The Coming of Age of the Masai Dressed in colourful cloths, the young Masai woman holds a young baby, while adjusting one of her many bead necklaces that sit on her neck. One glimpse at the innocence of her face makes you wonder about her age, especially with the baby on her side. While she casually tells me that she is only 17 years old, she begins breast-feeding the one-year old baby she is holding. Within seconds, I see a three-year old boy running to her, hugging her legs. As she looks down to him, it dawns on me that the other boy is also her child. As I observe the other women in this small boma, which is a circle of manyattas (huts), I can see the similarity between all of them; they are all young and have children. They all resemble this young woman that stood in front of me; her name is Monika and she lives in one of the manyattas with her husband and his family. At such a young age, she has quite a number of responsibilities, from being a mother, a caretaker and a wife at the same time. I look at her and I am moved by her courage and strength; how does one become a mother at such a young age? To me, being a mother of two at 17 almost seems unimaginable, to her, this is normal in her culture. Every minute spent in this village called Makandura, in the Great Rift Valley Province in the Laikipia District in Kenya, I observed the customs and the culture of the Masai people. Their captivating culture is unique in so many ways and some of their customs are remarkable, especially the ceremonies that mark their entry into adulthood; this is a defining time for all Masai people. This process is what shapes their life and their role in society. Speaking with an older woman in the village, I was told about the family life of the Masai, and more specifically, about the elaborate coming-of-age customs and ceremonies that mark the passage of the youth from childhood to adulthood.
As with the majority of the cultures and societies in the world, the Masai place a lot of value in their children; they depend on them for their future hopes and their survival. It is during the childhood years that the parents and the community instill all aspects of their culture and customs. Raising children in the Masai communities is a communal affair; older people of the community are allowed to discipline disobedient children without the permission of the parents. All children are taught to respect their elders and the ways of the Masai life. The girls are especially taught about domestic duties while the boys are often taught about the care and protection of the livestock. All kinds of knowledge about traditional medicines are passed on to the children from the parents in their childhood years. The Masai children grow up knowing everything about their rituals and traditions that affect every aspect of their life. It was interesting to learn that Masai parents may actually arrange a daughter’s marriage while she is still an infant; this is often referred to as ‘booking’ one’s daughter. When this happens, the father of the bride ensures that the man possesses enough cattle to pay the bride-price that he demands. In these kinds of cases, usually the girl will be married to a man much older than herself and because polygamy is permitted in this culture, she may be one of many wives in his household.
During their teen years, the boys and girls leave childhood, entering adulthood and this is marked by ceremonies. For the girls, the coming-of-age ceremonies commence once they begin menstruating, which typically happens between the ages of 12 to 16. When a girl gets her first period, she becomes circumcised and this is preceded with a ceremony that marks the girl’s entry into womanhood and adulthood. The girls are taught about all kinds of rituals and ways to deal with sickness, bad fortune, death and most importantly marriage because following this ceremony, the girl is ready for marriage. This was the case for Monika, who got married when she was merely 13 years old. At 17 years, she is a mother of two. For the girls that are already ‘booked,’ this process is quicker because following the ‘coming-of-age’ ceremony, she is immediately married off. Once girls are initiated, they spend a lot of their days with the elder women in the community to learn more and more about their customs, rituals, cultures and their roles as women in society.
With the boys, it is slightly different. The older young boys get in the Masai community, the more they associate with other males of their own generation. In most cases, these kinds of relationships that they build with their age-mates last a lifetime. This is because as young boys and age-mates in the community, they often enter the adulthood stage together. Once young boys reach the age of 14, they are circumcised and this ceremony is attended by their entire village. Any boy that flinches during this procedure is considered a coward; quite often, he will be disgraced by his family and even his community. Following this ceremony, they enter the warrior class; they are no longer boys, but morans. As warriors, they accept the responsibilities of protecting the homestead and protecting the livestock from wild animals and them. Usually, this means they live apart from the village with other warriors. They colour their skin red and braid their coloured hair as they embark in their journey; it is during these years that they learn all kinds of survival techniques, bravery and courage. Their pride lies in protecting their fathers’ herds as well as capturing other people’s cattle; it is upon the morans to ensure that they return the cattle to the rightful owners, which are the Masai. The Masai believe that God had given them all the cattle in the world and this is their justification for capturing other people’s cattle. With their lithe muscular bodies, the morans are brave and can face any kind of challenge without hesitation. One of these includes surrounding and killing a lion that is attacking their cattle; this action quite commonly leads to the morans spearing it to death. What a great sense of displaying individual fearlessness. Once a moran enters his early twenties, he is welcomed back to the village. Years upon his return to the village, he enters his final step in their passage to maturity; they are initiated into elderhood. They can marry once they return to the village, giving them that respected status in society. They can then focus on increasing their herd of cattle and having children. With elderhood come a number of responsibilities, some of which include giving advice to others, when necessary. For both boys and girls, entering adulthood is not merely a ceremonial procedure; it is what shapes their world and their outlook.