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This post is the second installment of “Part I” in this series. Here we are simply obtaining a glimpse of the life of the Loita Masai by examining a particular village as it existed in the 1970s and 1980s, focusing on the research of Melissa Llewelyn-Davies. A more comprehensive view of Masai culture across time and geography lies in the future of this series.
The principal reason for laying this groundwork is so that I can show in future posts how Masai culture, history, and social organization impact their diet and health status, but I also hope that by offering a more three-dimensional account of the Masai I will help this group come to life for us, so that we see them as more than pawns in our arguments about nutrition.
We have seen so far that these Masai are monotheistic, believing in a singular and all-provident God, and that they believe the path to immortality for both men and women is paved with fertility and child-bearing. They therefore see anything that facilitates large families or the health and longevity of their descendants to be “wealth.” Since the goal of Masai society is to produce large families rather than to maximize personal fulfillment and material consumption, we should not confuse the Masai definition of “wealth” with our own.
Although the men do not treat the women and children as property to be traded on the market, Masai society is not egalitarian. It involves many divisions of ownership rights, authority, and labor according to age and sex. As such, it is very different from our own society.
Nevertheless, these divisions derive from what the Masai consider the natural and observable differences between youth and adults and between men and women. We can only understand these divisions and their impact on Masai men and women after first trying to understand them from the perspectives of the Masai themselves.
Men are Different From Women, and Young Men Are Different From Elders
The Masai men and women, as Llewelyn-Davies presents them, both pass through formal life stages as they age.
For women, there are two stages: that of a young girl who has yet to reach puberty, and that of a girl who has been circumcised and prepared for marriage and childbearing. She is circumcised within a year of developing breasts and she is generally married within a year of circumcision. Skilled elderly Masai women perform the circumcision.
Men, on the other hand, pass through three primary life stages. Boys become moran when they are circumcised, usually when they are about fifteen years old. Elders from the hunter-gatherer Dorobbo people perform the circumcision. Many writers translate moran as warrior, but the social role of this group also includes singing and dancing.
About seven years after their circumcision, the moran begin a series of rituals that may last up to 15 years, during which time they gradually become elders. In one of the rituals, the moran and his mother engage in a comical argument, representing his new ability to stand up to her, and he gives her “thank you” meat, thanking her for rearing him, and symbolizing that he will henceforth materially provide for her. At some point during this transition a man marries his first wife, who is generally at least ten years younger than he is. The men may then continue marrying additional wives, limited only by the need to accumulate sufficient cattle to support them.
These Masai use the word enkorrok to describe the essence of something. The essence of moranhood connotes bravery and elegance. The essence of elderhood connotes wealth, generosity, and wisdom. The essence of girlhood and the essence of pre-menopausal womanhood both connote beauty, grace, and sexual attractiveness. Women are considered wiser and calmer than girls. They are considered kinder, more empathic, and more quickly moved to pity for helpless creatures than men.
The Masai do not use phrases meaning the essence of boyhood or the essence of post-menopausal womanhood. When Llewelyn-Davies asked them why, they told her that either phrase would be rude, because boyhood implies laziness and disobedience while menopause implies wrinkles, gray hair, and general loss of good looks.
Of course, menopause does not constitute a formal life stage for the Masai, and women are considerably older when they reach menopause than men are when they become elders. Neither men nor women, according to these data, earn any special distinctions merely by becoming old. If they produce large families and live long enough to see the circumcision of their grandchildren, however, their fellow Masai will distinguish them as rich and will anoint their corpses with ox fat as they pass into eternal sleep.
These distinctions that Masai make between male and female qualities and between stages of life result in divisions of labor, ownership rights, and authority within the household and society and define the boundaries of appropriate sexuality.
Divisions of Labor
In Masai society, divisions of labor by sex have almost nothing to do with the amount of physical labor involved in the work. Women tend to do work that pertains to the inner life of the village, where things are familiar and safe, while men tend to do work that pertains to life outside the village, where life is more dangerous.
Each adult woman builds her own house from heavy posts, sticks, and cow dung. Women also milk the cows, collect water and firewood, and take care of the smallest children. If they have young infants, they carry them everywhere on their backs, even while working. Women enlist girls above the age of eight or nine to help them with this work. Young girls run errands, fetch water, look after toddlers, and often take on responsibility for a younger sibling or a foster child.
