Meeting the Maasai: in conversation with Saboor and Rose from Kenya's renowned Maasai tribe

Known for their red robes, nomadic lifestyle and deep respect for nature, the Maasai are perhaps Kenya's best-known tribe. We talk to two prominent members of the community who offer an insight into what it means to be Maasai.

Published 10 Aug 2021, 11:33 BST, Updated 12 Aug 2021, 08:42 BST
Maasai warriors, who traditionally live in and around the country’s game parks, carry spears and shorts swords ...

Maasai warriors, who traditionally live in and around the country’s game parks, carry spears and shorts swords to protect the community. 

Photograph by GETTY images

Sabore Oyie, a member of the Maasai tribe in Kenya. 

Photograph by Kenya Tourism Board

Words from a warrior, Sabore Oyie
 

We have about 45 tribes in Kenya now, and I’m one of the Maasai. I grew up in the jungle, in the Maasai Mara reserve, and from a very young age I learnt how to live in harmony with nature.

In our culture, we don’t have anything that’s written. Everything is passed on verbally, and you learn from the whole village: from your peers, your brothers, your friends and your neighbours, as well as your parents.

We can tell the difference between a lion, a hyena and a leopard footprint. If we find elephant poop, we can tell how many hours old it is, and we always know which way the wind is blowing, in case we need to run away from wild animals. These are the things you learn as a young Maasai.

When I was young, we used to go out at night to hunt wild hares and train to be strong. We’d also hunt birds to turn into headdresses for ceremonies. Traditionally, when you become a warrior, you kill a lion, but because of conservation we no longer do this.

As a Maasai, nature is us, and we are nature. We depend on the trees, from its roots to its fruits, and we use natural herbs to treat illnesses. My parents only trust medicine from the forest. Younger generations are turning more towards modern doctors, but I don’t see why the two can’t go hand in hand.

I always tell people that you can hold a pen in one hand and still hold a spear in the other; you can practice and protect your culture, and embrace education and modernisation at the same time.

I’ve travelled all over the world, but I always return to the village I grew up in. For me, that will always be home.

Young Maasai warriors learn to always know which way the wind is blowing, in case they need to run away from wild animals.

Photograph by Getty Images

Rose Sairowua, a beadworker at the Maa Trust in Kenya.

Photograph by Kenya Tourism Board

In conversation with Rose Sairowua, a beadworker at the Maa Trust
 

As a child, Rose Sairowua spent hours tinkering with glass beads, looping them onto wire before slipping the bangles onto her arm, following the direction of her mother, who taught her the generations-old tradition.

“Beadmaking is a huge part of our culture and my background as a Maasai,” says Rose, “It’s a skill that I hope will never die out.”

In recent years, there’s been a shift in the story for Maasai beadmakers. Rose is one of a collective of Maasai women who now work with the non-profit social enterprise The Maa Trust, selling their pieces to travellers passing through the Mara’s camps.

What was once a skill mastered in childhood to create intricate accessories for members of the family is gradually evolving into a flourishing enterprise, empowering Maasai women and handing them a sustainable income while still maintaining their artisanal traditions.

Rose’s work could involve stringing beads onto wires or smoothing pieces of leather for chokers and thick bracelets. “We do everything by hand; it’s a real skill,” she says.

Buy any of The Maa Trust’s beautifully colourful pieces, and you’re helping to keep an age-old practice alive, while bringing opportunities and financial freedom to the women involved in the enterprise.

Sales have, predictably, taken a hit with the ongoing pandemic but The Maa Trust has now launched an online shop to help tide them over until safari
camps again buzz with the chatter of international visitors. There are dainty necklaces crafted from turquoise stone, brass beads fastened with elephant clasps; traditional tassel earrings; and monochrome stacking bangles. Even bolder are the embellished necklaces that cover your décolletage in beaded glory.

“We want to make women feel good about themselves,” Rose says, “I feel bare without my statement necklaces. Traditionally, we Maasai wear beads every day, as an indicator of power, age or marital status.”

What does Rose consider good beadwork? “It usually comes down to the design — how complex it is, the colours used, and whether they’ve chosen the best leather,” she says. “This is a skill learnt over many years. Not just anyone can pick up some beads and create our designs. It’s easy to spot a novice.”

“What do I love most about being a member of the Maasai? We’re a proud group; how can we not be when we have such an enduring culture? We’ve worked hard to keep our traditions alive and will continue to pass them onto the next generations.”

The Maa Trust has its HQ in the Maasai Mara, where you can meet the Maasai ladies behind the beads and browse their jewellery. 

Beadwork is a sign of beauty, strength and social status amongst the Maasai Mara people. 

Photograph by GETTY Images

Three more traditional Maasai crafts

Kiondo (woven baskets)

Basket weaving begins in the field, where the sisal plant is harvested. Its fibres are extracted and crushed before being dried and dyed with natural colourants. Eventually, the weaving process begins, transforming the fibres into colourful baskets, ideal for storage or plant pot coverings.

Wood carvings

Wood carvings are also widely available everywhere from markets in the centre of Nairobi to roadside stalls. It’s a skill that’s earned the Maasai a worldwide reputation. They typically take pieces of olive wood and shape them into faces, animals and masks.

Shuka (blankets)

You’ll likely recognise the distinctive cotton blankets worn by the Maasai, with their red hues and colourful stripes. Designed to wrap around the body and protect the skin from the elements and terrain, the blankets are now taking the fashion world by storm.

Essentials
 

British Airways and Kenya Airways fly daily between Heathrow and Nairobi, and various carriers offer one-stop services from the UK to Nairobi, including Ethiopian Airlines, KLM and Air France.

Average flight time: 8h 40m, direct to Nairobi.

Transfers from Nairobi to the Maasai Mara can be done by road, taking five to six hours, or by internal flight, taking between 45 minutes and an hour.

For more information and to book your trip, go to magicalkenya.com

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