The Maasai are the southernmost of the Nilotic-speaking peoples and are linguistically as well as physically related to the Samburu, Turkana and Kalenjin, among others. Their distant history is unknown beyond a wealth of unsubstantiated conjecture and dreams proposed by often romantically-minded Western scholars.
Some say that they are one of the lost tribes of Israel. Others that they came from North Africa. Still others believe that they are the living remnants of Egyptian civilisation, primarily, it seems, on account of their warriors’ braided hairstyles.
Suffice to say that if any of these theories have any truth, it would be just as likely that the ancient cultures of Egypt and Israel were influenced by the Maasai’s ancestors, rather than the other way around.
What is known is that the Maasai came from the north, probably from the region of the Nile Valley in Sudan, northwest of Lake Turkana. It is thought that they left this area sometime between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, migrating southwards towards the Great Rift Valley.
The Maasai themselves say in their oral histories that they came from a crater or deep valley somewhere to the north, at a place called Endikir-e-Kerio (the scarp of Kerio).
Although many scholars have referred to this place as the southeastern region of Lake Turkana, some oral sources suggest that it may have been somewhere even further north, along the Nile Valley or even in North Africa. Whatever the exact location of this mythical crater/valley, their migration southward is beyond doubt, and occurred after a dry spell.
It is a reported that a bridge was constructed and after half the livestock and people had left the dusty depression, the bridge collapsed, throwing back the other half of the population. These people later managed to climb out of the valley, reaching to the highland region as the present day Somali, Borana and Rendille peoples.
The Maasai eventually entered Kenya to the west of Lake Turkana, and quickly spread south through the Rift Valley, whose fertile grasslands were ideal for their cattle.
They reached their present-day territories in Kenya and Tanzania around the 17th or 18th centuries. The Maasai believe in one God, whom they call Ngai (also spelled En-kai, Enkai, Engai, Eng-ai).
Ngai is neither male nor female but seems to have several different aspects. For instance, there is the saying Naamoni aiyai, which means ‘The She to whom I pray’.
There are 2 main manifestations of Ngai: Ngai Narok which is good and benevolent and is black; and Ngai Na-nyokie, which is angry and red, like the British. For a story which has them as separate gods, see Thunder and the Gods.
Ngai is the creator of everything. In the beginning, Ngai (which also means sky) was one with the earth and owned all the cattle that lived on it. But one day the earth and sky separated, so that Ngai was no longer among men.
The cattle, though, needed the material sustenance of grass from the earth, so to prevent them from dying, Ngai sent down the cattle to the Maasai by means of the aerial roots of the sacred wild fig tree and told them to look after them. This they do to this day, quite literally taking the story as an excuse to relieve neighbouring tribes of their own livestock.
Any pursuit other than a pastoral one was considered insulting to Ngai and demeaning to them. No Maasai was willing to break the ground, even to bury the dead within it, for soil was sacred on account of its producing grass which fed the cattle which belonged to God… Equally, grass has acquired a semi-sacred aura and is held in the fist as a sign of peace and similarly used for blessings during rituals, a sheaf of grass being shaken at the people or animals being blessed.
No surprise, then, to find that cattle play an important role in ritual occasions, such as initiation, marriage, and the passage of one age-set to the next, where their sacrifice bridges the gap between man and God. Yet for all the deep significance cattle embody for the Maasai, a stupid person will still be referred to as a cow or a sheep!