The Masai Part II: A Glimpse of the Masai Diet at the Turn of the 20th Century — A Land of Milk and Honey, Bananas From Afar

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In keeping with the spirit of the first part of this series in which I acknowledged that Masai society has always been in a dynamic state of transition, I’d like to offer a “glimpse” of the traditional Masai diet as it was recorded by the German military officer Moritz Merker at the turn of the twentieth century.

Merker’s extensive study reveals a people who herded cattle for a living, not simply to consume milk, meat, and blood, but to trade with neighboring tribes for a great variety of plant foods and other goods.  It reveals a people who used hundreds of local plants for a great variety of purposes, and who regularly consumed wild honey.

The myth that the Masai eat nothing but milk, blood and meat is derived from the idealized diet of young warriors called moran, a diet that men only eat for 15 years of their life and that women never eat.  Contrary to popular myth, women exist, and Masai women are just as Masai as Masai men.  Indeed, it was the women who conducted most trade during that time, so ignoring the parts of the Masai diet obtained from foreign trade is particularly insulting to the memory of these women.  Merker’s study, moreover, shows that even the supposed exclusivity of the warrior diet is a gross exaggeration and ignores their extensive use of herbs and tree barks, as well as the fact that necessity often drove them to consume honey, roots, tubers and fruit as sources of water and calories while on the march.

Merker’s study is incredibly enlightening, and I consider it a great privilege to be able to share this information from it, for which I owe the modern network of university libraries a significant debt of gratitude.

The Setting: Colonialism Is Knocking at the Door

Merker first published his more than 400-page, German-language Die Masai: Ethnographische Monographie eines ostafrikanischen Semitenvolkes in 1904, after having spent eight years among the Masai beginning in 1895.  He published a revised and expanded edition in 1910.  Although Merker’s work was translated into English in 1950 as The Masai: Ethnographic Monograph of an East African Semite People, the translation was never published.  I have obtained a copy of it on microfiche and hope to publish it online in pdf format later this year.

Merker investigated the Masai on the cusp of the transition into colonialism.  Devastating cattle epidemics beginning in the 1880s and lasting through part of the 1890s had recently ravaged Masailand, and the recent death of the great prophet Mbatyan fragmented Masai power and dominance in the region as his two sons, Sendeu and Lenana, vied for power.

The British had established influence over what is now Kenya, where they were negotiating with Lenana to build a railroad through Masailand so they could exploit the potential riches of Uganda, and where they employed young Masai warriors as mercenaries, allowing them to rebuild their families’ herds with the spoils of stolen cattle.  The Germans, by contrast, had no intentions of making friends with the Masai and thus penetrated much more slowly into the southern region of Masailand, which is now Tanzania.  Merker was stationed near Mt. Meru in Moshi on the very edge of German influence, and thus was able to study the uncolonized Masai who lived to the south.

Ethnobotanists continue to cite Merker’s work, and in his book Time, Space, and the Unknown: Maasai configurations of power and providence (2003), anthropologist Paul Spencer called it “a perceptive and meticulous ethnography” and an “extraordinary achievement” that “towered above any other account of the Maasai during the colonial period.”  Since Merker lived among elderly Masai who grew up during the nineteenth century Golden Age of Masai power, his detailed ethnography is our best resource for reconstructing what precolonial Masai society may have been like. It is thus also our best insight into how the Masai may have eaten in precolonial times.

A Land of Milk and Honey

If we fail to understand that the Masai live not simply in a land of milk but in a land of milk and honey, we fail to understand one of the central themes of Masai culture.

The principle staple of the Masai diet was milk from their herds.  They treated their cattle “like companions and friends,” Merker tells us, and gave them all proper names.  They drank milk from their beloved Zebu cattle, but especially loved sheep milk because of its high fat content.  Healthy Masai always consumed milk raw, in the fresh or soured state, often mixed with fresh or cooked blood.  When people were sick, however, they would consume boiled milk mixed with the ground fruits of Maesa lanceolata, which have anti-parasitic properties.

Wild honey was abundant in the region.  Fermented into a beer, it served as a drink for male elders or as a sacred component of religious rituals.  Mixed with plant extracts, it was an important component of many medicines.  Masai men and women of all ages would eat unmixed honey as a regular part of their diet.

