Once every decade, thousands of Maasai men from Kenya and Northern Tanzania wrapped in their traditional shuka, that is, their red and purple shawls, with heads coated in red ocher, gather around to perform an initiation ceremony that turns Moran (warriors) into Mzee (elders).
The Maasai in Kenya are about 1.2 million and they account for only about 0.7 percent of Kenya’s population, according to the government statistics office. There is a similar number in Northern Tanzania as well, and they are considered to be one of East Africa’s most internationally well-known tourist attractions mainly due to their distinguishing cultures, dress style and terrain, and, of course, their once-in-a-decade initiation ceremony, otherwise known as the Olng’esherr (meat-eating ceremony).
There were about 15,000 men at this year’s ceremony that was slated to happen earlier this year but was put on hold till this week due to the restrictions imposed by the coronavirus. The men gathered in Maparasha Hills in Kajiado County, 128 kilometers from Nairobi, on the designated ceremonial grounds that are dotted with acacia trees and surrounded by hills.
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The Maasai have large herds of cattle which they depend on for food and as a source of wealth. So, it is justified that the main meal for the occasion was roasted meat. The men gathered to feast on 3,000 bulls and 30,000 goats and sheep which they grilled on large beds of coal from acacia trees while holding on to their staffs and swords, CNN reports.
Some of the men at the initiation ceremony could not wait to assume their new position in society as the rite of passage bestows upon them new and reputable responsibilities.
“I used to be a Moran, But, after this ceremony, I now graduate to be a Mzee (elder),” Stephen Seriamu Sarbabi, a 34-year-old livestock trader, told Reuters.
“I will now be having a lot of responsibilities in the community. I will be chairing some different meetings, I will be consulted,” he added.
Moses Lepunyo ole Purkei, a farmer, community health volunteer and elder, told Reuters that his role at the ceremony was to come and bless his boys as they graduate to another stage.
Although the Maasai culture revolves around patriarchy, it also allows the women to be powerful. For instance, both polygamy and polyandry are common marital practices within the group.
Women can marry more than one within their age group, and even choose whatever partner they want. Maasai women have also been able to climb the economic ladder as they engage in trading and create beautiful ornaments and jewelry, which the Maasai are very well known for.
At this week’s initiation ceremony, the women were there to support their husbands in their colorful shawls, donning their beautiful beads around their necks. They sang praises and encouraging songs for the newly initiated elders.
The culture of the Maasai is intriguing and truly special for so many reasons. Indeed, the Maasai have managed to maintain their strong cultural practices despite an increase in industrialization and changes in the global environment.