Notes on Spencer’s work, “Becoming Maasai, Being in Time.”

Spencer’s chapter on the Maasai brings up a number of interesting concepts regarding their structure of society and ageing brackets, all of which control and mould their understanding of time and sense of self and community. Much like Nadel’s research on the Mesakin and Korongo, Spencer spends a great deal of effort discussing these age brackets within the Maasai; how they work, who qualifies for each section, and the consequences and rewards brought with each phase. However, it is the elements that link this system to the community as a whole, which appeared most relevant and interesting to me.

For example, the prolonged phase between boyhood and elder status, known as murran, allows and encourages the males in that stage of Maasai society to form “inviolate” unity and loyalty (p150). A prominent theory in anthropology, that liminal phases such as murran (where the individual is neither a boy nor an elder), equals some form of distance from a community is therefore difficult to recognise in Maasai society, as it is arguably a central feature that is both anticipated and largely celebrated in a way that binds the whole community together. Spencer describes the element of celebration around murran as a further enforcement of this sense of community amongst the Maasai in a particularly insightful way, as he touches on the feelings involved rather than the extravagance of the event:


“…the throb of community existence does not depend on attending lavish displays… but on a sense of orientation in time, an awareness of the pulse, of the events that take their place in due course, and of the course itself.” (p148)


It is also possible to tie the infinity and inevitability of the aging system, which is constantly replaced by a new generation when each set of murran progresses to elder hood, with the infinite process of anticipating these celebrations. Spencer notes a cycle of anticipation, followed by a period of reminiscing before the beginnings of faint anticipation of the next event. It is this strict system of continuation that influences and pushes forward the cycle Maasai society.

Although women seem to hover on the fringe of this entire system, they too are tied into the construct of time and community in the Maasai by the definition of their relationships to men, and their role of marriage and childbirth. They play a vital role in ensuring a new generation of Maasai are born and raised, much like Marx’s theory of reproductive labour in the west. The parallel nature of men and women’s roles can also be found in a shared sense of anticipation. For example, the anticipation of a newborn bonds a community in the same way as the anticipation of the initiation celebrations for the murran (p154).

This study of the Maasai reveals a very strict view of time, process and community, which creates strong bonds when adhered to. However, in his conclusion, Spencer discusses the Maasai’s reluctance to accept any alternative system, as they outcast members of society known as “wastrels” when they do not conform to the Maasai’s social norms and ageing process (p156). Women also have the power to ridicule elder men if they fall short of the Maasai ideal. It is here that the Maasai appear in direct antithesis to our western desire for a cosmopolitan society, which aims for and allows multiple systems to operate simultaneously in cohabitation.

As the main focus for me during this reading was on how the Maasai community is rigidly upheld, I might ask how Spencer was received by the Maasai, and if in his time there he was assigned to a certain age bracket himself?


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