John Tyman's
Cultures in Context Series
Studies of the Maasai, the Luhya, and Nairobi's Urban Fringe
28. Maasai Houses : 353-365
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353.  Among the Maasai, people never live in the same house all their life, unless they die when young. Instead new homes are built from time to time, most often in days gone by when the family moved in search of greener pastures, rarely staying for more than a few months in the same place. Maasai homes are oblong in shape, typically 2 metres by 3 metres in size, with rounded corners and low ceilings. They are built by women, and their construction typically takes four to eight days. First, building materials must be collected; and this involves travel to nearby forests or many trips across the savannah in search of the right timber for posts. The best branches come from the leleshwa bush, because termites find its wood distasteful.
354. The posts are dug into the ground close together and range from 90 to 150 cm in height (although they average 120). Cattle dung is used to moisten the sides of the holes: and, taking each one in turn, the woman uses a rock or heavy piece of timber to hammer the post into the ground. This process is repeated several times until the pole is firmly in place.
355. The poles are then tied together at the top, to pieces of wood arranged horizontally; and there is usually another line of horizontal ties lower down. To form the curve of the roof, thin saplings are wedged between the top horizontal bars and bent over to form a bridge towards the opposite wall. Saplings from the other walls are bent over in the same way and tied together with vines to form the hump-backed roof typical of Maasai homes.
356. Smaller branches, twigs, leaves and grass are used to fill in the gaps between both posts and rafters, and the outside of the house is then plastered with a mixture of mud (made from clay and water) and cow dung -- with a finishing coat of cow dung applied to the roof. The straw in the dung helps bind the plaster together. (Plastering inside from the ground up.)
357. The sun does the rest, as it soon dries the plaster, and the roof will then be waterproof -- for a while at least. When it leaks it will be given another smooth coating of cow dung -- preferably by a young girl light in weight. The finished house looks a bit like a loaf of bread.
358. During the building phase the plastering is actually done in sections, beginning with the rounded parts of the roof and finishing with the walls. This is probably because the corners are the most difficult part to cover with temporary materials if a house is occupied while under construction. The other sections can easily be covered with hides on cold nights as seen here.
359. Traditionally there were no windows and no real chimney -- just a small hole (perhaps!) in the roof near the fireplace. As a result it was dark inside and, since every house had a fireplace, it was also very smoky. (House with smoke hole.)
360. The doorway (about 50 cm in width) is often concealed by an overlap or false wall (much like a snail's shell) to keep out cows. Calves can enter easily, but adults must bend down to get inside.
361. The door itself was traditionally made of reeds held together by strips of leather (and it sometimes served as a pack-saddle for a donkey when the family moved camp). (Pack-saddle and woman’s bed.)
362. Indoors the layout is almost always the same. The main section, furthest from the door and in the centre of the far wall, is a combined cooking and eating, living and sleeping area.
363. On each side of the fireplace and along the short wall are two beds. The larger one is for the older children, and for their father during his visits. The smaller one is for the woman of the house and the smallest children.
364. Her bed has a brushwood screen for privacy, but the big bed is used as a seat during the day. The woman stores her gourds and other personal possessions on simple shelves close to her bed. Her jewellery is hung on the wall, and she will keep a rungu (wooden club) nearby in case of unwelcome guests. Between the sleeping spaces is the hearth with its three stones, and a dish rack beside it. The fire is used for cooking and heating but sheds little light. (Plan of typical Maasai home from “African Traditional Architecture” by Kaj Blegvad Andersen: with permission.)
365. There is an enclosure for calves, lambs and  baby goats to one side of the passage leading to the living area. Here the youngest animals may be shut up at night for additional protection.
 Houses are sparsely furnished -- as you would expect of people whose lives necessarily focus on needs rather than wants. There will be a couple of stools beside the fire, and animal hides to cover the sleeping platforms, but there is no need for curtains.


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