In 1895 the British government took over the possessions of the Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEAC) and formed the East Africa Protectorate over them, inheriting a longstanding bond of convenience with a special tribe. The colonizers had always avoided to directly confront one of the most fearsome group of warriors in the continent: the Maasai. As they started to build the vital Uganda Railway in 1896, they could not afford to alienate the Maasai who controlled their lines of communications. Their politics of appeasement eventually led to the Treaty of 1904 and its ratification in 1911. This saga serves as the backdrop of the film The Ghost and the Darkness starring Michael Douglas and Van Kilmer, which is a very enjoyable adventure film to watch with your family.
The Maasai are a distinct ethnic group that emigrated from the Nile Valley in the 15th century down to present day Kenia and Northern Uganda, numbering approximately 2 million people. They used to be totally nomadic, herding their cattle, but in the past century they have given up some of their customs to become semi-nomadic after contact with the modern society. They are a patriarchal society that lately has given up the practice of polygamy and polyandry; the barbaric custom of female circumcision has been progressively eradicated due to women’s empowerment. Their diet traditionally consisted of raw milk and meat from their cattle but the government’s effort to improve their lifestyle have introduced maize products like porridge, butter and cooked meals. Their dismal infant mortality of previous generations has been tackled by the access of Maasai women to modern clinics, including the pre and post-natal care in government funded programs. They are monotheistic, worshiping a single deity called Engai, which has a dual presentation; Engai Narock (Black God) is benevolent and Engai Na-nyoke (Red God) is vengeful.
The fact that they were a uniquely defiant player in a very tough neighborhood (with plenty of opposing tribes) and their high neonatal mortality rates prodded their elders to emphasize all the social rituals regarding the promotion of fertility in their young women. They had two major rituals for it: the pilgrimage of young girls to their sacred mountain and the offering of a bull’s sacrifice.
Inside the Ngorongoro Conservation Area in Tanzania lies the Oldoinyo Lengai—the country’s third peak and its only active volcano—which is called the Mountain of God by the Maasai. The 1.970 feet-deep caldera measures approximately 100 square miles and the surrounding grasslands, forests and swamps have one of the highest concentration of wildlife in Africa, including the Big Five. That term includes the following animals: the lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant and Cape buffalo. When they are reaching puberty, the young Maasai women engage in a special ritual with the elderly women before trekking together, but unescorted, to that holy mountain to spend one night. Once they return from this auspicious ceremony, they are deemed capable of bearing children.
The fertility rites in Africa, where the earlier versions of Homo Sapiens appeared on Earth, are common in the tribes still maintaining a strong bond with Mother Earth like the Maasai. Accepting the modern care for women available to them, they still pay their respects to our original enabler. The Maasai women have been traditionally burdened with all the household and nurturing tasks at home and the agricultural/cattle herding duties outside of it. However, in the past few years many of them have been feeling more culturally empowered and ready to challenge the patriarchate.
The page Influentialpoints.com has a superb article about the Enkomono Enkai—the Maasai blessing ceremony—where you can appreciate their superb pictures, including the one that adorns this posting (thank you Dr. R.D. Dransfield for graciously granting us the permission to reproduce it) It explains how their elders prepare the hide amulets that their beautiful women wear as collars to promote their fertility. After a white bull is sacrificed in a ceremony, the elders prepare the olkereti–good luck amulets–with its hide. The amulets are slowly distributed to a long line of women ( holding a stick) that desire to bear children and wait for the blessing. Once the elder places the amulet on her head, the anguished woman might prostrate to the ground and weep as a humble sign. When she goes back to her home, she proudly shows it to the whole family. At night, she places the stick next to her bed to encourage a young man to make love with her and conceive a child together. The Maasai consider that the number of children and animals a man has is the true measure of his worth and standing in their patriarchal society. We enthusiastically invite you to leisurely look at that posting by clicking here.
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