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Updated: Apr 11

When Maasai women go milking the cows in the early morning, it is still dark. They exchange the day's news while waiting for the calves to drink first. Then, women start milking cows in beautifully decorated calabash containers.

After milking the cows, the women return to their smoky homes. They start to make tea on an open fire. In the past, everything was better. There were more cattle and more milk. Women used to make tea with only milk, and it was so creamy that you could remove the fat with your finger on top of it. Nowadays, tea is made on water, and it’s leaner, but sugar is used lavishly. Maasai are not used to eating lunch, so morning tea is an important meal. Fatty milk tea keeps stomachs full for a long time.

The Maasai are well-known pastoralists of Eastern Africa, and I had the opportunity to live among them while conducting my research in rural Tanzania. I lived almost a year in a Maasai village (boma), learning about their unique lifestyle and traditions. Many people connect Maasai to their red-shukas and brave warriors who are not scared of anything - even a lion. But Maasai culture is much more than that. I will reveal the most common myths about Maasai culture.

1. Only Maasai warriors drink raw blood.

Not true. Traditionally, the Maasai diet consisted of meat, milk, and blood. Maasai love meat, but they don’t eat it often. Instead, they drink a lot of milk on any occasion. Maasai also use fermented milk.

Maasai drink cow’s blood, which is harvested by puncturing the loose flesh on the cow's neck without harming the animal. People often think that only Maasai warriors drink blood, but blood is used among all people because it contains a lot of iron, protein, and other nutrients. Drinking blood is good for the immune system.

Maasai women give birth at home. After labor, they consume a lot of milk mixed with blood. It’s like a nutrient drink after delivery. People drink blood, especially after giving birth, when they are ill or are newly circumcised. Maasai also gave me milk mixed with blood when I contracted malaria and typhoid in the savanna. I called the drink “pinkish cappuccino,” which had a metallic taste; not my favorite, though. I have also heard that older men use it for recovering from hangovers.

2. Maasai are all the same.

No, they are not. Geographically, Maasai people live in Tanzania and Kenya but are not one ethnic group. Only in Tanzania are there 16 Maasai sub-groups with unique dialects, traditions, and habits. For example, some Maasai houses are not round but rectangular. Different Maasai sub-groups have different kinds of fashion and jewelry styles. Some Maasai wear longer shukas and use different fabrics than other groups. I lived among the kisonko (ilkisongo) Maasai in the Kilimanjaro districts and have also visited many other sub-groups.

Have you heard of Corinne Hofmann’s bestseller book and movie “The White Maasai”? It’s about Samburu, another Maasai sub-branch in Kenya.

3. Traditional Maasai culture is not threatened. Wrong. Maasai are now facing significant threats to maintaining their traditional way of life. They are pastoralists who have herded cattle in the savanna for hundreds of years. Their ancestral lands include Serengeti, Ngorongoro, Tarangire, Masai Mara, Amboseli, etc., all converted into National Parks, game reserves, and conservation areas that exclude Maasai herding and using water sources inside the area.

Maasai have herded cattle in the Eastern African challenging environment for centuries in a sustainable way that protects vulnerable landscapes, wildlife, and cultural practices. Maasai live in relative peace with nature, but sometimes encounters exist while defending cattle from predators. But now, they have been further squeezed off their traditional grazing lands by small farmers and large commercial estates in recent years. If this were not enough, climate change is one of the biggest challenges the Maasai and other indigenous people face in our time because of the rapid and unpredictable weather changes like drought. East Africa has been hit by severe drought in recent years. As a Maasai elder told me, this severity has never been experienced. Adding that they have been forced to sell their starving cattle. Livestock is crucial for Maasai because of its primary food source, social status, and cultural identity.

Not having enough grazing land and water sources directly impacts the number of cattle: fewer cattle, less food, and less shelter. Maasai have started planting crops not because they want to but because they don’t have an alternative. In Maasai culture, there is a belief that agriculture is not suitable for nature. As mentioned earlier, the Maasai diet is based on the food they get from livestock, such as milk, meat, and blood, so cultivating changes cultural habits and traditions. Not all Maasai live in savanna herding cattle, and many have studied and chosen to live a modern life in towns and cities. But those who are living the traditional herding lifestyle are struggling to survive.

4. Every Maasai warrior has killed a lion.

Not true. According to an urban legend, every Maasai warrior has killed a lion, but it’s untrue, and there would not even be enough lions. However, Maasai warriors must be brave in different rituals and rites of passage.

Maasai warriors have been killing lions with spears on different occasions to show bravery or to defend cattle. When warriors kill the lion, they do it in a group of warriors that hunt the lion together. The bravest kills it with a spear, and in the past, he got the lion’s mane to himself that he wore on his headwear. Hunting lions is illegal nowadays. Except for the older Maasai men, only a few young warriors have encountered a lion from eye to eye.

Let’s return to the sleepy Maasai village. When everyone drinks tea, it’s time to continue daily chores. Young uncircumcised boys go to herd cattle, warriors hang with each other, and when women have packed empty canisters on their donkeys and left fetching water, the Maasai homestead is quiet.

Maybe one of the co-wives stays home with younger children. Old grandmother “Koko” escaped the hot midday sun by sitting under a giant acacia tree and playing with her grandchild. The wind blew sand and dust into the air, creating a storm on the horizon. Everyone is still waiting for the rains to start, but life in the Maasai village continues as usual.

If the story inspires you, book an immersive and authentic Maasai stay. Anniina Sandberg founded Visit Natives, the social travel enterprise, after living among the Maasai in Tanzania. The Maasai community plans and provides all the Maasai stays.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Anniina Sandberg is passionate about Africa. She holds a Master of Arts in African Studies and is a Swahili interpreter. Anniina has lived among the Maasai for over a year in a Maasai boma in Tanzania, a turning point in her life. Anniina explores Africa with an open mind to learn more about world cultures.

Follow her on Instagram to read more about her inspiring African stories.

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