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This is the third and final installment of “Part I” of this series. As in the last two installments, here we are continuing to simply obtain a “glimpse” of gender, sexuality, and spirituality in the Loita Masai as it existed in a particular village in the 1970s and 1980s.
We have seen so far that the Masai consider the production of large families to be the central path to immortality for both men and women, and that they engage in many ritual acts as prayers to a singular and all-provident God to provide the wealth, social order, and fertility necessary to achieve this.
This social order includes the authority of husbands over their wives, and in Diary we even see a laibon blessing staffs (one of the most ancient symbols of authority) and calling them “the sticks that control cattle and the sticks that control women.” In almost the same breath he prays the women have long, healthy lives to spend with their husbands, sons, and daughters, and that they become as fertile as the grass in rain, as wide as the earth, and as extensive as the sky.
We see women supporting and justifying this system of authority because they see the men as having the bravery necessary to protect and guard the women and the emotional detachment necessary to make important decisions that favor the common good.
This, of course, does not in any way mean that there is no conflict between the sexes in Masai society, that men never abuse their authority, or that women never express discontentment with their social position. And it certainly doesn’t mean that women are powerless.
While Masai women do not have anything like what we might call “independence” in our society, Masai women have legal rights to levy fines on men for improper behavior including the mistreatment of their wives, and ultimately have great power to demand their voices be heard because men greatly fear the powerful curse that would otherwise fall on them.
In The Womens’ Olamal (1984), we see an excellent historical case in which the women were ultimately able to make their voices heard and achieve their goals using this power, despite initial opposition from the counsel of elders. In this we see a society where there is a certain sex-based authority structure, but where final decisions necessarily emphasize the interdependence of men and women.
Men and Women are Inter-Dependent
About once every four years, the male religious elders of the Masai lead a ceremony devoted to blessing the women with prayers for fertility. It is the women who initiate, organize, and finance the ceremony, but they must obtain permission from the counsel of religious elders to proceed, and the men ultimately lead the ceremony.
Llewelyn-Davies asks one Masai woman why the women don’t just bless themselves. In her view, women should be independent of men and not subjugated to them to have their basic needs fulfilled.
The woman offers the following reply:
The reason that men bless women — and only men bless each other — is that women can’t give birth out of the blue. It is men who make women conceive, so men bless themselves and then they bless us, because they impregnate us so that we can give birth. It is men who put children in our wombs. Everyone must be blessed — men and women — we must all be blessed properly because women must go to bed with men. You can’t get a child from nowhere. The earth is full because God allows men to make women conceive and to bear sons and daughters.
Llewelyn-Davies’ comment seems foreign to the Masai woman. Llewelyn-Davies is concerned with the political status of women and sees the personal as political. The Masai woman is concerned with her ability to reproduce. She looks at the world and sees it as obvious that both men and women are required to produce children, and because of her life-long immersion in Masai culture she sees this as the central aim of life and the gateway that opens to reveal the path to immortality.
As we will see below, the blessing that the celebrating elder gives to the women is considered a mystical but very real form of insemination, so it is only natural that men rather than women would fulfill the male principle of insemination during the ceremony.
Conflict on the Horizon —
The Smell of Murder Is in the Air
The women begin forming their olamal, a contingent of women who meet frequently, often daily, to organize the preparations for the ceremony. The contingent travels across Masai-land asking for donations or levying fines upon other Masai for minor violations of Masai respect codes.
When the women arrive in a village, they approach the house of an elder singing and dancing. As they reach the doorway they plant a stick upright into the ground and sing until the owner of the house emerges with a contribution. If the owner makes no contribution, the women leave the stick in its place, which is thought to bring a powerful curse upon the elder that can result in disease or death.
The women choose who to approach, and usually choose someone who is rich and generous, or someone who has violated certain codes of behavior. If a man beats his wife “for no good reason” while the they are in the village, they have a right to exact a fine from him.
Yet this time around, there arises a problem.
On the Tanzania side of the border there is a Masai man asking for an enkirro payment. He has accused someone of murdering a member of his family, and is entitled to a hearing. If the counsel rules in his favor, the accused must provide reparations to him and undergo a somber and grotesque ceremonial punishment.
The Masai believe that God hates fighting, violence, and conflict. Engaging in these behaviors as a fertility ritual is being organized could cause the ritual to lose its efficacy because its participants would find disfavor with God. All the more, then, must a fertility ceremony be kept far from an open enkirro case. To hold the two ceremonies together would not only mix the principle of life with the principle of death, but would mix the central aim of Masai spiritual life with its sinful antithesis.
The news of the enkirro payment arrives after the women have already begun collecting sheep, honey, sugar, and other items necessary for the ritual. Suddenly, the counsel of elders announces that all plans for the fertility blessing are over.
The women are upset. They meet privately and debate how to proceed. One older woman distinguishes herself as the leader and devises several plans. One is to argue that the Kenya-Tanzania border should serve to separate the enkirro payment from the fertility ritual. Plan B is to simply leave all they have collected at the feet of the elders and give up, knowing the elders will be afraid of letting items collected for a sacred purpose go to waste.
The elders are themselves unhappy about their decision to cancel the blessing. They say that the man demanding the enkirro payment has come upon them “like a trachoma in the eye,” and refer to him as “this rhino who has trampled on our purpose.”
Nevertheless, they stand their ground. They recount the history of the fertility ceremony and each ancestral generation that had performed it. No one to their knowledge, they say, has ever mixed a fertility blessing with an enkirro payment. They tell the women to go back to the villages and find the oldest women alive and ask them if there is some precedent for holding the two ceremonies together. Only if the women can find such a precedent will they change their ruling.
