John Tyman's
Cultures in Context Series
Studies of the Maasai, the Luhya, and Nairobi's Urban Fringe
30. Social Organization : 383-392
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383. Maasai and Samburu societies are still very traditional, and roles -- or who does what in a family -- are rigidly determined by custom. Their society is dominated by men and is structured around an age-set system into which all males are recruited according to their approximate age (approximate since initiations into such groups do not occur annually but may be a decade apart.) What this means in practice is that life, if you are a male, is divided into phases, during which you will be closely associated with a particular group of individuals of similar age to yourself. And what you are allowed or required to do will depend on the stage you have reached in this tribal succession. (Young men headed for town.)
384. When a woman gives birth she does so in her own hut and a sheep is slaughtered so she can eat well and nurse her baby. On the fourth day the baby is taken outside and shown the sun. At this time it is also given its first name. On the tenth day the mother milks the cows, taking the baby with her on her back. When a child can walk another sheep is killed and a new name given -- usually that of a relative, alive or dead. This name is kept until initiation into adult life.
385. When they are four years old, Samburu children have holes cut or burnt in the fleshy part of their ears, at the top and the bottom. The holes are steadily enlarged later by the insertion of progressively bigger wooden plugs. In this way, when they grow up, people have ear lobes large enough to support large ornaments. Young girls decorate the upper part of their ear and also wear elaborate necklaces. After circumcision and marriage they can decorate their lobes as well.
386. The first age grade is Nkerai (childhood). During this period there will be time for play, with toy spears perhaps if they are boys, but when they are six or seven years old they will perform minor chores like running local errands, looking after calves and baby-sitting. (Child unwraps lolly.)
387. They also get an informal introduction to the traditions of their people by way of stories and riddles told by parents and grandparents. Children are urged to behave well and show respect for elders. Anyone older than them can administer a spanking or a reprimand.
388. Young herders are termed Layeni, for as they mature boys will graze cattle, goats and sheep, helping adults when they are only 8 to 10 years old but grazing on their own by the time they are 13 or 14. Their fathers and grandfathers will teach them manly skills (like the use of a spear) and also about plants and animals and how to recognize them.
389. Girls, meanwhile, are introduced to women's work by their mothers and grandmothers. That roles are clearly defined, is emphasized in the proverb: "the boy chats with his father, the girl with her mother." (Girl shaving mother’ head.)
390. The next stage begins with initiation into adulthood. Boys undergo circumcision and girls clitoridectomy (now illegal in theory). Boys then become members of the warrior class, typically when they are in their late teens, and are known as moran. Girls also have their heads shaved, and are now ready for marriage. (Moran with newly circumcised youth on the right, plus a young female admirer.)
391. During circumcision, a boy who shows any sign of pain disgraces his family. To prepare for initiation he is psyched up ahead of time by abuse from friends who claim he is a coward. Afterwards, if he has been brave, they'll say: "He is too ugly to be a coward!" The Maasai believe you cannot be both ugly and cowardly, for God would not be so cruel as to afflict on anyone two separate disabilities.
392. Later in life, usually when they are about 30, the warriors will be replaced by a fresh intake of moran and the older group will be promoted to the rank of elders, or lpayan. At this stage they can marry and also own cattle -- the nucleus of their herd having hitherto been held in trust for them. Among the Maasai proper the warrior and elder classes were both divided into junior and senior sub-groups, but such distinctions were less important to the Samburu.


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