A Maasai Marriage

A young woman, “of age” but unmarried, appeared out of the forest near the base of the hill, a few of her relatives and friends staying in the woods while she headed alone up the well worn path. Before she had taken a dozen steps, six or seven women, of her age or a bit older, spotted her and ran down the hill to greet her. They had never met before, but as soon as the women got close they touched her, hugged her, held her hand, fondled some of her jewelry and patted her hair, and all the while they shouted the worst invectives and insults they could think of at her, laughing cruelly while they did so.

“You’re ugly. Where did you get these beads, in a bird’s nest?”

“Who picked you to marry my cousin, did somebody lose at a gambling game?”

“Please don’t go near the cows, we need them to keep giving milk!”

“What was the dog doing down in the forest?”

“Did you know that your future husband has only one cow?”

“Sorry about that large wound on your head. Oh, sorry, that’s you hair, isn’t it!”

“Oh, and your husband’s cow … did you know it has rabies?”

Eventually all the women were in the village located at the top of the hill. Over the next two hours, the insults continued but with less severity and frequency. The women of this Maasai village pruned and preened the newcomer, exchanged items of clothing and jewelry with her, fixed up her make up, and made friends. Eventually the insults went away and expressions of friendship and support replaced them. By the end of the day this young woman would be married to one of the men in this village, a man she had never met (or maybe seen once or twice but never knew of him as her future husband). The women who now worked out the last minute details for the imminent wedding were all married “into” this village. Every one of them had come from some other village, passed through the nearby forest, walked up this hill or a similar one, and suffered the insults. In fact, many of the insults the women used that day were very ones they had heard when they first arrived here, saved up and remembered for later use. And every one of these women had formed strong bonds with the other women in the village. One could say, depending on the individuals involved, that the relationship among the women married into this village was more socially significant, emotionally powerful, and personally stronger than the relationship between many of these women and their own husbands.

After settling in with her new friends, the young woman left the village with a couple of relatives of her new husband, and wandered about the nearby countryside to pick out her son’s cattle. She was allowed to choose a certain number of cattle, any one that she happened to see, as long as she could ask the owner in person for the beast. Needless to say many people chose that day to let their cattle run around unsupervised, but there is a limit to how much one can do that in lion country, so she did manage to get about half her allotment on that day. She would get the remainder over the next day or two. In fact, sympathetic elders would coerce relatives to make available a couple of really good head in order that this small herd be of reasonable quality and potential.

This small number of cattle will form the core of a herd that she will care for on behalf of her future first son, who would then own them. By the time he is old enough to care for them several cow-generations would have passed, and the herd would have grown. Since the offspring of two cattle are jointly owned by the owner of the cow and the bull, which are often different people, the ownership of each of the calves in her herd could potentially be complicated. Also, other cattle may be exchanged as part of the marriage transaction. A future divorce would be allowed by prevailing practice, but only if the ownership of the cattle could be established and every calf, cow, and bull be returned to it’s rightful place. This, of course, would be impossible starting from the birth of the first calves. But, no matter, really, because the herd was in many ways more important than the marriage.

In her marriage, she would eventually bear the “children of her husband” with the girls married off to a different village (usually) and the sons who survived a period of youth that involved banishment from the village during those difficult years (possibly the greatest invention of the Nilotic cultures: teenage boys must leave) would obtain their own herds, possibly marry, and vie for position as village Moran (pronounced “Moh Rahn” … respected adult male).

Those young men would have a certain degree of sexual freedom and even though they technically lived as young warriors most of the time in the bush “on their own” they could also visit the bed of a woman who was interested in them, and the married women could choose though only surreptitiously to take these men as lovers. The society consists, more or less, of a small number of married men, some married to more than one woman, women who are sexually mature who are either married or about to be married or widowed, and a fair number of unmarried men. That is how marriage and sex work together and independently among the traditional Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania, according to what I’ve read about them and been told by them on my visits there.

This is a patriarchal society, and although a Western concept of ownership is probably inadequate, it is safe to say that if something or someone is owned, it is owned by a man or an agent of a man. The economy is based on cattle. I saw a census in Kenya years ago that listed the richest hundred men. About half were Maasai men living in traditional villages, and their wealth was in many head of cattle. In this society, marriage is life long because divorce, while technically not a big deal, requires splitting herds of cattle, and that is too difficult. Sexual liaison and marriage are poorly correlated and that is tacitly accepted, but infidelity can be severely punished.

In other words, it’s complicated.

There are tens of thousands of “different cultures” in the world, either at present or in the recent past known sometimes as the “ethnographic present.” Of these, a few thousand are pretty well known and several hundred are intensely studied. A few “Nilotic” Eastern Rift Valley cultures, including the Maasai, the Turkana and the Pokot form the core of our understanding of this more widespread form of cattle pastoralism, and these and all other cattle-based cultures, while very different in many ways, share these characteristics of the centrality of the cattle, polygynous marriage, and a strong patriarchy.


  1. #1 bing
    January 1, 2014

    very fascinating article