The Masai Part I: A Glimpse of Gender, Sexuality, and Spirituality in the Loita Masai (installment 1)

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The opening of Melissa Llewelyn-Davies’ five-part 1984 documentary, Diary of a Maasai Village contains a kernel of wisdom that will form a guiding principle for this first post in the series:

We wanted to look at how the Masai live today.  We were interested in how life is changing for the Masai, but we wanted to avoid looking at this in terms of the idea of development, which suggests that modernization is better for everyone, and we also wanted to avoid the idea of tradition, which implies that nothing did change before the twentieth century.  So we made these films as a diary.  We hoped that a collection of episodes in the life of one village would help us to represent the Masai at a particular moment in their own history, and give their present room to breath.

Llewelyn-Davies later said that this introduction was embarrassing and she was considering paying to have it removed from the film, but I believe these words contain a lot of wisdom.

I think “tradition” is probably the wrong word to use, because the Masai she studied considered obedience to tradition a centrally important value.  The Masai at the time she studied them, however, were not a living fossil of ancient nomadic pastoralists any more than modern hunter-gatherers are living fossils of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers.  Indeed, the Masai of the twentieth century were not even living fossils of the Masai in the nineteenth century.  There is no such thing as a “living fossil” and the idea of a static “traditional” period abruptly broken by a static “modernization” period is a fallacy, not because modernization hasn’t destroyed their traditional way of life — it has — but because stasis was never a feature of either period.

I will honor this concept here by simply offering a glimpse into gender, sexuality, and spirituality among the Masai who occupy Loita, a traditional and conservative district of Masai-dominated lands, as this group existed in the 1970s.  Here I will focus on Llewelyn-Davies’ work, but in future posts I will utilize the work of other ethnographers, thus covering more time, space, and ethnographic approaches in order to provide a more comprehensive view.

To provide this first glimpse, I will use two of Llewelyn-Davies’s films, Diary of a Maasai Village (1984) and The Women’s Olamal (1984), which can be viewed at Alexander Street Press Ethnography Online through membership in a subscribing library.  I will also use two book chapters that Llewelyn-Davies wrote, “Two Contexts of Solidarity” in Women United, Women Divided: Comparative Studies of Ten Contemporary Cultures (1979) and “Women, warriors, and patriarchs” in Sexual Meanings: The Cultural Construction of Gender and Sexuality (1981).  You can find a complete list of Llewelyn-Davies’ Masai films as well as further background information about them in her 1995 interview with Emory University anthropologist Anna Grimshaw, who later devoted the last chapter of her book, The Ethnographer’s Eye: Ways of Seeing in Modern Anthropology (2001), to these films.

Llewelyn-Davies studied the oloonkidong’i, a sub-clan that supplies all of Masai with its laibons, spiritual leaders who function as prophets and lead religious rituals.  They occupy a sub-section of the Loita Hills in southwestern Kenya.  Although the village she studied lies in Kenya, the Kenya-Tanzania border crosses directly through Loita.  She initially studied these Masai for two years between 1970 and 1972 as part of her doctorate at Harvard, which she never finished. During this time, she did not take any pictures or video.  She continued to visit them for twenty years, filming them once she had established a strong friendship with them.

The Setting — Traditional Life in Jeopardy

The village Llewelyn-Davies portrays in these films is owned by its patriarch and chief laibon, Samil, who is very rich.  At the time of filming, he is over seventy years old, has thirteen wives still living, and more than sixty children. Theoretically, he owns all of the cattle allocated to his descendants until he dies, but in practice his descendants act as owners when they begin building families.

Disease and government oppression have decimated Samil’s cattle from 2000 in the village’s former glory to 700 in recent times. The villagers sell their cattle for cash at the market in Ngong in order to buy medicine for their herds, pay legal fees, pay for transportation of their young men to the hospital if they get mauled by wild animals, and buy sugar for brewing beer, which they traditionally made with honey. The villagers began using Western antibiotics and drugs in the 1960s, but the proliferation of cattle disease has continued unabated.

Since disease and the need for cash have decimated their herds, the villagers rely on corn flour to a greater extent than in times past during the five-month dry season when the milk supply is low, and the men rely almost exclusively on corn flour when traveling. Even the corn flour seems to be in short supply, however. A recent dry season came “looking for people to kill,” corn flour disappeared from the store shelves, and Samil split the village into five groups, some of which went looking for greener pastures just to stay alive. The increasing food stress makes itself apparent in the many crooked and missing teeth we see among these Masai. Perfect smiles are rare and tend to belong to young women.