The gift that a man would give to the parents of his bride when arranging a marriage included five pots of honey.  Incidentally, Merker also stated in contrast to most later reports that the consent of the bride was essential to any marriage.  He even reported a mechanism whereby a couple could elope without the permission of their parents.  If they could escape to the forest, no one could touch them.  If they managed to consume a whole cow together, they could emerge from the forest recognized as married.

One of the most frequent themes of Masai ritual is the pairing of milk with honey beer.  In installment three of part I of this series, I described the fertility ritual wherein the celebrating elder sprinkles each woman with a mixture of milk, honey beer, and saliva, which is considered a mystical form of insemination.  Merker reported many other rituals wherein milk and honey beer were paired.  For example, when the moran would go off to war,  the women would hold milk and the men would hold honey beer.  They would then pour these out as offerings to God and sprinkle them on the departing warriors.

In times of peace, the moran consumed milk in the village and meat in the forest. On the march to war, however, they often consumed roots, tubers, and honey for food and as sources of water. Merker described the honey cuckoo as their helper:

A cuckoo bird, the honey indicator (Cuculus indicator, called en johoroi by the Masai), leads the Masai to the concealed honey holes.  As soon as it sees human beings it calls with a strident sound and then flies slowly to the nearest honey place, to which the people follow it in order to take out the honey.  If the amount found is still not sufficient for the warriors, they bury the chewed comb, whereupon the bird, after a little while, will then lead them farther.  Otherwise they leave it the rest.

Meker also reported a particular expedition wherein the moran became so desperate for food that they ate tree fruit.

By consuming nothing but milk, honey, and roasted goat liver, the legendary prophet Mbatyan was said not only to have unified the Masai and subdued the surrounding peoples, but also to have performed hundreds of miracles, able to fell trees by the sheer power of his will and to emerge from fire unscathed.  The Masai credited Mbatyan with inventing a vaccine against bovine tuberculosis, which they successfully used on a large scale at the end of the 1880s. A rinderpest epidemic of proportions so great it has been woven indelibly into the fabric of Masai memory as the Disaster nevertheless devastated them soon after, though Mbatyan had allegedly prophesied of this horrific event years before it happened.

Great is the power of milk and honey, and great is their esteem in the mind of the Masai.

With Bitter Herbs They Shall Eat It

Quite frequently, writers in the past have failed to emphasize the Masai’s extensive use of herbs because they saw these as minor components of the diet.  For example, George Mann’s research team wrote in 1964 that the moran are “bound by tribal tradition to a diet of milk and meat,” that “no vegetable products are taken,” and that it is “among this warrior class that animal fat intake is high.”  Towards the end of this article the team acknowledged that the moran drank abundant quantities of tea made from acacia bark whenever they ate meat.  Either these authors did not regard bark as a “vegetable product” (the US Forest Service seems to disagree) or they assumed that since acacia tea is unlikely to provide a meaningful source of calories it must not be relevant enough to include when summarizing the diet (a dubious assumption, to put it mildly).

Merker reported that the Masai cooked their meat with various spices, never cooking it without adding the bark of Albizzia anthelmintica, which derives its name from its ability to kill parasites.  On great feasts, they would consume large quantities of meat, and a portion would be raw or half-cooked.

The moran would go into the forest for meat banquets lasting three to four days, once or twice a month.  When they would first enter moranhood, when the milk supply was low during the dry season, or when they would prepare for war against an especially powerful enemy, they would extend the meat fest up to a month.  In addition to the typical spices, the moran would add roots and barks with stimulant properties in order to develop their courage and virility.  They would use the stomach or bladder of the slaughtered animal to hang concoctions made from these herbs, which any of them would drink whenever they were thirsty.

But With Milk, They Shall Not

The Masai would never consume milk and meat together, in part because they believed that mixing milk with the Albizzia anthelmintica used in cooking the meat would cause horrible diarrhea.  Yet they also believed that letting milk so much as touch meat could poison the udders of the cow the milk came from and plague the cow with disease.  They were hesitant even to sell extra milk because the buyer might let it touch meat.