The moran correspond in age to the young wives who perform most of the physical labor of the inner village and these moran have traditionally formed the military force responsible for offensive raids against neighboring tribes or defense of the village during times of war. Their contact with the village proper is limited, but they do often provide the impetus for gaiety, singing, and dancing among the married women of the village.
They spend substantial amounts of time in the forrest, where they face the very real danger of getting mauled by wild animals. Ritual hunting of lions and other wild beasts of the forest has become an especially important part of moranhood since colonial governments have imposed peace between tribes, largely by marginalizing them and destroying their traditional ways of life.
When young men reach their thirties they become elders. Elders construct fences out of thorny acacia branches. They may use these fences to separate groups of animals within the village but the principal fence marks the outer boundaries of the village and protects the villagers from wild animals. The elders are in charge of taking animals to pasture, to water, or to salt-licks, but they generally make the important decisions pertaining to these tasks and enlist the help of young boys to carry out the actual work. This frees the elders to spend a great deal of time traveling about the Masai-dominated lands, forging alliances and formal friendships, coordinating events, trading cattle, and finding additional wives.
Trading cattle may sound like a life of leisure, but in modern times it puts the men at risk of being arrested on dubious grounds, beaten, and thrown into a prison in Nairobi.
Masai women consider men, even boys, to be much braver than they are. As a result, boys do the dirty work of killing dangerous animals, as Llewelyn-Davies relates in the following story:
I witnessed an incident in which a group of women found a poisonous snake near a village. They at once called to some boys to come and kill it. The women showed no fear and instructed the boys in the best method of dispatching the snake. When I asked why they had not killed it themselves, they explained that ‘males are braver.’
Divisions of Ownership Rights
When Llewelyn-Davies made her films, many of the Masai districts had already privatized their land under government pressure, but the Loita Masai she studied maintained the traditional system of communal land-holdings and privately held herds.
In Masai society, men alone own (a-itore) most of the cattle in the sense that only men have the right to sell, give away, or slaughter an animal. When a man marries, he allocates (a-itodol) a considerable number of his animals to his new wife. She then has exclusive milking rights to the herd and owns (a-itore) the milk that comes from her animals and the hides of slaughtered animals, which she can use or sell as she sees fit. The only control her husband has over the milk is to insist that he be fed a sufficient amount of it.
The woman never owns (a-itore) the cattle, but she has almost exclusive control over allocating (a-itodol) them to her sons when they marry. Her sons may then gain practical control over the herd, but they do not truly own (a-itore) it until their father dies. The woman may also give cattle as gifts to the wives of her husband’s brothers.
Whereas women have almost complete control over the disposal of milk and hides, they have almost no rights over the disposal of meat, except of animals that are slaughtered especially for them at certain festivities, such as those surrounding childbirth and circumcision, or those that die of disease. The woman owns (a-itore) these cattle and can dispose of all their parts however she wishes. Thus, it is women who have control of the principal food, milk, and men who have control of a supplementary food, meat.
The man does not have complete control over the disposal of his wife’s herd. For example, if he reallocates one of her animals to another wife without proper justification according to Masai custom, it is grounds for divorce.
These distinctions of ownership rights may have symbolic as well as practical bases. On a symbolic level, milk is associated with the female principle of birth and lactation, whereas slaughtered meat is associated with the male principle of war and justified killing. On a practical level, the Masai most often slaughter animals for religious festivities. Women play important roles in these ceremonies, but the men lead them and thus make the decisions about the slaughter of animals involved in them. Some of the festivities relate specifically to a particular woman and she owns the animals slaughtered during these ceremonies. The men are often gone from the village while the women are present to milk the cows and to put the hides to use. Thus, they naturally own these materials.
