they wear their hair in long braids covered with red ochre. In the next stage of their lives, when they become “junior elders”, they completely shave their heads, like the women.
Both men and women wear a colourful garment called a “shuka”, and both sexes love beaded jewellery, which has very important symbolic meaning. According to the type and colour of the jewellery that is worn, it can represent beauty, strength, warrior traditions, social status, marriage and age. These baubles are worn every day, but also for ceremonies and rituals and, in some cases, to show gratitude and respect towards visitors.
The colours also have special symbolism: red indicates strength, unity and challenge; blue expresses energy and the power of the sky; green evokes nourishment and the earth; orange is associated with generosity, friendship and hospitality; yellow represents fertility and the sun that brings life; white stands for purity and health; black evokes unity, harmony and solidarity.