One could speculate that they may have enforced this separation to preserve the sacredness of the principles of male and female, of death and life.  Milk is associated with the female principle of life because women give birth and nurse their young, and women milk female cattle to provide the Masai with their principle staple.  Meat is associated with the male principle of death because men control the slaughter of male animals and the conduct of war.  Indeed, nature itself makes it impossible to milk an ox, and the Masai considered it a divine commandment that they should never kill a female animal to consume its meat.

Blood Is on His Lips, But Hunting Is Beneath Him

The favorite foods of the Masai, Merker tells us, were milk, meat, and blood. They would drink the blood of cattle, sheep, or goats in the fresh or clotted state. Milk mixed with fresh or cooked blood formed a particularly effective healing soup for the wounded. A new mother would drink the blood of an ox if she bore a son, or the blood of a heifer if she bore a daughter.

Their desire for animal products, however, stopped cold at the boundaries of their herds. They scorned any kind of game meat, birds, or fish. Many species of fish occurred “almost everywhere in larger brooks,” but they dwelled in peaceful waters, for the Masai had no interest in their flesh.

Caravans Are Coming — And They’re Full of Bananas

The Masai, according to Merker, conducted extensive trade with neighboring peoples. It was the women who conducted this trade:

What is not used in her own household in the way of milk, meat, and skins is her housekeeping money, with which she buys vegetable foods and such household objects as she does not make herself.  She is not supervised in this in any way by her husband.  It is beneath his dignity to interfere in these affairs.

Approximately every three to six days caravans of old women, accompanied by a few old men and laden with maize, bananas, batatas, etc., arrive in the Masai kraals.  Then there begins an hours-long haggling and bargaining with the customary market-woman shouting.  Each one tries to sell her goods as advantageously as possible, that is, exchange them for just the articles that she needs.  Often the caravans come from a distance of four to five days march and then remain in the kraal for a couple of days before they set out for home.

Yes, far from eating nothing but milk, blood, and meat at the turn of the twentieth century, Masai women were coming into the village with caravans full of bananas, corn, and sweet potatoes every three to six days!

They cooked sweet potatoes (Ipomea batatas) in water with a little steppe salt, drained them, mashed them with a whisk, and stirred in fresh milk.  They cooked unripe dried bananas (Musa paradisiaca) in water, drained them, and stirred in milk and butter.  They cooked beans with salt, but corn without salt.  They cooked yams  (Discorea abyssinica) and taro in salted water, and cooked sorghum into a thick porridge and lightly salted it afterwards.

In addition to their strongly intoxicating home-brewed honey beer, the Masai also purchased much milder beers from the surrounding tribes made from bananas, millet, corn, or sorghum.

What the Masai have eaten has always been an economic choice dependent on the supply and demand of the particular goods they possessed or needed.  Without doubt, the Masai needed to obtain a greater amount of plant foods from their trading partners after the great Disaster decimated their herds in the 1880s and 1890s.  Merker’s predecessors writing less detailed and more superficial accounts published twenty years before his own also described Masai women as trading with neighboring peoples, but documentation before this time is scant.  Merker himself talked in depth with many elderly people who lived through the nineteenth century Golden Age of Masai power, and Merker believed that trade had always been part of Masai history, at least on an intermittent basis.  Merker was probably right, and there is no evidence to the contrary.

A Day in the Life

The Masai numbered their days after the phases of the moon, and thus the day began in the evening when the sun would set and the moon would appear, just as it always has for Jews and Christians.

When the sun would set, the Masai would have quiet conversations outside their huts and then retire to bed around 8:00-8:30, waking up about eight hours later at 4:00 in the morning.

After milking the calves, they would have fresh milk, soups, and porridge drunk from gourds, with a variety of finger foods.  The women would boil any of the great variety of plant foods discussed above for lunch. Come evening, they would milk the herds again, and afterwards drink milk for dinner.

During the dry seasons when the milk supply was low, they would rely less on milk and more on other foods.  If cattle were abundant, this might mean more meat.  If not, it might mean more plant foods, gathered wild or purchased from neighboring tribes.  The Masai love their religious rituals and feasts, and these would often punctuate their diet with yet more meat.  In sum, the Masai diet at the turn of the twentieth century was diverse, rich in both animal and plant foods.

Read more about the author, Chris Masterjohn, PhD, here.

© 2015 The Weston A. Price Foundation for Wise Traditions in Food, Farming, and the Healing Arts.