John Tyman's
Cultures in Context Series
Studies of the Maasai, the Luhya, and Nairobi's Urban Fringe
26. Basic Values and Beliefs : 333-334 | Economic Aspects : 335-343
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Basic Values and Beliefs : 333-334
333. For the Maasai, livestock are central to both their material culture (including their social status) and their spiritual tradition. This is obvious from their oral literature, in which their most fundamental myths justify present practice. (See “The Origin of Cattle” and “Women’s Cattle” in Kenyan Folk Tales.)
 Their beliefs find practical expression in the do's and don't's of daily life. Since all cattle were given to the Maasai by God, other tribes seen to have cattle must have stolen them. It is therefore an honourable thing to take them back (by force). Similarly, since cattle are nourished by grass, a man who digs in the soil -- whether it be to plant crops, bury the dead or look for water -- insults his Creator.
334. The wild animals who graze alongside the cattle must be respected also: they are God's handiwork. The surviving members of the aboriginal Ndorobo tribe, who must hunt to survive, are despised for doing so. Blacksmiths also are looked down on. The Maasai could not live without them, but because blacksmiths make weapons for killing they are considered unclean. No one wants to offend God, so the Maasai maintain a discreet distance between themselves and those contaminated by disrespect. (Blacksmith’s family.)
Economic Aspects : 335-343
335. The Maasai and Samburu have long been semi-nomadic. This means that in place of the tents or brush shelters used by true nomads, the Maasai build houses and cattle pens: but they cannot stay in one place all the time as cattle must be moved between pastures if they are to survive. No individual (save God) could own land: it was held in common by the community. Each tribal division had a clearly defined tract. This was subdivided into localities which varied in shape and size according to the availability of water and grass: and the number of settlements in any locality also depended on the supply of water and the grass available. But no individual owned land: it was held in trust from God and freely shared  (Goats graze near village.)
336. The Maasai raise cattle, sheep and goats and keep donkeys as beasts of burden. An average family might have 70 cattle, 80 sheep or goats, and a dozen donkeys. Their diet is dominated by milk, supplemented by meat and blood -- although corn meal has been introduced in recent years. Milk is consumed daily; and during the dry season, when milk yields are low, it is mixed with fresh cow blood obtained by puncturing the jugular vein with a blunt arrow and sealing the wound later with a wad of dung. Though they are no longer nomadic, the Samburu have hung on to their donkeys for carrying water when all sources close to home have dried up. (Cattle drinking at waterhole.)
337. Meat comes mostly from sheep and goats, which are slaughtered from time to time. (They are occasionally sold for cash as meat, but there is no interest in wool). Cattle are precious and they are killed only on special occasions -- for ceremonial feasts celebrating births, deaths and other rites of passage. If in times of dire famine the Maasai were forced to hunt for meat this was restricted to animals like eland and buffalo, which resemble cattle. However, no meat of any kind is consumed at the same time as milk. (Sheep and goats returning to settlement at end of day.)
338. Even in the old days, though, the Maasai diet was supplemented by vegetables and grain obtained from cultivators such as the Kikuyu. Hides, milk and butter were bartered for beans, millet, tobacco and gourds at markets on the boundaries of Maasai territory. And from the Ndorobo, the Maasai obtained honey for beer and ivory for ornaments. (Woman from another tribe who married a Maasai man and churns butter using a large gourd.)
339. Livestock provide the Maasai with most things they need, including bone and leather utensils, plus hides for bedding and clothing (though cotton textiles and blankets are now available from markets). However, the importance of animals transcends material needs, for they play a central part in the social fabric of the society. Ownership of cattle is the measure of a man's wealth and status. Bonds are forged between friends and kinsmen by the exchange of livestock. And the bride-price is paid largely in cattle.
340. The influence of animals extends even to architecture. Every Maasai village (termed an enkang) was surrounded by a fence of thorn bushes to keep out predators and cattle thieves. And their houses, rebuilt periodically to accommodate movements between pastures, are plastered with cow dung, and include pens to shelter baby animals at night. (Cactus barrier around village.)
341. While they are still young each child, male and female, is given a cow, a ewe, and a nanny goat. These are "birthright cattle". By the time men attain the status of an elder, they have usually built up a good herd.
342. When a girl marries she does not take her personal herd with her, but leaves it with her brothers, or her mother if she has no brothers. (If ever she is in need she can go back to her family and ask for a cow or two.) When she joins her husband in her new home she is given cattle by him and by his relatives: from this nucleus she can build a herd of her own. However, although in theory husband and wife have separate herds, he retains overall control.
343. When a father dies, his eldest son inherits all his personal cattle and when a mother dies, her youngest son inherits her animals. The middle sons have the herds built from their birthright cattle, plus the animals which belonged to their sisters before they left home. If a man dies childless, or without sons, his brother will inherit (his wife as well as his livestock!) When a boy is too young to own herds of cattle the animals are held in trust by his paternal uncles. The cattle are known individually and greatly cherished. (Cattle at SRDC -- the Samburu Rural Development Centre.)


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