• Lydia Kiros

Once a Decade Ceremony Transforms Kenya’s Maasai Warriors

This year marked a pivotal moment in the lives of Maasai men as they transitioned from Moran (warriors) to Mzee (elders). The ceremony, which takes place once every decade, gathered an estimated 15,000 men from all over Kenya and neighboring Tanzania dressed in red and purple shawls and their heads coated in red ocher. The ceremony took place in Maparasha Hills in Kajiado County, 128 kilometers (about 75 miles) north of Nairobi.

Photo: MaasaI men attend Olng’esherr (Reuters/Thomas Mukoya)

The ceremony was scheduled to take place earlier in the year, but was postponed due to the arrival of coronavirus. During the ceremony the men were accompanied by their wives who also wore colorful shawls and beads around their necks. They sang songs of praise and encouragement to the incoming group of leaders. “My role here in this ceremony, is to come and bless my boys to graduate, to another stage of being wazees (elders), and to give them their privileges,” Moses Lepunyo ole Purkei, a farmer, community health volunteer and elder, said in an interview with Reuters.

According to the government statistics office, there are about 1.2 million Maasai living in Kenya, accounting for about 0.7 percent of the country’s population. In Northern Tanzania there is a similar number and are considered to be one of East Africa’s most internationally well-known tourist attractions due to their distinct cultures, dress style and terrain, and their once a decade ceremony also known as Olng’esherr (meat-eating ceremony). Indeed the men gathered holding their staffs and swords at the site to feast on an estimated 3,000 bulls and over 30,000 goats and sheep, roasting the meat on beds of coal from acacia trees. “I used to be Moran, but after this ceremony, I now graduate to be a Mzee,” Stephen Sarbabi, a 34-year-old livestock trader, told Reuters. “I will now be having a lot of responsibilities in the community. I will be chairing some different meetings, I will be consulted,” he said.

Photo: Maasai youth roast meat for celebrants (Reuters/Thomas Mukoya)

Many Maasai rituals symbolize a transition from one life phase to the following one. Maasai society is uniquely organized in groups divided by age for both women and men alike. The men have three phases in life: childhood, warriors, elders, while women only have two stages with childhood and teenage years as one followed by adulthood. The first initiation of a Maasai boy is known as the Enkipaata, which is a ceremony that takes place before circumcision and is organized by the fathers of the boys. Once circumcised, the young men become warriors and assume responsibility of the security of their territory. Before the warriors can become elders, they must transition to a senior warrior in a ceremony known as Eunoto.

The next initiation ritual marking the passage from junior to elder kicks off with the donation of a chair to each man. The day of the celebration, early in the morning, the man sits on the chair and his wife cuts his hair. If he has more than one wife, the oldest takes the responsibility of cutting his hair. The gift of the chair serves as a representation of a companion and friend to the man until it breaks. If it does not break before his death, it will be passed down to his first-born son. At the end of the celebration, the man is confirmed in his new role of elder and takes on the full responsibility for his family. From then on he can leave from his father’s cattle enclosure to form his own. This last passage takes place around the age of 35.

Although the Maasai culture centers primarily around patriarchy, it also provides room for the women to have power. For one, both polygamy and polyandry are common marital practices within the group. Women are able to marry more than one within their age group and choose the partner they want. They are also able to move up on the economic ladder through trading and creating beautiful ornaments and jewelry, which is a trademark of the Maasai.

Photo: Maasai women sing for their men of Matapato clan (Reuters/Thomas Mukoya)

Many of the initiations and rituals native to the Maasai have been fading due to outside influences and the pressure to embrace western ways of life. A Maasai belief states, “It takes one day to destroy a house; to build a new house it will take months and perhaps years. If we abandon our way of life to construct a new one, it will take thousands of years.”