The Power of the Curse
Suddenly the women start crying out loudly and hysterically. The men immediately become afraid. They consider any intense anger that they put in another person’s heart to contain a very powerful curse that can bring disease and death upon themselves and their families. They believe they have rightful authority over the women, but if they use it in such a way that it causes the women great distress, they bring only punishment upon themselves. The woman leading the olamal contingent alludes to the possibility of explicitly cursing them, and the men decide to reconvene.
The next day the head elder recants:
News from a far country comes along several routes. And yesterday we elders argued till we got irritable with each other. When I voiced my opinion I was abused and told I was wrong. The meeting became very heated, but eventually it was agreed that we would give you the Blessing.
The elders then tell the women to “never stray out of line again.”
The Ritual — Ox Fat and A Mystical Insemination
The women do indeed get their blessing. They line up in a procession led by the wives of the head elder, with his first wife given the primary position. They carry fronds of the oltukai tree and sing songs. The men wait for them on the opposite side of an arch. Four of them are holding a heifer up in the air.
As the women pass under the heifer, the head elder sprinkles upon them a mixture of milk, honey beer, and saliva. As he does this he proclaims, “May barrenness be chased away! Here are the waters of parturition! Milk drooled by a baby upon your shoulders!”
This process represents insemination. One could say that it is symbolic, but the Masai consider it real enough that women who know themselves to be pregnant are forbidden from participating in it. The Masai strongly prohibit sex during pregnancy because they believe the semen reaches the fetus and that this constitutes a form of incest. This exact prohibition also applies to pregnant women receiving the saliva blessing, showing that the Masai consider this ritual to have a very real effect.
The elders then anoint the women upon the head and womb with ox fat. The women themselves then take the ox fat and spread it all over their skirts.
Just as a young girl must eat her meat on skewers to avoid contact with animal fat because she has not yet reached childbearing age, just as a woman will anoint a baby with animal fat when it is born, and just as long-lived Masai men and women who have produced large families will be anointed with ox fat as they pass into eternal sleep at the end of their lives, so ox fat plays a central role in the ritual they believe provides the women with the ability to conceive.
The head elder even proclaims, “May our animals sustain you and may their fat bring you goodness!”
The elders also decorate the women’s faces with white chalk.
When the women return home, they will not wash the saliva anointment off their body until the next time they shave their head, making an exception only for their hands and arms. Kisaru explains that if one does not obey the procedures prescribed for the ritual, this will represent a spirit of disobedience and God will not heed the prayers for fertility. Yet even if a woman were to follow them all correctly, she says, it is still God who decides whether to grant any woman a child.
Are Masai Women Powerless?
Anna Grimshaw interviewed Llewelyn-Davies and presented the point of view that, superficially, it appears that Masai women do not have any power, but that by the end of the movie one sees that the situation is much more nuanced than that.
I don’t think I really agree with that. Sure, they got their ceremony and they terrified the men with their curse; but elderly women had to agree, “Yes, we are children.” They got it on the men’s terms. They got it; but the whole ceremony reinforces women’s helplessness, I think. It’s a two-edged sword, of course; but I don’t think it shows women having much genuine power. It shows them as stroppy and troublesome.
I see this more the way Grimshaw sees it. One cannot say that Masai women are equal in authority to men, but to say that they are ultimately powerless is to deny the entirety of the evidence Llewelyn-Davies worked so hard to present.
I find it somewhat disheartening, however, that both of them view this as fundamentally a battle between the sexes. The men were not denying the women their fertility ceremony in order to oppress them and render them powerless. They were afraid that the enkirro payment would poison the ceremony and that their disobedience to the traditions of their ancestors would find them disfavor with God and thereby nullify the effect of the ritual. They lamented that the man demanding the payment had trampled on their purpose like a rhino and come upon them like a severe and blinding eye infection. The men were, ultimately, trying to fulfill their leadership responsibilities in a way that would support the women.
After all, if the fertility blessing does not have the desired effect, and the women do not conceive, the men lose their ability to generate large families and thereby attain eternal life.
Just because Masai society may have serious issues of equality and welfare that need to be addressed does not mean that the men are always the enemies of the women. To propose this is to ultimately invalidate the beliefs and testimony of the Masai women themselves.
The remarkable woman who led the battle to hold the blessing ultimately concludes that “this blessing was wonderful.” She tells us how the elder leading the ceremony had added three elements that had not previously been part of it. “So we say his Blessing was a great one.”
Llewelyn-Davies, however, had a rather dim view of the ritual:
It also made me realize how much the Masai elders manipulate the ceremony to make the most emotional effect on the people going through it. I mean, I can’t take the sun and I wasn’t prepared to wear a hat and the reason was because they want you to be kind of freaked out by the experience and so on.
I suppose the elders may have planned to make it hot out in order to make the women freaked out by the experience, but it is ultimately the women who initiate the ceremony, the women who fight to make sure it happens, and the women who say that the decorative and ceremonial elements of the ritual make it wonderful and who say of it, “this Blessing was a great one.”
In the next post I will take a brief interlude to discuss feminism, cultural relativism, and objective truth in order to assess exactly to what degree we can judge Masai society using our own cultural presuppositions and to what degree we should exercise caution in this.
After that, it will be on to the subject of food! And at that point, we will finally begin discussing all the bananas, yams, sweet potatoes, grains, and other yummy foods that have always been a rich part of the Masai diet whenever they were available, and a slew of other surprising factoids.
Read more about the author, Chris Masterjohn, PhD, here.