Thoughts on Paul Spencer’s ‘Becoming Maasai, being in time’

This chapter discusses the journey to the Maasai Ideal and predominantly focuses on the male transition from boyhood to murranhood to elderhood. For a Maasai male there two very different life courses, the first is very much revolved around security and providing whereas the second is about being involved with those in your age-set (more simply work and play). These transitions are set out through an age system and as Spencer describes the Maasai have a ‘…culturally defined sense of time encompassing the life course of men, pervading aspects of womanhood’ (p140) . In many rites of passage the liminal period is a brief period where the subject is between spaces. However the male Maasai’s murranhood appears like a prolonged limbo or extended adolescence where they endure a cycle of enjoying themselves but also proving themselves. Spencer states how ‘…becoming a Maasai ultimately entails discarding the privileges of murranhood and becoming an elder’ (p151). The elders are thus ultimately the guardians of Maasai culture and the pinnacle point of the Maasai journey. Men are murran during their physical prime and when they become elders they are in their political prime.

Majority of the chapter is focused about men and their transition through time and society, so I found it particularly interesting that the Maasai women were introduced with regards to the changing configuration of men’s relationships with them. Spencer describes that ‘…for women, the process of maturation entails a series of transformations of their relations with men and with each other through men’ (p153). However women still remain very central to the Maasai age system, although in some ways they have a subordinate role, they also have the power to highlight those who are not reaching the Maasai ideal. By publicly pointing out any Maasai males’ selfishness or duplicity they can prove that some men are far from the desired ideal. The women become closest to being Maasai when they have children as they are continuing the generations, which once again places them in the centre of society. I think it is fascinating how women have little control over their individual destinies, yet are so integral to the Maasai age system. I would be very intrigued to read an article that is predominantly focused on the female journey, or an article based on interviews with Masaai women.

At points I found the text quite difficult to follow as it is a very multi-layered journey in which there are times of contradiction. For instance when men become elders they should be selfless, but it appears that this is an image created by them more often that being entirely correct. In addition I would have liked to be able to read more about the sorcerer. Is he merely ‘a grotesque caricature of the isolated elder’? (p152) Or are some elders blamed as or suspected to be sorcerers? This I would be interested to research further.

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