Masai men and women both tell a particular myth that reveals why it is men rather than women who own (a-itore) cattle. At one time, women owned herds of elephants, buffaloes, Thomson’s gazelles, warthogs, and zebras, just as men currently own cattle, goats, sheep, and donkeys. One day, however, every single woman in the village kept her child at home to eat kidney rather than sending him off to herd the animals. The animals thus left off into the forest and became wild. The women cared so much for their children that they were unable to exercise the self-control necessary to subjugate the needs of their families to the common good. Men rather than women thus make the important decisions about where the animals pasture, drink, and lick salt, and are in charge of sending the boys to execute this work, because the Masai see them as better able to maintain the emotional detachment necessary to keep the common good in the forefront of their minds.
Divisions of Authority — The Husband Rules Over the Wife
In Masai society, the husband has authority over the wife and his sons, whereas the wife has authority over her daughters. This authority includes the right to use physical punishment. A man may beat his wife or his sons, and a woman may beat her daughters. A man may never beat his daughters and has no rights over their labor — in fact, a daughter must never so much as cook for her father or hand him a calabash of milk.
There are a number of factors that restrict a husband’s right to beat his wife. He should never do so in front of other people, and must never do so in front of children. As a result, he is unlikely to beat her in the heat of a fit of anger. There is a much more powerful restriction — the Masai genuinely believe in the power of anyone who has been wronged to curse the person who wronged them, which can destroy their families, property, and even lives. They are thus deathly afraid of abusing anyone according to Masai definitions, even though they do use forms of chastisement that we would consider abusive in our own society. Llewelyn-Davies believed that a woman is usually only beaten severely once in her life and that in almost every case it is over the issue of adultery.
In Diary, Llewelyn-Davies asks several women who have been beaten by their husbands the night before what they think about this. They laugh as they describe how their husband had accused them of beating the children, but really used this as a cover for his own insecurity, thinking that they’d slept with other men while he’d been gone traveling. They say he didn’t beat them badly because one of their sisters was present and told him to stop, and he immediately stopped.
LLewelyn-Davies asks them, “Don’t you mind?” They say they do not mind, because that is Masai custom and it is what their fathers do. They claim there is no woman among the Masai who objects to being beaten by her husband because “you were given him in marriage. It is he who rules you.”
“So you are not equal to your husbands?” Llewelyn-Davies asks. “No, we’re not,” they reply, laughing at the suggestion. Then one of the wives, Kisaru, asks a question of her own: “Can you stand up to your husband?” “I think so,” Llewelyn-Davies replies. All three women start laughing hysterically and insist she cannot because if she did he would beat her until she cried.
The Masai women insist that they do not want to be equal to their husbands. “Isn’t Chris much cleverer than you?” Kisaru asks her, referring to her husband Chris Curling, who is the co-producer of the documentary. “I don’t think so,” Llewelyn-Davies replies. “He is! He is!” Kisaru exclaims, laughing. “He is because if you go through the forest, isn’t it he who is watchful? You just walk and your heart is beating fast. You’re afraid and he is brave — because he’s a man. That little thing makes us unequal to men.”
Masai Women Have Autonomy and Power
Women in Masai society actually have substantial autonomy because their husbands are frequently gone traveling about the Masai-dominated lands for long periods of time. Women dislike being alone, and they thus perform their work in small informal groups composed of women from within a village or from neighboring villages. They spend time each day sewing together, chatting with each other, and playing with children. Young girls may join these groups, but they run the risk of getting sent on errands.
The women supervise all births and organize the ceremonies related to birth and fertility blessings. These sometimes involve lengthy periods with daily meetings, where older women distinguish themselves as leaders and counselors. They finance these ceremonies by levying fines on men for minor violations of Masai respect codes.
They sometimes gang up on men and beat them up for specific reasons, especially if they view men as having interfered with women’s fertility. Masai men are often very afraid of Masai women when the women are present in large numbers.
The ultimate power of Masai women, however, lies in their power to threaten men with a curse. Masai genuinely believe in the power of curses, and despite the men’s superior legal authority, they cannot use that authority however they wish.
In the last installment of Part I of this series, we will explore a documented case study in which a group of women disagreed with the assembly of elders and changed the course of their history by threatening them with such a curse. The result was a flood of happiness that poured over both the men and women as they came together and celebrated their fertility ritual together, a ritual they believe demonstrates the interdependence of men and women.
Read more about the author, Chris Masterjohn, PhD, here.