Meet the Maasai – An Introduction to Africa’s Nomadic Peoples


If you’ve considered a trip to East Africa, you’ve very likely seen photographs and stories about the nomadic Maasai, a 500 year old tribe of warriors, dancers, and farmers who have managed to preserve their cultural traditions over the turning of centuries.  Click here to learn a few words of their language, hear about their ancient traditions, and find out how you’ll interact with them on a Classic Escapes tour to East Africa.


While a centuries-old tribe of African nomads might seem an intimidating audience, you’ll find the Maasai warm and welcoming to curious tourists to their lands. An enthusiastic Olee! (hello) will await you upon entering one of their many temporary villages.  Of course, they will also recognize the widespread Swahili greeting Jambo and other common phrases used in the Swahili-speaking world, such as Asante Sana (Thank You).


For many decades, the governments in Kenya and Tanzania worked to integrate the Maasai into modern society, but it eventually came to the attention of conservation experts that their cycle of settlement rotation, crop cultivation in difficult environments, and low impact living needs were actually benefitting the terrain of East Africa, particularly in the wake of climate change and draught.  As a result, today the Maasai are free to wander as they like.  With a population of almost 850,000, their settlements grow by the year, and their ways continue to benefit the earth around them.


The Maasai you will encounter while traveling with Classic Escapes will largely be capable of speaking at least basic conversational English and perhaps a bit of Swahili.  However, the official language of the Maasai is known as Maa and is a language evolved from the Nilo-Saharan root words that dominate the former Cushite empires in Southern Sudan. So while the Maasai may have formed in medieval times, the roots of their customs and the words they speak span back to ancient times.


Villages will vary dependant on the financial status of the villagers. While some Maasai have established semi-permanent villages in locations convenient to major cities, where the men can work between harvest seasons as handymen, bodyguards, or tour guides, others remain strictly nomadic. You will see this economic disparity reflected in the quality of their small huts, the goods they offer for sale, and the amount of English and Swahili the average villager is capable of speaking. It may also impact how bashful the children and village women are around Western visitors.


In addition to being friendly and curious about tourists, you will find the Maasai to be experts about their homeland and willing to share knowledge about the wildlife and terrain. You might ask koree ilowoarak? (Where are the lions?) and get an answer from anyone from a stalwart young warrior to a young girl who saw the pride pass their way just this morning.


Perhaps the most famous aspect of the Maasai culture is their jumping dance, the adumu. This dance is performed during Eunoto, thecoming of age of a young, male warrior. This ritual can last up to ten days and is one of the most important parts of a young man’s life. The jumping itself is often competitive in nature, which is why you will often see photographs of Maasai men leaping to incredible heights during the ceremony. Often onlookers will react to the height of the jump with the pitch of their voice, which will go ever higher the more impressive the jump is!

  You may spend your time with the Maasai admiring their beautiful beaded jewelry and textiles or watching the warriors perform the adumu or perhaps just having simple conversation about the many wonders of Africa. However you choose to use this time, you will find it an enriching and singular experience provided by a truly unique people whose very existence makes Africa all the richer.