We see the Kenyan government rear its ugly head repeatedly in these films.  The nearby Matapato Masai almost go to war against their neighbors after a politician steals their land for his personal ranch and attempts to redefine the boundaries of their land himself.  Men from the Kenya side of Loita face arrest if they visit relatives living on the Tanzania side of Loita.  Young men face arrest on dubious charges at the cattle market in Ngong, and their families have to hire people to sign legal documents for them because the Loita Masai still hold their land communally and the Kenyan government will only allow people to sign documents if they own land or an automobile.

A government minister attempts to round their children into an incompetently run public school system, threatens to send police to beat  Masai men who don’t show up to his meetings, and demands they move their village closer to the public school.  The government forces the moran — young men who defend the village and supply it with singing and dancing — to hold a coming of age ceremony that will make them “elders” before they are ready. They comply because they know the government would otherwise burn their village down and they wouldn’t be able to hold the ceremony at all.

Nevertheless, these Masai are very conservative and traditional and do all they can to hold fast to the traditions handed down to them. We can see this by observing the following conversation Llewelyn-Davies has with an older Masai woman about circumcision:

“What if people weren’t circumcised?” Llewelyn-Davies asks.

“These people of our land? That would be terrible,” the woman replies.


“It would be terrible,” she answers, “because no one may remain uncircumcised. It would be terrible.”

“You know that we’re not circumcised?”

“I know that you’re not circumcised. That’s not bad because that’s been your custom since long ago. And the Masai have also had their custom since long ago. Men are circumcised and women are circumcised.”

Thus these Masai are traditional at heart, and vigorous in their defense of their traditions, but the government is equally steadfast in its attempts to erode these traditions. Their society is neither “traditional” nor “modernized.” It is in a dynamic state of transition.

The Masai — A Deeply Religious and Spiritual People

The Masai are monotheistic and believe in an all-provident God. Their religion is highly organized, and their deeply spiritual outlook is ever on their lips. When a man expresses sorrow that a European half-breed dies after completing a lengthy travel, he comforts himself by concluding that God destined that land to be the heifer’s resting place. These Masai express constant gratitude and contentment. Even after recounting bad experiences, they realize that things could be much worse and repeat the words, “We are at peace. All is well. The land is at peace.”

These Masai pray for all people.  In one ceremony, the laibon prays for “the Masai people, the Black Masai and the White Masai.  The Black ones and my Melissa’s lot.  Let peace not die, let it not die.  …  May your wealth be extensive, may it even support the Whites.  Even the Kikuyu.  May it support every sort of person there is.  … Melissa, let’s ask God for much food, so all people will come and eat.  All peoples — Whites, Blacks — from Europe and from all God’s lands.”  In another ceremony, a different laibon prays for “the Loita Masai, and those who don’t speak Masai as well as those who do.”

The word laibon is Anglicized from oloiboni. Llewelyn-Davies prefers to translate this as prophet, but also uses magician and diviner. Many other writers will use magician, and Llewelyn-Davies refers to the Masai’s use of magic charms.

I don’t think it is fair to characterize the laibons as magicians. I don’t think they see the various plant extracts and other ritual objects they use as “magic charms” any more than a Jew would regard the bones of a deceased prophet as magic because they can raise the dead (2 Kings 13:21) or than a Christian would regard handerchiefs and aprons that had touched an Apostle as magic because they can heal the sick (Acts 19:12).

These Masai see their rituals as prayers before God, and the efficacy of these rituals is determined by their own behavior and by God’s will.  For example, Masai believe that God hates anger, contentiousness, and fighting.  These types of behaviors will nullify the effects of a fertility ritual because they will upset God.  They believe that being the center of attention is spiritually dangerous and can plant envy in the hearts of others.  These people may then curse the people they are envious of, and no number of correctly performed rituals can overcome the curse.  Only forgiveness can.  Even if one person does not formally curse another, merely instilling hatred or envy in another’s heart will elicit an implicit curse.  But the final determinant of the ritual’s efficacy is simply God’s will.  At the end of The Women’s Olamal, a young woman named Kisaru explains that regardless of how perfectly you perform the ritual, no woman will ever have a child unless God grants her one.

Fertility — The Path to Immortality

Diary begins with Llewelyn-Davies asking a Masai man what makes a man rich.  His answer is cattle, children, and many wives.  No number of cattle, however, can make a man with no children rich.  “Why are women and children so good?” she asks.  “Why are they so good,” he replies, “so very good?  Because they are wealth.”

Superficially, this discussion seems to support Llewelyn-Davies’ contention that “the inherent ownability and transactability of women distinguishes them from adult men in whom property rights cannot be acquired by other Maasai.”  She acknowledges that they are not “reduced to the ‘thinglike’ status of pure chattel slaves,” but contends that they are nevertheless ownable property:

Nevertheless, together with children and livestock, they are said to constitute the wealth of an individual man, and they are given away in marriage as if they were passive objects of property to be transacted between men; the payment of bridewealth, for example, is referred to as the act wherein a husband “buys” his wife.

