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Modernity versus manhood - the Maasai quest

20.09.2004


A new study being carried out at the University of Leicester traces the erosion of the traditional concept of Maasai manhood and the emergence of new role for Maasais- reliving their warrior dreams in paid employment, business or trading in livestock.



The romantic notion of the ‘noble savage’ Maasai warrior, replete with traditional ponytails and weapons- a key image for tourism in Kenya - masks a crisis of cultures that has blighted this once proud tribal race, according to a study at the University of Leicester. It identifies the gradual emasculation of the traditional concept of Maasai manhood as being one of the root causes of the transformation of Maasai identity.

The doctoral thesis by Thomas Kibutu, of the Department of Geography at the University of Leicester, highlights how a way of life that stood the test of time for hundreds of years was eroded under the ‘civilising process’ of colonial and post-colonial rule so that it is now a shadow of its former glory. But it also reveals how Maasai men are now reclaiming their ‘lost manhood’ by engaging in roles that help them to regain a sense of their identify. The study highlights key ways by which Maasai men traditionally associated their manhood:


As Warriors

Maasai men celebrated their prowess as warriors, would be exalted within the tribe through their exploits such as cattle raids or killing lions and would beautify/decorate themselves to reflect their achievements namely as protectors

As pastoralists

Maasai men gained social status through being herdsmen with the size of herds having much subsistence and social value, thereby denoting wealth and status

As nomads

Maasai men would travel between wetlands and the dry lands of Eastern Africa in search of better pastures, water and saltlicks.

As polygamists

Having many wives and large families was part the Maasai way of life. Having many wives and children enhanced a Maasai man’s status in his community.

Through sexual relations

Bachelor warriors would consort with unmarried girls in the tribe while they were removed to train and act as warriors

Through age sets

Masculinity was defined by different stages of life, including that of boy, warrior, elder and ancient elder. The most exalted stage of Maasai manhood was the warrior stage though the elders held more power emanating from the patriarchal structure of power relations.

The Leicester study, which involved months of fieldwork in Kenya living amongst the Maasai, reveals how modernity has undermined the value of these traditions.

Thomas Kibutu said: “Colonial and post-colonial policies in Kenya have combined to strip Maasai men of their sense of place in society and, indeed, of their manhood-as defined by their own social values. “As part of the ‘civilising process’ of the ‘natives’, Maasai men have had to readjust their values as modernity has invaded their lifestyles.”

Kibutu cites the following key processes that have deconstructed traditional Maasai manhood:

Armed conflict: Colonisation of Maasai, like other communities in Kenya, was achieved by means of superior military strength of the British. Defeat for the Maasai represented a body blow for the concept of manhood among the Maasai warriors.

Alienating Maasai land: Moving Maasais to reserves and reducing their pastureland had the effect of demasculinzing them since pastoral nomadism was an important aspect of their masculine ethos

Limiting Livestock: Maasai men measured wealth by head of cattle but they were discouraged from marketing their cattle or buying breeding bulls from neighbouring Boran and Somali tribesman - fixed reserve boundaries and European settled farms smashed the traditional foundation of their existence

Sexuality: Maasai masculinity was further undermined by colonial values: “The sexual indulgence of the Maasai was condemned as unmanly and believed to corrupt the moral fibre of men. The Elders were attacked for being polygamous and there was particular criticism of the prevailing open attitude to sexuality between the warriors and girls,” states Kibutu.

Kibutu also cites the influence of colonial education, and the teaching of western values, as being in direct conflict with Maasai traditions while another key strategy in undermining Maasai warrior manhood was in allying with Maasai elders. This increased the patriarchal masculinity of the elders and eroded that of the warriors.

Curtailment of cattle raids and little need for defence of the community led to a huge loss of status for warriors.

But modern Maasai man is seeking new ways to salvage some of his lost tradition and identity. While some Maasai men now work as executives in multi-nationals and also in academia- Kibutu himself has Maasai relations- it is in their employment as night watchmen that modern Maasai men has sought to salvage vestiges of a lost heritage.

Said Kibutu: “Maasai men are reputed for their fearsome qualities and therefore many gain employment as night watchmen in urban areas of Eastern Africa. Maasai watchmen are said to be ferocious, honest and hardy and reputed to strike first and ask questions later, says Kibutu. “This allows them to gain some pride in their manhood as a protector and as a provider-it actualises their idea of excitement in combat or potential combat- and as a result of their earnings they buy cattle and therefore restore their status as herdsmen.”

But Kibutu argues that this new identity of Maasai manhood is in a state of flux: “By day, Maasai men are confronted by those men who are far more successful than them - fellow Kenyans living in large houses and driving 4X4s.This undermines their own sense of status and achievement and exacerbates a notion of failed masculinity. “In addition, tourism has led many Maasai women to work in selling beadwork and other goods - some are away from home for weeks and fall victim to prostitution particularly as Maasai women are perceived to be more ‘innocent’ than urban women. “For Maasai men, modernity has provided ever increasing challenges. They are marginalised in modern society and they have lost their traditional status in their own society. If they have no work, and are not providers, they are emasculated - many have taken to drink and drugs to numb their own sense of frustration and for escapism. “The sexual prowess manly ideal is also making many Maasai men more susceptible to the HIV/Aids infection as they relive their manhood by having numerous sexual partners. Also on the increase is domestic violence.”

Kibutu says that, slowly, a new ideal of the Maasai man is taking shape - one that lives with modernity and tradition. “The modern Maasai man seeks an education and sends his kids to schools. He will have a modern, urban lifestyle- but there is a duality to his existence. He may have a village home, even a village wife, and he moves between these worlds. He resists individualism in favour of community. “Professionals and entrepreneurs may choose to live in the Maasai village because they value this sense of community. Even in the remote Maasai reserves, you can find a large mansion among the huts. These affluent Masaais literally move between two worlds.

“But the world of the Maasai as they knew it has changed forever.”

Ather Mirza | alfa
Further information:
http://www.le.ac.uk

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