In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Maasai and Maa-Speaking Peoples of East Africa

  • Introduction

African Studies The Maasai and Maa-Speaking Peoples of East Africa
Paul Spencer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0041


The term Maasai is used here to refer to the central core of East African pastoralists who speak Maa, and the term Maa-speaking peoples includes neighboring societies who share the same language but have their own separate identities. The label Maasai (like Maa) may also be used more broadly to refer to the language or (politically) to the whole grouping. Thus, it is sometimes useful to refer to this central core as Maasai proper, in order to distinguish them from the other Maa-speaking peoples, who compose about 40 percent of the total Maa population. The literature on the Maa may be conveniently classified as historical, cultural, or developmental. Historically, the Maa dominated the East African hinterland, measuring some 750 miles from north to south, and their presence hindered precolonial exploration inland until late in the 19th century. Our knowledge of their history before 1900 is therefore fragmentary. Since then, an incomplete understanding of the social and cultural aspects of various Maa-speaking peoples has slowly accumulated. This has revealed the organization of men by age into a hierarchy of age-sets, rather as schools are organized into a hierarchy of classes, although, unlike schools, Maa age-sets are spaced apart by about fifteen years and span the entire adulthood of members until they all die out. Fundamental to this system is the popular Maa view of the ritualized position of their young men as murran or “warriors,” who constitute the most junior age-set. Ideologically, their role is steeped in popular views of past glories, but a point to stress is the emphasis on ritual. The life careers of both men and women are experienced as a complex program of ceremonial activities, performed by families for individuals and by whole age-sets as they are promoted step-by-step. The drama of these activities involves religious beliefs, anxieties, life crises, and access to diviners and prophets. Being Maa is expressed in terms of shared and public ritual expectations, notably in relation to the age system for men and a concern over their fertility for women. With pressures for change in an increasingly globalized economy, Maa premises of inequality by age and sex have started to give way to new inequalities by wealth and new uncertainties in the balance of power between the sexes. These give no guarantee for the future, but they serve to throw further light on the rich legacy of their past.

Panorama of the Maa

This panorama presents two ways of viewing the Maa and two approaches toward studying them: (1) For broad views of the Maa, their distribution across the map of East Africa serves to identify their relative scale and the proximity between the various groupings (Geographic Outline); while a view of Representations of the Maa in the literature charts the history of their status within the region, before, during, and since the colonial episode. (2) For approaches toward studying the Maa, bibliographies record the scope of knowledge (and assumptions) already available for scholarship (Bibliographies), and introductions to the Maa language provide a necessary tool for anyone who wishes to delve more deeply into aspects of their culture and an essential key for any discourse with the Maa themselves (Maa Language and Vernacular Texts).

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