Dispatches: The Full Circle of a Maasai Woman
NAIROBI, Kenya – You may already know of the Maasai warriors, an almost anachronistic tribe of African men who live nomadically in Kenya and northern Tanzania. But not much is said about their daily lives, including the women who care for them, despite the rich cultural background and prominence that females play in Maasai life.
The life of a Maasai woman begins at birth, known as e-inoto. The birth of a girl to a Maasai family, like that of a boy, is normally greeted with a lot of ululation from the village women. A girl is important to the Maasai, as she is the home of fertility and the hope of continuity.
In the Maa community, women are the custodians of culture and they perpetuate it through activities like storytelling. When a child is born it is given an informal pet name by which they are called early in life. This pet name (prominent examples include Nanana, Titi and Kerai) is given because child mortality is very high, and parents can’t be sure of their child’s survival.
At this time the mother retains her hair, known as ol-masi, which is normally shorn per cultural norms. The idea is to make her undesirable to other men while she has a young child to care for.
So important is this desire to deter desirability that certain herbs are burned into a fine soot that is then diluted in sheep fat and then smeared all over her clothes. Since she stops cleaning her clothes during this period, she develops a body odour that makes her even less desirable. This is known as kerere – someone who is dirty, which effectively becomes a male repellent and, therefore, acts as a family planning method. It is a very important tenet in the Maa culture and it’s very much practiced to date with an exception of those who have embraced modernity.
On the day she shaves ol-masi, discards the smelly clothes, cleans herself up and puts on fresh garments, the husband becomes aware that she is ready to conceive another child. Some families have the mother retain the hair until the child is given a proper name; other families give proper names after a long period like four to six years, to allow the mother to shave her hair while the child is growing. This practice, either by design or default, helps the Maasai to achieve family planning and perhaps explains why the Maasai, who practice polygamy, are not a populous as would be expected.
By the time another child is born, the first child is big enough to walk long distances. This ensures children are not an impediment during periodic migration so integral to the Maa way of life. After the daughter’s birth, three to six months or four to six years (depending on the family) will pass before the her hair is shaved together with the mother’s in process known as aitupuku enkerai tiaji.
Then follows a ceremony known as en-kidungoto e nk-arna – giving of the name. The baby is given a proper name, known as enkarna e ncorio (literally “front leg”) to replace the nickname, as its chances of survival are deemed high.
En-titoisho – girlhood or maidenhood – is the stage when the little girl stays at home, progressively learning to look after the goat kids and lambs which graze around the homestead. She helps her mother to tend the younger children and also helps in some household duties. As she grows up she is taught by the older women how to establish her own home and will accompany other girls and women to draw water from the stream and collect firewood.
Then there comes time for e-murata – circumcision. This ceremony, performed within the privacy of her mother’s house, is deeply entrenched in the Maasai customs and traditions. Circumcision of girls is as old as Maasinta (the legendary founding father of all Maasai). This culture has been with them since they ascended the Kerio Valley.
This practice, however, has been overtaken by time. Maasai are brought up trusting that the uncircumcised girl – entito neme murata – is incomplete. In the old days you would hardly find any uncircumcised girls. Yet when Christianity came to the Maasai land, some families embraced it and dropped the idea of circumcising girls. This is when stigmatization began. Many parents will never let their sons associate with uncircumcised girls, let alone marry them. This threat of stigmatization is much more tormenting than the practice itself. This explains why it is difficult to eradicate the custom.
After e-murata, the girl becomes e-siankiki, a time when the girl awaits her husband-to-be who has engaged her any time between childhood and the stage in which she is now. As soon as the spouse-to-be arrives, she is shaved and she is taken away as a young bride.
After marriage, the young woman, e-siankiki, will hopefully soon conceive and become an en-tomononi, a mother. Through these next years, she will pray to God for many children and becomes ngoto in-kera, the mother of children.
In the fullness of time she becomes enk-kaputani, a mother-in-law; en-tasat, old lady; and finally kokoo, grandmother, a powerful force behind the scenes in enk-anganda and a spoiler of her loving grandchildren.
En-keeya – death – will eventually come gently as she sleeps on her bed and she will be laid out in the open.
Hilary Kimuyu (right) lived in the ROK for six years and now translates Korean in the Kenyan law Court and also writes for the People News paper in Kenya. For more information and feedback, email him at [email protected]