Being Maasai

According to Spencer, the essence of Maasai identity is a sense of belonging; to either an age set or an age grade; the territorial group and to the broader Maasai community. Yet, Spencer argues, the Maasai are inevitably and ostensibly driven by personal gain.

 

The nature of the Maasai gerontocratic rule allows the elders to socially and economically enrich themselves through the acquisition of wives and cattle. Elders have a relative amount of control over the lives of the younger murran generations.The murran are initiated men who are responsible for defending the Maasai. Murranhood is based upon a 15 year cycle of numerous age sets and who are, in effect, in a liminal state between belonging and non-belonging. The murran are in the process of becoming autonomous individuals, acquiring the knowledge needed to become closer to God and eventually being fully accepted as a Maasai. Despite only being on the threshold of society, the presence of the murranhood cycle suggests that the murran are central to the social structure of the Maasai.

 

It is within this context that the elders, driven by self-interest, can manipulate the age set cycle. By deferring the cycle, the elders give themselves the opportunity to gain economically and prolong their political careers. Resistance or misdemeanors on behalf of the murran is met with the threat of sorcery and preservation of Maasai ideals, as taught by the elders. This apparent contradiction of Maasai principles is the basis of rivalry between the murran and the elders, which is repeated cyclically in each transition into Maasaihood.

 

Personally, the social stratification as outlined by Spencer is no more or less extraordinary than any other culture. In every culture there is a broad sense of belonging shared by the popular mind. Yet structures of inequality and self-interest remain to be seen once we scratch beneath the surface. Thus, Spencer’s insight into the apparently paradoxical Maasai culture goes to show how ritual practices, like the Maasai age set process, can be utilised by the ‘ruling class’.

 

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