Spencer’s “Becoming Maasai, Being in Time”

This article was very thought provoking and also quite difficult for me to understand at times. Spencer has established that a male can become a ‘wastrel’ (i.e. can exhibit behaviour that does not fit into the Maasai norm) at any age, but I would definitely like to know more about these outcasts. Can they marry? Are they allowed to produce offspring? If they do produce offspring are the children allowed into Maasai society or are they excluded in some way?

I also found the dynamics of females in the Maasai to be very interesting. Their role is complex; they are daughters until they are wives, and it appears that this is how their identity is formed. Spencer’s observation that “they are ‘in time’ in the sense of bearing future generations” (154) was particularly interesting I thought. My understanding of the role of women in this system is that they are above daily life – they don’t run farms or rear animals, they don’t defend the tribe from attack, nor do they play any real role in how their society works. They are however prized for their capacity to produce children, and as the only means of ensuring the survival of the tribe. That women are ‘in time’, I believe gives some explanation as to why their role in daily life is second to the role of men. Not only are they spiritually ‘in’ time insofar as they bridge generations – they are the middle-(wo)man between the present generation and the generation to come, but arguably they are also ‘in’ time in terms of monthly menstruation and the time it takes during pregnancy from inception to delivery. Women are subject to time in a way that is far more obvious and far less ceremonial than men, and attempting to delineate the life cycle of women would be far more difficult than with men as you couldn’t arbitrarily decide when a female was to advance through the age-sets. Fertility and age-sets are vital to the Maasai and a group mentality is valued very highly: perhaps because there is no set time for when a female will begin menstruation (and become fertile), introducing a kind of middle section between being a daughter and being a wife (similar to the murran period of a male’s life) based on fertility could perhaps be quite divisive (females can begin to menstruate any time between 8 and 18 years of age).

This chapter has definitely been very thought-provoking, and I find myself very intrigued to know more about the daily life of women in the Maasai. That women can counter elders through their songs and dances indicates to me that their role is far more dynamic than the chapter would have you believe. Fertility is key to a female’s identity and place in the Maasai, but there is very little said about women who are infertile. Where do they live? Who supports them? What happens if they marry and then later produce no children? Is she cast out of female society (i.e. her sisters and mother and aunts and peers, etc)? For me, this article has raised more questions than it has answered.


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