I think the data Llewelyn-Davies presents, however, suggests a different view.  It is true that the Masai man “buys” his wife with a payment of cattle, but the Masai do not speak of a father “selling” his daughter.  Virtually all anthropologists have observed that the payment is small and insignificant in a material sense.  The Masai initiate formal friendships by giving gifts, and the bridal payment serves to seal the commitment that the husband makes to his in-laws.

The husbands do not bring their wives or children down to the cattle market in Ngong to trade them with foreigners.  Women and children are not the equivalent of cattle in Masai society by any stretch of the imagination.

Why, then, are women and children referred to as wealth?

A man who becomes “rich” is thought to merely fall asleep at the end of his life, but never to die.  His fellow Masai will anoint his corpse with ox fat and leave it to scavengers within the confines of the village.  A man with no children, by contrast, is poor, and his fellow Masai will throw his body, without anointment, outside the village fence and will never speak his name again.  This would be true even if he were to accumulate hundreds of cattle.  The Masai formally consider a man “rich” when he sees the circumcision of his grandchildren — something that few ever achieve — but they see all Masai men as making a natural progression toward that ultimate goal, even if most men only partially realize the goal during their lifetime.

How, then, does a woman become immortal?  A Masai woman lives forever in the same way as a man — by becoming rich. If she gives birth prolifically, she is considered rich and she may brag when drunk that she has become equal to her husband and an “owner” of the village.  At the end of her life, she will not die but merely sleep, and her fellow Masai will anoint her corpse with ox fat.

The difference, here, is simply a matter of cattle.  The Masai man must accumulate cattle in order to become rich, but his wife need do no such thing. In order to understand this discrepancy we need only consider why the Masai man bothers to collect cattle at all.

The Masai man is not a careerist.  He does not accumulate cattle for its own sake, because that would leave him poor and destroy his opportunity for immortality.  He does not seek prestige, because that would cause envy in the hearts of others, and that envy would bring a curse upon him.  He seeks to accumulate cattle for one simple reason: to support his family.

The Masai consider it necessary to accumulate twenty to thirty head of cattle in order to support one wife, assuming that this herd will multiply to forty while the family expands and assuming that the wife will bear six to eight children to help tend the animals.  Ultimately, the wife will allocate these cattle to her sons, so that they can start their own families, giving the parents grandchildren.

The connection between the anointment of the “rich” with ox fat when they fall into eternal sleep and the central value of fertility and childbearing in Masai society can be seen by considering the role of anointment with ox fat during their fertility blessings and during childbirth.

The assembly of religious elders performs a fertility blessing for the Masai women roughly once every four years.  During this ceremony, the elders anoint each woman upon the head and belly (womb) with ox fat.  The woman then takes the ox fat herself and spreads it to cover her skirt.

Women also anoint their newborn babies with ox fat.  In this case they coat the entire baby.  As a result, ox fat is associated with child-bearing women and young unmarried girls are forbidden to ever touch any animal fat.  This taboo is so strong that young girls must eat all their meat on skewers so their hands never come into contact with the fat.

Thus, when I look at Masai society as Llewelyn-Davies presents it, I do not see a society wherein women and children are treated like cattle and traded as property.  I see a society whose religious beliefs are centered around fertility and childbearing where cattle-herding serves to support the large families that they believe will bring them immortality.

Note: This “glimpse” will be continued in part 2, where I will examine the division of labor, ownership, and authority by age and sex in Masai society as revealed by Llewelyn-Davies’ research.

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

5 Responses to The Masai Part I: A Glimpse of Gender, Sexuality, and Spirituality in the Loita Masai (installment 1)

  1. Ed says:

    Chris, thank you so much for doing this research and writing. It is a pleasure to read honest scholarship, and about an interesting society.

  2. Lava says:

    Sigh. Why are people always holding up the practice of circumcision.
    And what a glorious example for “tradition”!
    How could people be so into fertility and yet circumcise?

    • Christopher Masterjohn says:

      Hi Lava,

      I didn’t defend the practice. I just quoted the Masai woman to show her attitude towards it as an example of Masai attitudes toward tradition. I’m not sure what the origin of the practice is, but apparently it doesn’t interfere with fertility enough to stop the propagation of their people.


    • ravi says:

      as a modern western male, i too find the practice of circumcision – especially in women – repugnant – but what i find infinitely more repugnant is our constant elitist judgements over other groups with different beliefs that have operated successfully for them for eons.

      as they clearly have no intention of judging us for our lack of this practice, how is this any of our god damn business?

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