A life-changing rite of passage for Maasai Warriors of Tanzania

Map of Country

Figure 1: Map of Africa (University of Texas online




The lives of the Maasai of Tanzania are marked by rituals which determine one's status or age-set, in the community. Eunoto is the right of passage which signifies movement of a young man from one age set to the next. There are many parts to this ritual which must be conducted. Upon successful completion of this set of rituals, a young man's social status increases to that of a senior warrior. The divine presence that is achieved in Eunoto affects the whole Maasai community and protects the junior warriors as they progress in their lives. Westernization of the Maasai places the culture that they have kept intact throughout many centuries at risk of extinction.



Figure 2: Maasai men and women outside of a hospital (Sullivan, Emily 2003) Figure 3: Two Maasai men in traditional dress (Sullivan, Emily 2003).


 Maasai culture has survived, in the absence of written language, in part through oral genealogies and ritual acts. In the country of Tanzania , the lives of the Maasai people are centered on a social system of age-set classes. Their semi-nomadic culture does not distinguish age or time in ways similar to the westernized world, but they approximate time in fourteen year segments. Each segment represents a distinct age-set which determines one's role in the community. The rite of passage into warriorhood for a Maasai man is marked by a ritual ceremony called Eunoto, which signifies the transition into adulthood. The young men are initiated as a whole age-set and thusly are welcomed into a new era of their lives ( Art & Life in Africa, 1998). Only after Maasai are initiated, do they have permission to get married and start a family. The significance of the Eunoto ceremony is manifested in extravagant whole-tribal celebrations and sacred ritual practices by which divine powers are called upon.



Context of Tanzania]

    The United Republic of Tanzania lies on the eastern coast of Africa bordering the Indian Ocean (see figure 1). The country, with a population 31,271,000, has a predominantly agricultural society where “90% of Tanzanians farm and fish at substinence levels (National Geographic Atlas of the World, 1999).” English and Swahili are both official languages of Tanzania ; however, within different tribes across the country, various other indigenous languages exist. “50% of the population is living below the poverty line” (Tanzania National Website). There is a multi party democracy system in Tanzania ; however, many of the tribal people, including the Maasai, choose to live a traditional “pastoral” lifestyle separate from the government. The Maasai are indigenous to Tanzania and live in an egalitarian society which is lead by a council of elders within the tribe. The Maasai dress themselves in traditional red robes and use cattle as a form of wealth and currency (see figures 2 and 3). They live in communal tribes that migrate according to the availability of food, water and land. The Maasai are known as “people of the cattle” because their lives are centered towards tending to their herds (Runck, Minnesota State University). Cattle are used to symbolize the presence of God on earth, thus they are treated with much respect. Maasai rarely slaughter their cattle for meat unless during a ritual sacrifice, where the consumption of meat is restricted to ceremonial acts.

     The Maasai people have inhabited eastern Africa since the 15 th century, and occupy a vast area of grassland plains. During the time of colonial slave trade throughout Africa, the Maasai tribes were considered “not suitable” for enslavement because, if captured, they would refuse to eat and eventually become too weak to work; thus making them useless to the slave-owners ( Runck , Minnesota State University). However, the Maasai aided Saudi Arabian slave traders in capturing other African tribes to enslave. Since the late 19 th century, large plots of land have been taken over by Europeans for colonization and government-owned national parks. The shrinking Maasai land masses causes detrimental effects to their cattle herds by limiting adequate grazing lands and the natural resources they depend on (Cattle People, 1998).


Origins of [Eunoto]

The ceremony of Eunoto, by which young Maasai men become initiated Moran men (senior warriors), is a significant ritual that involves the whole community. The origin of this ritual is not certain due to the lack of written documentation among the Maasai. However, by way of oral genealogies, the earliest account of age-set ritual was documented in the early 19 th century (Finke, 2003). Eunoto is a ceremonial graduation from junior warriorhood to senior warriorhood.



The physical enactment of the Eunoto ritual is considered one of the most sacred rituals of the Maasai culture. The junior warriors prepare for the two-day ritual for many months while living in a ritual village that they constructed themselves called emanyatta e Eunoto (see Figure 4).. Two appointed leaders within the age-set, called the ‘Strap Carver' and the ‘Planter', rule over the emanyatta. The Eunoto ceremony begins with the “ritual sacrifice and consumption of the oxen of the Strap Carver” (Glatay 1983:374). The meat of the oxen is cooked over a fire while the junior warriors skip-dance about in a circle. The meat is then first presented to the ritual leaders and the brisket is “wiped three times up each Moran's head from nose to forehead” (Galaty 1983:375) as a blessing from the elder Moran. The second day of the ritual begins with the sacrifice of the Planter's oxen, which is cooked and given to the Morans to eat. They are also each presented with a ring of skin to wear on their finger, carved from the hide of the oxen. The Moran's bodies are then covered with a mixture of chalk, milk and water as a blessing from the elders. After this, a new name is given to the age-set, signifying their transition and initiation to senior warriorhood. The next morning the long hair of the Moran men, which has been grown long for many years, is cut by their mothers and their heads shaved. “Often the warriors will cry or go into an emotional frenzy over their lost hair” (Saitoti 1980:55). After initiation, the Moran are now permitted to engage in sexual relations with initiated (circumcised) women and are allowed to seek marriage (Galaty 1983:375). They are now regarded as equals with the other men of the village, and their roles in the community now pertain to family responsibility.




