Spencer’s ‘Becoming Maasai, Being in Time’

Like any other ritual the ceremonies performed by Maasai are projections of anxiety felt from the liminality of people. Douglas highlights that liminality invokes anxiety as it means that there is no category for items, animals or in this case people. Without the ability to categorise, as humans we panic as we cannot establish what the appropriate behaviour is, therefore we do not have control over the situation.

For people everywhere adolescent is the liminal stage between childhood and adulthood. For Maasai during this stage boys enter into a new stage of their life where they are ‘initiated’ through a ceremony into becoming a warrior or murran. Therefore, the Maasai appear to be attempting to regain control from this inevitability, to some extent, by highlighting and embracing the liminality by drawing attention to it through ceremonies but also creating a category for the boys during this time. By creating a category for them the Maasai can then regain control by establishing social rules and expectations within their community that also apply specific to the murran.

Age is a very important topic within Maasai tradition. Like in the UK, there is a social expectation that everyone should respect their elders as they are wise beyond your years. However, this concept extends further as the elders are perceived to be closer to God as a result of their age. This gives them a certain amount of status and political power but also the possession of spiritual power. Elders have the power to curse the boys if they do not show them respect and it is the threat of spiritual repercussions that keep the society ordered.

Women are also described as being close to God during child birth, a time which men cannot allowed to take part in. this provides women with their own status and spiritual power. Therefore, they can criticise elders when others cannot. This suggests that those who conform to society and follow the guidelines set out for them will eventually become closer to God, whereas those who do not will move further away from him. However, the social expectation of women is to produce children. Therefore, infertility can be perceived as a lack of conformity to social expectation and this can lead to rejection by other members of society.

If people do not conform to the social expectations for example by not being a good herder then they are rejected by the Maasai and therefore loose the security of community. This then furthers the link to Douglas’ concept of liminality as again once these people have been rejected they find themselves without a place in society and therefore another liminal space. They are then perceived as having magical properties as it is assumed that these people are far from God to the point where they have become sorcerers. They represent disorder due to their lack of conformity and therefore are evil and something that cannot be trusted. Therefore the only way to survive in society is to conform and re-establish the order. Thus, Maasai tradition conforms to Durkheim’s Sociological approach that religion is used to ensure solidarity and, therefore, security within society.

This article suggests to me that the Maasai is merely a microcosm of the universal norms. It is a perfect example of Douglas’ theory as any person that is considered to be liminal within the Maasai is identified as dangerous and so everyone must be controlled or rejected altogether to ensure security within the community. Societies can only exist if there is an accepted structure of control, to identify what is and is not accepted within society.


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