John Tyman's
Cultures in Context Series
Studies of the Maasai, the Luhya, and Nairobi's Urban Fringe
23. The People : 301-304
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301. Maasai tribes share a common language known as Ol-maa and a distinctive pastoral tradition. They live today in Southern Kenya (where they extend across the border into Tanzania) and also further north around Maralal, where they are referred to as Samburu. It is believed that they originated north of Lake Turkana and moved south in the 17th and 18th centuries to occupy much of the Rift Valley. Today, in common with many tribes, they have a foot in each of two worlds, traditional and modern: and signs of change were obvious even in 1982.
302. Because of their reputation as warriors they were feared by their neighbours and their history and culture have been promoted in recent years by Hollywood film producers and the Kenyan tourist industry. They probably total half a million today. (It's impossible to say for sure as the Kenyan census is reluctant to publicize ethnicity.) Never the largest group numerically in what is now Kenya they nevertheless controlled the largest area. In the twentieth century, however, they lost much of their land to white settlers, other tribes, and game reserves to benefit tourists. They must now somehow survive grazing a much smaller area.
303. With loss of land to cultivators in central Kenya on either side of the railway (see map at frame 020), the Samburu were separated from the southern Maasai in the 19th century: but they retain their language, and many of their customs and values are identical. The visible differences are cosmetic: for example, Samburu warriors smear ochre on their upper body but not on their legs unlike the Maasai proper, and they commonly wear their shuka as a sarong instead of a toga. A more significant difference is that, living in a drier area, some of them now herd camels as well as cattle -- for milk rather than meat.
304. Both the Maasai proper and the Samburu are divided into clans, each of which brands its cattle differently. In this way when a man grazing his herd meets up with another family he can tell immediately, from the brands on the cattle, to which clan they belong. It is good to know this for several reasons, not least because a man cannot normally marry a girl from the same clan (and with the same brand) as himself.


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