Figure 4.

Junior warriors erecting the sacred post in the center of an emanyatta village in preparation for Eunoto. (Photo by Kakuta Ole Hamisi @ Maasai Association webpage




Prognosis for [Eunoto]

The preservation and survival of the traditional Maasai way of life is actively being threatened by imposing government policies. The Kenyan government has adopted land policies that have reduced the lands available for the Maasai. Historically, the nomadic nature of the Maasai and their pastoral lifestyle has lead to “communal” landownership between many villages (Seno 1999). In an attempt to dismantle their migratory lifestyle, the government began dividing the land into private farms and prohibiting land use in certain areas. However, regardless of governmental policies, most Maasai “continue treating their land as pastoral commons with generally open access for all Maasai” (Seno 1999:80). These governments also oppose the warrior hood of Maasai men because of the violent connotation that it holds. However, they continue to use Maasai “warrior images” to attract tourism interest ( Maasai Association ). Many aspects of Maasai culture that glorify warriorhood, such as Eunoto, have been eroding due to these outside influences. However, to the Maasai people, abandoning their culture is seen as “a crime to humanity” ( Maasai Association ). “A Maasai without culture is as a zebra without stripes. If we abandon our way of life, our next step could be extinction” (Maimai, Maasai Association ). The Maasai have maintained their cultural values through the centuries. However, in the presence of imposing government action, Maasai rituals such as Eunoto, along with all aspects of the Maasai lifestyle and are in danger of collapse.





The Maasai lead their lives in a way that is far removed from the modernized world. They are a self-sufficient and autonomous people with whom life is focused primarily on tending to their sacred cattle. Maasai do not place value on money and have little concept of time or age; this differs greatly from the money driven, industrious lifestyle of America . The Maasai social system of age-sets serves to establish one's identity and purpose in the community. The transition into a new age-set denotes the starting of a new era of life for a Maasai. The Eunoto ceremony, which is regarded with great respect and anticipation by the community, initiates young men into the era of adulthood in which they are permitted to marry and start families. The Eunoto ceremony marks the most significant transition in the life of a Maasai warrior.



Internet References Cited

    Art & Life in Africa online 1998. University of Iowa . Electronic Document, accessed 9/19/04 .

        Note: Academic website from university with brief contextual information and statistics    on the Maasai of Tanzania and Kenya .

    Cattle People. Survival 1998. Electronic Document, . Accessed 9/19/04

        Note: Website about Maasai lifestyle pertaining to cattle and its importance spiritually and culturally.

    Finke, Jens. 2003. Maasai History – Traditional Music and Cultures. Electronic Document, . Accessed 10/20/04.

        Note: Descriptions and overview of cultural rituals

    Maasai Association Website. Edited by Maimai, Kakuta Ole. Electronic Document, Accessed 11/11/04.

        Note: A website about the Maasai people, written by Maasai people. Detailed information about cultural rituals and the practices of the people. Included current information about struggle to maintain Maasai culture and lifestyle.

     National Geographic Atlas of the World , Seventh Edition, 1999. Electronic Document.

         Note: Website with contextual information about the Maasai current and past. Statistical population information and demographics.

     Runck, Lara. Minnesota State University . Maasai . Electronic Document, . Accessed 9/20/04

         Note: Academic university website of a historical account of the Maasai who first inhabited Africa .

    Tanzania National Website. Electronic Document, . Accessed 9/20/04

         Note: Website by the people of Tanzania about their country in regards to lifestyle and politics.


Peer-Reviewed References Cited

    Bentsen, John L.
         1979 . The Maasai Age-Sets and Prophetic Leadership:1850-1910.               Africa ;1979, Vol.49 Issue 2, p 134
    Galaty, John.

           1983. Ceremony and Society: The poetics of Maasai Ritual. Man,                New Series, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Jun.,1983), 361-382.                                            Electronic Document, Accessed 10/19/04.

    Gennep, Arnold Van.

    1909. The Rites of Passage . Reprint Edition. London : Routledge and Kegan Paul.

    Hodgson, Dorthy L.

    1999 . Once ‘Intrepid Warriors': Modernity and the Production of Maasai Masculinities.. Ethnology; Spring 99, Vol. 38 issue 2, P.121, 30p.

    Turner, Victor, and Edith Turner

    1982. Religious Celebrations . In Celebration: Studies in Festivity and Ritual . Victors Tuner, ed, pp. 201-219. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington

    Saitoti, Tepilit Ole

    Warriors of Maasailand . Natural History; Aug1980, Vol.89 Issue 8, P.42,14p.

    Seno, Simon K, and W.W Shaw

    2000. Land Tenure Policies, Maasai Traditions, and Wildlife Conservation in Kenya . Society & Natural Resources; Jan2002, Vol. 15 issue 1, P.79-89.



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